Kansas and Missouri have a major stake in the 2023 US Farm Bill. It’s our food future | Opinion

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Members of Congress writing the 2023 U.S. Farm Bill should remember three things:

  • Hunger in America is a serious problem.

  • Climate change requires adjustments in farming practices.

  • Missouri and Kansas have many resources to help produce a sensible law.

As for hunger: The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that just over 10% of U.S. households (30-plus million people) suffer from “food insecurity.” Having malnourished people in our rich nation? Inexcusable.

The most costly part of the 2018 Farm Bill was SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once called food stamps. Of the estimated $428 billion to be spent over five years, some $326 billion is going to SNAP.

That program has kept millions of Americans from persistent hunger and helped create a reliable market for farm products. But SNAP’s very existence is an indictment of aspects of our economic system, which doesn’t work for everyone. Children and their parents, after all, aren’t malnourished because they want to be, but because adults don’t have jobs that pay them enough.

Congress must guarantee SNAP’s continuation but also insure its benefits reach the truly needy and that the food they buy is nutritious. It also will need to consider whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current crop commodity programs are adequate and whether changes are needed in federal crop and livestock insurance.

As for climate change: A policy shift is needed to move from the now decades-old trend toward corporate-led farming to more sustainable, nimble farming. The new bill should encourage small scale answers to food insecurity, such as community gardens, farmers’ markets and organic and other farming techniques.

Salina’s Land Institute looks ahead

And as for resources Missouri and Kansas can offer lawmakers:

Since its founding in 1976, the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been working on new farming methods, including perennial versions of such crops as wheat and barley that now usually are planted annually. Perennials can reduce soil erosion, enhance water and environmental quality and even make farming more profitable. Some institute efforts are paying off both here and around the world.

The 501(c)(3) nonprofit institute has shown that perennials lower costs and have deep roots that reduce soil erosion and trap more carbon, benefiting the environment. Indeed, more than a decade ago, the institute proposed not a five-year farm bill, but one that would guide policy for 50 years. That document noted that “essentially all of nature’s ecosystems feature perennial plants growing in species mixtures and that they build soil. Agriculture reversed that process nearly everywhere by substituting annual monocultures.” The result has been damaging.

As Wes Jackson, Land Institute co-founder, is fond of saying, “We’ve been farming wrong for 10,000 years.” That’s the kind of visionary thinking the new farm bill needs.

The bill’s chapters are called “titles.” The 2018 version had 12 of them, including conservation, nutrition, trade and rural development. A title in the new bill should address the kind of work done by the Land Institute and other groups seeking innovative ways to lessen the dominance of Big Farma (companies such as Monsanto and others).

Lawmakers also should learn from other Midwest agriculture experts. For instance, since 1986 the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri has, as its website notes, provided “decision makers with information about how changes in policies or market conditions affect the agricultural sector.”

Another area land grant college, Kansas State University, does cutting-edge research through its College of Agriculture and K-State Research and Extension. Ernie Minton, K-State’s agriculture dean, says it’s “absolutely key” that the new farm bill provide $1 billion a year for five years “to support the huge ($11.5 billion) deferred maintenance problem with buildings across the entire land-grant system. K-State has its share of atrocious buildings in the College of Agriculture.”

Roger Marshall, Mark Alford have power

As lawmakers also consider the role of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are found in some foods, consumers should educate themselves about them. GMOs are controversial, but there’s often more smoke than fire.

For instance, Monsanto has developed genetically modified corn seed that’s not susceptible to the chemical glyphosate, found in the corporation’s weed-killing herbicide Roundup. Glyphosate has scared people, but as scientist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson notes in his book “Starry Messenger: Cosmic Perspectives on Civilization,” nicotine, caffeine and plain old table salt are more lethal to human beings than glyphosate. So it’s time to pay more attention to science when considering GMOs — and to recognize that the real issue is who owns the modified genomes and how their benefits can be made available to all.

Our region is in the heart of America’s food supply system. So citizens should tell lawmakers what they want in the new farm bill. The House and the Senate each plan a draft bill with a final version emerging in negotiations. Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican, sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, while Rep. Mark Alford, a Missouri Republican, is on the House Committee on Agriculture. (Missing from the picture today is former Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, who always played an important role in farm bills.)

Bad agricultural practices contributed to the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s, while good practices have filled American grocery stores with reliable sources of nutrition. The new farm bill should focus on those good practices, especially in light of a new United Nations report saying “our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once.”