Journal Club Review – Get to know your Farm Bill

December’s journal club was lead by April MacIntyre (Graduate student in Microbiology). Journal club review was written by Samantha Anderson (Graduate student in Biochemistry) and April MacIntyre.


Last month’s journal club focused on a timely topic in national policy, the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (Farm Bill) on the day the bill headed to the president to sign into law. Farm BIlls are typically authorized in five year increments and the previous bill expired on September 30, 2018, leaving many people concerned about the future of farming, research, conservation, and welfare programs.

The Farm Bill has been part of the American political system since 1933, back when it was called the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). In the 1920s and early 1930s, farming technology advanced substantially, creating more harvested crops and lowering prices, forcing many farmers into bankruptcy. In short, the AAA and the next few versions paid farmers to not plant crops on all of their land (subsidies) and authorized the government to purchase surplus crops from farmers directly. These excess commodities were used for domestic and international aid programs including school lunches, charities, and feeding the hungry. This combination of helping farmers and the (often urban) poor created a political compromise between rural and urban communities.

Recent Farm Bills are still broken into three categories: protection for farmers, feeding the poor, and protecting the environment. Farming is indeed a risky business and as global warming changes our climate patterns, the risk is only going to increase. Additionally, the current administration’s trade war is causing all types of problems for our farmers because of international tariffs. The Farm Bill provides tariff protection, crop insurance, guaranteed purchase of surplus crops, and funding for rural infrastructure and health, all to encourage people to stay on their farms. The problem with this system, many people argue, is that it does more to protect corporate farms than local family farmers, essentially creating corporate welfare.

As of 2017, 1 in 8 Americans cannot afford enough food to feed their families. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as Food Stamps, accounts for nearly 80% of $100 billion of the Farm Bill’s funds, with 44% of that going to children. As always, welfare programs are a source of contention between liberals and conservatives making this bill controversial, even for the Republicans that represent rural farming districts.

The third stakeholder in this bill are the environmentalists. Widespread commodity farming leads to the depletion of soil that in turn can have devastating effects. One of the most infamous disasters due to farming was the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s which compounded the losses of the Great Depression. The timing of the original Farm Bill, 1933, is not a coincidence. It wasn’t until the 1956 version of the bill, though, that conservation took a seat at the table addressing soil erosion. In the 1990s, conservation more generally became part of the conversation as awareness of climate change and the loss of biodiversity became clear.

The Farm Bill is a law that costs the United States approximately $100 billion per year. Parts of its funding come from mandatory spending and others come from discretionary spending. This means that although the Farm Bill is authorized every five years, it’s appropriation has to be renegotiated every year when Congress divvies up our annual budget. This journal club was the first time many of us learned about the difference between authorizing and appropriating funds. All spending has to be authorized, in permanent or long term bills (the Farm Bill being every five years) before it can be appropriated. This is a germane topic today since the Federal government is struggling with the longest shutdown in history over budget appropriations. Thousands of workers whose income is dependent on federally appropriated funds are affected, including scientists on federal grants.  

The Farm Bill is relevant to scientists as citizens, but also has implications in the realm of policy and research funding and direction. In 1977, the Farm Bill added a section on research, extension, and teaching to govern the programs within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). This section included grants to land-grant institutions for agricultural research. It was further developed in the 2008 Farm Bill to include the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The research grants that have been appropriated for this section in the 2016 version are far below the authorized $700 million, but there are researchers at UW-Madison, including some CaSP members, who are funded by these grants

The Farm Bill directly affects WI state agricultural conservation practices. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), authorized and funded by the Farm Bill and managed by the USDA Farm Service Agency, is a program that matches funds with states to pay off farmers to remove ecologically sensitive land from agricultural use and instead plant species that will improve soil and water quality over time. The state of WI is partnered with the CRP through their own Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) through the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. UW-extension scientists assist with research, outreach, and implementations for parts of this and other conservation programs in WI.

The 2018 version of the bill also came with some changes. Some of the line items that stood out to me in a New York Times summary were quadrupled funding for organic research, industrial hemp legalization to aid formed tobacco industry states (a falling commodity), and more than 10 times the funding to provide high speed internet in rural areas. Some CaSP members wanted to know more about subsidy payouts to big farmers and the corporate welfare side of things, but unfortunately we ran out of time. Overall, there were no revolutionary changes in this year’s Farm Bill given the tense political environment, although most people agree the Bill needs some overhaul.