If you're not a farmer and you don't qualify for food assistance, why should you care about the Farm Bill?
Lost in the back-and-forth between House and Senate over proposed cuts to food aid and crop subsidies is this: The Farm Bill also funds important research in agriculture and natural resources that affect every single American.
If Congress continues to bicker or simply runs out of time, the farm bill fight may well get mixed up with a larger fight over keeping the federal government running after the Sept. 30 deadline -- which would likely mean another extension of the 2008 farm bill.
That's not all bad. The bill funds research, education and outreach at land-grant universities through the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), an independent, science and policy-setting agency. The last Farm Bill created NIFA, and it's successfully funded research in six areas:
- Plant Health, Production and Products
-Animal Health, Production and Products
-Food Safety, Nutrition and Health
-Renewable Energy, Natural Resources and Environment
-Agricultural Systems and Technology
-Agricultural Economics and Rural Communities
Here's why the average person should care: Land-grant universities use funds awarded through NIFA to do the work that ensures safe, plentiful food supplies; clean water; and responsible use of technology in both research and production. For example, in Missouri, scientists used NIFA funding to study how biofilters in swine barns can filter out and break down compounds that create strong odors. Illinois scientists combined ultrasound and chlorine washing treatments to reduce the number of E. coli bacteria on spinach by 99.99 percent. North Dakota researchers have developed a series of disaster-related smartphone applications and YouTube videos to address challenges associated with flooding.
Every state has similar examples of how this Farm Bill-funded research improves its residents' lives.
Without a new Farm Bill that continues or expands research funding, we'll lose momentum in addressing these 21st century challenges. This year's bill, also known as the "Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013," is a huge, complicated piece of legislation, made worse by byzantine procedural rules and partisans who see the bill as a hostage that can be taken to further their own ends. That's unfortunate, because historically the legislation that funds America's agriculture has been an oasis of agreement by people who understood the greater good.
Congress is merely reflecting public perceptions: Most Americans see the words "farm bill" and think only of crop subsidies and food stamps. But research needs to be part of the discussion too, and the scientific and higher-education communities need to speak up about the importance of their work.
What can you do? Encourage Congress to reach agreement and take action, both for the millions of people who rely on the farm bill programs that support food assistance and crop subsidies and for the rest of us, who rely on the research findings supported by the farm bill. Extending the 2008 farm bill would be better than nothing, but we can do better.
The views of the author express his own and do not reflect an official position of the University of Minnesota.