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What Will Happen Now That the Farm Bill Has Expired?

The current farm bill expired on Sunday, putting the debate over key USDA programs that protect public health and the environment on hold.
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Corn and soybeans grow on a farm near Tipton, Iowa.

The fight to confirm the 2018 Agriculture and Nutrition Act—generally known as the farm bill—has been contentious, as public-health advocates spar with lawmakers over key provisions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Now, it looks like no one will win: According to Politico, Congress will put off passing the new farm bill until after the mid-term elections.

The current farm bill expired on Sunday. In the meantime, Congress can extend the bill. If they fail to do so, what would such a gap mean for key United States Department of Agriculture programs that protect public health and the environment?

Conservation Programs May Be at Risk

According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, $1.1 billion in funding for conservation and sustainable agriculture programs will be at risk if Congress does not pass an extension, starting October 1st. "This will directly impact farmers and ranchers at the worst possible time," the NSAC said in a statement. During this period, farmers will not be able to enroll in federal programs that promote conservation of soil, water, and wildlife habitat. The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service will also not be able to hold up existing agreements to protect farmland, grasslands, and wetlands. On Thursday, Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts told Politico that he's working on securing an extension to close the gap for these programs, which will remain in political limbo until the mid-terms.

This does not factor in any conservation reforms still up for debate; the House of Representatives bill would roll back environmental protections, but the Senate version added in a few. "While it's too soon to tell whether this farm bill should be dubbed the greenest farm bill ever, the Senate bill is clearly far better than the House version of the farm bill, which cuts conservation spending by nearly $1 billion," the Environmental Working Group said in its analysis.

The Debate Over SNAP Continues

In June, Pacific Standard reported that the House farm bill would require certain Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients to work 20 hours each week (or complete 20 hours of job training) in order to receive benefits—a change that advocates say would harm low-income Americans.

On this point, the House and Senate have disagreed fervently. Unlike the House bill, the Senate version preserves existing eligibility requirements for SNAP, although it does not expand the program's coverage. Compared to the previous iteration, that's a win for low-income families. Food justice organizations have been fairly pleased with the Senate bill. "We are heartened that the Senate farm bill takes a vastly different approach than the House farm bill, which would cut SNAP eligibility and benefits for many and would even cause many children in SNAP households to lose their direct connection to free school meals," James D. Weill, president of the Food Research & Action Center, said in a statement in June. But the senators are still resolving their differences, and Politico reported last week that the "standoff" over SNAP was "bogging down the talks."

But while the agriculture industry hopes for a quick solution, public-health advocates may actually benefit from more time to settle the debate over SNAP. According to the Farm Bill Law Enterprise, a think-tank allied with national law schools, "Anti-hunger organizations may prefer no Farm Bill. A Farm Bill extension will allow those groups to lobby a potentially more friendly 116th Congress in 2019, where, specifically, SNAP work requirement reform would get less traction."