Strengthening American Food Security: The Imperative of Passing the Farm Bill
By: Mike Espy, former Secretary of Agriculture
The dog days of summer have arrived, bringing with them relentless heat and record-breaking temperatures. As the cloud that is climate change continues to loom, so too do the lingering heat waves that wreak havoc on the global food supply chain. The far-reaching consequences of extreme weather on food production, availability, and access are most notably felt by particularly vulnerable citizens around the world and here in Mississippi.
Faced with these circumstances, one could assume Congress would have been eager to take action. Instead, they left for a month-long August recess without advancing agriculture appropriations and a Farm Bill that would support national food security and help rural economies address the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis.
Rural America Feels the Heat on the Frontlines
Food security in rural America is intricately linked to the obstacles posed by climate change. Rural communities make up 63 percent of all U.S. counties, but 87 percent of counties with the highest food insecurity rates. A closer look at Mississippi reveals that 51.2 percent of our residents live in rural areas, making the majority of our state particularly susceptible to unpredictable weather patterns and a fragile food supply chain.
Zoom back out and we find a situation that is just as dire for food producers elsewhere throughout the country. In addition to battling extreme summer heat to keep their livestock and crops alive, farmers are also being forced to look at their input costs and make difficult decisions about what they can and cannot afford.
Throw in fluctuating food prices, loss of crops and livestock, declining food nutrition and aging infrastructure, and policymakers’ decision to head home for the month before moving ahead on critical agriculture appropriations is baffling.
Russia’s Ripple Effect on Rural America
Recent global events starkly highlighted the need for resilient and secure domestic food supply chains to combat food insecurity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February sent global food costs soaring, greatly impacting communities across America. Over the past year, an accord brokered by the U.N. and Turkey — the Black Sea Deal — helped keep the cost of grain and other global food commodities down and allowed for the secure passage of Ukrainian exports across the Black Sea. Last month, Russia terminated its participation in the Black Sea Deal escalating geopolitical tensions and weaponizing an already delicate food supply chain to advance its efforts in Ukraine.
The interconnected nature of our global food supply chain means that a breakdown in international trade deals can hold immense impacts for even Mississippi’s most rural communities. Last year, rural households in America were hit by inflation the hardest, with basic goods and expenses for rural Americans increasing by 9.2%, but average earnings only increasing by 2.6%. In Mississippi, multi-generational small businesses and farmers have had to adapt to inflated grain, fertilizer, and basic food prices to not just compete with large corporations, but to survive.
Supporting Ukraine at this critical time is not only a matter of principle, but also a strategic necessity for the U.S. to protect our own agricultural sector and American families from fluctuations in food prices and security.
(Lack of) Actions Have Consequences
We have seen what a lack of action on food security can do to our most vulnerable communities. During the pandemic, as demand for medical supplies surged, global supply chains simultaneously broke down, leaving the U.S. to compete for vital resources at an increased cost — a cost that pales in comparison to the number of frontline workers lives lost because of this shortage. This occurred amidst a wave of inflation that caught many off guard, and as many pandemic era safeguards like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — a program essential to over 41 million Americans — benefits were being curtailed.
These provisions have now come to an end — slashing as much as $250 from vulnerable Americans’ food budgets. And Republicans are looking to cut even more. The combination of these international and domestic events has exacerbated the potential for “hunger cliffs” and once again puts American lives at risk.
It is often said that a measure of society is how they treat their most vulnerable citizens. With growing geopolitical tensions and an unpredictable climate, there must be recognition that the Farm Bill is not just another piece of legislation. It is an embodiment of our commitment to protecting our most vulnerable citizens, securing our domestic supply chains, and supporting our allies on the international stage. In these tumultuous times, the need for such a bill has never been more imperative.