OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Bipartisan Opportunities for the 2018 Farm Bill

To those who say there is no middle ground anymore, I say take a closer look. Many of us are clamoring for bipartisanship. Agriculture can and should be an example, even in today’s politically difficult environment.

In early February, I left the farm for a couple of days to participate in a discussion with thought leaders across the political spectrum. It was an event hosted by AGree: Transforming Food & Ag Policy, an initiative which I co-chair. Together, we reflected on how far we have come and how far we still have to travel. AGree has forged connections among leaders all along the supply chain, across the urban-rural divide, and the political left and right. We’ve actually built consensus around food and agriculture policy solutions.

Fundamentally, our food supply, and even the health of our citizens, depends upon agriculture’s performance. And in the political arena, this performance depends in large part on bipartisan policy solutions to a number of current, pressing challenges in the agriculture sector – federal crop insurance and it’s linkage to conservation, soil and water quality, food security and nutrition, immigration and workforce concerns, and funding for food and agricultural research. Observing the changing political environment of the past 10 to 15 years, it is clear that real effort is needed for both sides of the aisle to reconcile differences, come together, and make progress on these issues.

Take the case of crop insurance and conservation – two critical and controversial topics whose intersection provides an opportunity for creative, data-driven problem solving.

For the past three years I’ve participated in a group with some of this country’s top minds in crop insurance – including researchers and academics, former USDA leaders, producers, and representatives from farmer-based, environmental, and conservation NGOs – known as the AGree Conservation and Crop Insurance Task Force. Despite our differing backgrounds and perspectives, we’ve reached common ground.

Our collective goal is to drive broader adoption of conservation practices on working lands across the U.S. while supporting and maintaining a viable federal crop insurance program.

We agree on the need to remove some of the barriers to conservation practice adoption, for example cover crops, which exist within the federal crop insurance program. Doing so would foster innovation among producers, rather than penalizing it. For example, USDA’s Risk Management Agency currently mandates that farmers adhere to specific nationally established cover crop guidelines to remain eligible for crop insurance. In reality though, effective cover crop practices vary by region and are constantly evolving through improved techniques. Based on this understanding, we recommend that RMA allow participating farmers to follow cover crop guidance from local or regionally-qualified experts rather than subscribe to one stringent national rule for growing and terminating the cover crop.

From our discussions, we also agree on the need to better understand how improved soil health reduces yield risk. I know from 40 years of farming experience that I’m less likely to sustain yield losses when our soil is healthy. But at present, based on our discussions with RMA, we understand that we – and they – still need more data to clearly determine those benefits. The need for advanced research on these topics – and better, cleaner data that can readily be analyzed to answer these and other questions – can and should be a priority.

Bipartisanship is attainable for other issues as well. As thought leaders at our recent AGree discussion emphasized, we can find common ground on the challenge of immigration for the agriculture sector. We can also agree on improved hunger programs which strengthen human health. And, we all support renewed federal investment in human nutrition and agricultural research.

I’m proud of the bridges AGree continues to build. The work of the past six years has not been easy. By bringing diverse viewpoints together with a problem-solving spirit informed by sound data, we developed a common understanding and proposed practical, efficient – and yes, even bipartisan – “wins.” This commonsense approach, coupled with a unified voice about the critical importance of food and agriculture, will again enable us to make substantial progress in agriculture and food policy.

It’s time to roll up our sleeves and work toward new solutions in the next farm bill. We know the outcome when those involved in food and agriculture approach farm bill discussions divided by parochial interests. Imagine the momentum we could harness if we align our interests and do it together. Let’s break the mold and build on the dialogue AGree began by demonstrating that we can overcome regional and political barriers to speak with one voice.

 

Jim Moseley served as deputy secretary of the Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2005 and currently serves as co-chair of AGree, a foundation-funded effort to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system by connecting and challenging leaders from diverse communities to catalyze action and elevate food and agriculture policy as a national priority.

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