Heads Up: 2018 Farm Bill

By Bruce Knight

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The topics of the day are the upcoming presidential caucuses and primaries. Fighting ISIS. Addressing immigration and refugee issues. And on the East Coast, dealing with Snowzilla-the record-approaching January snowfalls that have snarled traffic and halted commerce.

But it really is time to begin thinking about the next farm bill. And I intend to raise a number of issues over several blogs to get us to examine farm policy from the broad macro perspective that I think is critical as we move toward a planet with 9-10 billion souls who need to be fed.

I know USDA doesn't even have final regulations for some programs and changes from the 2014 Farm Bill in place. Seriously, though we need to begin turning our eyes toward the future and examining what's happening now and what we need to change to meet the needs down the road.

Lets Talk Food

For those in environmental, wildlife and nongovernmental organizations, the focus never changes-preserving and enhancing the environment, increasing habitat for wildlife, improving water quality, making optimal use of available water and reducing waste. On the other hand, farm organizations and commodity groups have their eyes squarely on the presidential election process, although no candidates are addressing farm policy. And farmers in the midst of running their operations are looking to spring and the next growing season, not at the next farm bill.

However, I've been watching the House Agriculture Committee under the chairmanship of Texas Representative Mike Conaway, and I'm impressed with the aggressive pace of oversight hearings on farm issues he has set. It's been long overdue. I'd like to encourage the Appropriations Committees and the Senate Ag Committee begin to take a more in depth review of these programs and how they are run as well. To date, neither Congress nor interest groups have really taken the hard look that's needed to inform the policy debate for the committee members and for the agriculture policy community. It's time for committees and subcommittees to roll up their sleeves and really dig into farm policy. Getting involved early in the process assures a well-informed, thoughtfully examined approach that will pay benefits for farmers, taxpayers and world citizens.

There are tough questions that demand answers to determine farm policy for the next farm bill and related legislation. We need to look not just at our own short-term needs, but consider long-term global concerns. It amazes me that we as a society are eager to purchase the latest smart phone and to test self-driving cars, but after 20 years we're still debating the safety and value of GMO's. All too often left out of that debate is the fact that genetically engineered crops that produce larger yields will be essential in our quest to help feed the world in a more sustainable manner.

So we need to know whether or not our programs and approaches to agriculture now support the robust effort it will take to sustain coming population growth on this planet. I know, it is strange to ask this question in today's market. But, how do we sustainably increase production, cut food waste and decrease our environmental footprint? What role can sustainable intensification play in increasing production, when and where is it needed and how do we encourage it? Where can we best invest research dollars to meet these objectives?

In future blogs, we will try to explore specific oversight needed on farm programs, conservation, crop insurance, research and USDA administration and structure. I hope you will stay tuned, but even more importantly engage and share your own thoughts with your neighbors and your farm organizations and elected representatives as we begin the debate on where farm policy should go in the next decade.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems

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