We're almost there, you guys. In exactly one week, this election will finally be over. While this seems like the end of a very long, arduous process, in reality it's just the beginning. On January 21, 2017, the next president and a new crop of Senators and Representatives will have to start sorting through the long list of policy priorities they'll need to address in the coming years. Among these are some major pieces of food and farm legislation which will impact billions of dollars in government spending. We've pulled together a list below of five of the top priorities the new administration have to tackle that'll have the greatest potential to support a sustainable, healthy and fair food system.
1. The 2018 Farm Bill
Every five years, Congress updates and passes a new farm bill - an enormous piece of legislation that funds nutrition programs for low-income families and impacts every aspect of how and what food is grown in this country. As a result, the farm bill has a significant impact on our environment, economy and public health. With the most recent farm bill (Agricultural Act of 2014) set to expire in 2018 and billions of program dollars at stake, the next farm bill will likely be one of the most important policy issues the next Congress will have to work on. A number of significant topics will be addressed within the bill, including crop insurance reform, food stamp (SNAP) funding and incentives for sustainable farms and food systems. The 2018 farm bill thus presents an important opportunity for Congress and the next president to reshape our food system and the future of American agriculture.
2. Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization
Also on the next president's to-do list is the long overdue Child Nutrition Act, which expired in September 2015. Like the farm bill, this large piece of legislation is reauthorized by Congress every five years and includes billions of dollars in funding for various food and nutrition programs. Most significantly, Child Nutrition Reauthorization (CNR) governs school meals and nutrition programs for moms and kids, including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); Child and Adult Care Food Program; School Breakfast, the National School Lunch Program and the National Farm to School Program. Millions of women and children who otherwise may have limited access to healthy food benefit from the programs embedded in the legislation. The last version of the bill, the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, was passed in 2010 and included provisions that have improved children's basic daily nutrition and increased school lunch participation and revenue.
Back in May, the House released its version of the CNR bill which included a lot of highly controversial and partisan provisions, including the relaxation of school meal nutrition standards, a three state block grant pilot program that advocates fear may lead to large cuts to child nutrition programs, and a provision that would make it more difficult for schools with big populations of students living in poverty to serve free meals. Unlike the House bill, the Senate's version of the bill released in January (called the Improving Child Nutrition Integrity and Access Act of 2016) has the endorsement of all the major advocacy groups, but was stalled due to discrepancies over program cost estimates. However, both bills did include increased funding and programmatic improvements for the Farm to School Program. It's going to be incredibly difficult for Congress and advocates alike to work on both a new farm bill and CNR over the next year, but CNR is critical to the functioning of our food system and will have to be completed by the next Congress to allow for existing programs in the bill to be continued, improved and expanded.
3. Medically Important Antibiotics in Meat Production
The misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture - a problem that Margaret Hamburg, the FDA chief, likened to having your "hair on fire," - is an urgent and unresolved issue. Despite that fact that the FDA established a voluntary program to reduce antibiotics in industrial meat production in 2013, antibiotic use on farms has continued to rise and producers are now using more drugs per animal than they did just a few years ago. Part of the problem with regulating antibiotics in meat production is that 97 percent of antibiotics used for farm animals in the US are purchased over the counter. Without any veterinary involvement or oversight, it's difficult to track and study the pharmaceuticals farm animals consume.
At a recent conference on antibiotic resistance, researcher H. Morgan Scott of Texas A & M University explained that 62 percent of antibiotics sold to animal farmers in the United States are medically important to humans (i.e., originally developed to protect human health) and are being used instead to treat infections in animals and/or to make them grow faster (a supposed side effect of antibiotics). When bacteria are continually exposed to small amounts of antibiotics, a portion of their population develops resistance to the drug. This is a huge problem when the drug is medically important to people whose life may depend on that antibiotic. Today, the CDC estimates that each year in the US at least 2 million people will acquire antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and 23,000 people will die as a result of those infections. Thus scientists argue that we must get medically important antibiotics out of our food system and reserve them for saving human lives.
One attempt to address the issue came in the form of the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) introduced in Congress in March of 2015 (and 2013). The bill would preserve the effectiveness of medically important antibiotics by phasing out the use of these drugs in healthy food animals, while allowing their use for treatment of sick animals. The legislation is designed to end the routine use of low doses of antibiotics on healthy animals for disease prevention and growth promotion in order to curb the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. PAMTA was referred to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health last year where it still awaits review. Most likely, work on this bill won't happen during this congressional session, and the bill will have to be reintroduced in the next Congress to be considered.
4. Concentration and Unfair Practices in the Meat Industry
Since the 1970s, the meatpacking industry has consolidated and vertically integrated rapidly as small firms have left the industry. In the beef, pork and poultry industries, the top four companies control 85, 74 and 50 percent of the markets respectively. Today, the slaughterhouses that are left are in the hands of just a few corporations, who often own not only the meat processing facility but also many of the chickens and hogs they're slaughtering through unfair contract agreements with livestock and poultry producers. Greater consolidation in the meat industry means more power for the handful of meat packers left, which allows companies to charge whatever price they want for meat, eating away at farmers' incomes and hurting rural economies.
In response to this problem, Congress, as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, directed USDA to write rules to enforce key provisions of the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 1921 law designed to prohibit meat packers from engaging in unfair and deceptive practices, manipulating prices, creating a monopoly or illegally conspiring. The Act also forbids stockyards from dealing in the livestock they handled. In 2010, the USDA issued proposed rules to help the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) enforce the law, and since that time, lobbyists from big meat and poultry corporations have kept the rules tied up through legislative riders to the annual agriculture appropriations bills.
On October 17th 2016, the USDA sent the long awaited drafts of its GIPSA rules to the Office of Management and Budget for final review, indicating the department will release them to the public before the Obama administration ends. Once approved, the rules will be published in the Federal Register for a public comment period. However, given how divided farmers and meatpackers are over the rules, it is also possible that the GIPSA rules could be delayed or blocked again with legislative riders. It will be up to the new administration to keep the momentum of this rule-making process moving forward and ultimately implement the rules when finished.
5. Food Waste
Americans waste roughly 40 percent of their food - the equivalent of about $115 billion per year. Of the estimated 133 billion pounds of food that goes to waste every year, much of it is perfectly edible. At a time when one in six Americans are food insecure, reducing food loss by just 25 percent would be enough to feed more than 25 million people each year.
Thankfully, over the past year, Congress and the White House have stepped in to help address this growing issue. In September 2015, the Obama Administration declared that the United States is going to cut its food waste in half by 2030. The announcement was a huge win for environmental and food advocates who have been working for years to bring national attention to the food waste problem. Now it will be up to the next administration and Congress to take steps to work towards our new national food waste goal.
Once the White House got involved, a few members of Congress were inspired to take up the issue as well. In January 2016, a bill titled the Federal Food Waste Accountability Act was introduced in the House that would require certain federal contractors to track and report food waste to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget. And in May, the Food Date Labeling Act was introduced to help improve and clarify food labels in response to research showing that confusion over "sell by" and "best buy" labels contributes to 90 percent of Americans prematurely throwing away perfectly edible, safe food. Since both bills are sitting in committee, and are unlikely to get reviewed during the lame duck session, they will need to be reintroduced in the next Congress to be considered.
Image "White House" by Diego Cambiaso on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.