SNAP benefits, trade barriers among obstacles to farm bill renewal

Trade barriers, foreign ownership of U.S. farmland and rising food costs that affect SNAP benefits are among several issues federal lawmakers hope to address before a final Farm Bill is enacted. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI
Trade barriers, foreign ownership of U.S. farmland and rising food costs that affect SNAP benefits are among several issues federal lawmakers hope to address before a final Farm Bill is enacted. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

June 14 (UPI) -- A potential reduction in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for needy families is among key issues keeping Congress from renewing a five-year agriculture policy law known as the farm bill.

Republicans on the House Agricultural Committee want to freeze SNAP benefits at current levels to help rein in government spending. But Democrats in the House and Senate say doing so could deprive a family of four of one or two days' worth of food every month -- and that could be a deal-breaker.

"Key parts of the House bill split from the Farm Bill Coalition in a way that makes it impossible to achieve the votes to become law," Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a prepared statement. "We do not have time to waste on proposals that cannot meet that goal."

Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, said there is a "bipartisan path forward" by "respecting the needs and interests of the broad farm and food coalition."

"I know we can pass a strong, bipartisan bill that keeps farmers farming, families fed and rural communities strong," she said.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and says a new Farm Bill has many differences to resolve before replacing the 2018 Farm Bill that expired last year. File Photo by Annabelle Gordon/UPI.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and says a new Farm Bill has many differences to resolve before replacing the 2018 Farm Bill that expired last year. File Photo by Annabelle Gordon/UPI.

But the GOP seems to have a plan that veers away from a bipartisan effort.

The revised bill should devote tens of billions of dollars more to crop subsidies, as well as crop insurance, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said last week when he released the Senate Republican outline for farm bill discussions.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say they are disappointed that the GOP-controlled House is offering a bill that would halt increases to SNAP benefits. About 80% of the farm bill's funding is dedicated to those benefits for an estimated 41 million Americans.

Under the House version of a new bill, Congress would impose limits on the USDA's Thrifty Food Plan over the next five years The food plan is based on what the agency says is a food basket that represents a practical, nutritious and cost-effective diet.

When the cost of that virtual food basket rises, so do SNAP benefits. And USDA officials say the House bill reneges on a promise made during debt ceiling negotiations last year by halting increases in SNAP benefits.

The House majority made a deal with President Joe Biden in which, after implementing work requirements for SNAP benefits, the GOP agreed no further changes would be made while the 118th Congress is in session, the USDA told UPI via email.

The proposal to freeze future Thrifty Food Plan benefit adjustments, which SNAP benefits are based on, violates the deal, according to the USDA.

The USDA says the House bill undermines nutrition security by taking away the USDA's ability to ensure that SNAP reflects the price of a healthy and cost-conscious diet while rising prices make it harder to put food on the table.

Freezing SNAP benefits is among areas of contention that Stabenow said make it hard to reconcile differences in the House measure and and eventual Senate version of the farm bill.

One element that is complicating the picture is that trade barriers are making it difficult for many U.S. farmers to sell goods overseas while keeping domestic prices lower.

"American farmers are now facing trade barriers and higher costs that are making it harder to market and sell their goods overseas," House Agriculture Committee co-Chairman Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Jason Smith, D-Mo., said in a joint op-ed column.

They said the nation's agriculture trade deficit reached a record $21 billion in 2023 and is projected to grow to $30.5 billion this year.

Under former President Donald Trump's administration, the nation averaged an agriculture trade surplus of $5.2 billion.

"Policymakers in Congress must ensure we are doing everything in our power to support American farmers and ranchers and be willing to bat for them globally," Thompson and Smith said.

The House version of the 2024 farm bill would help farmers compete abroad by improving the reach and impact of trade-promotion programs to access new markets for U.S.-produced agriculture goods, Thomson and Scott said.

Meanwhile, the House Agriculture and House Ways and Means committees are working to improve export opportunities for the nation's farmers and ag producers.

The Ways and Means Committee in April reauthorized the federal Generalized System of Preferences program, which eliminates duties on products imported from 119 participating nations.

In exchange, participating nations must "treat U.S. agriculture exports fairly" by "dropping both tariff and non-tariff barriers to goods produced by America's farmers," Scott and Thompson said.

Meanwhile, foreign ownership of U.S. farmland, especially purchases made by Chinese citizens or entities, has been blamed for increased food prices.

"For years, China has quietly amassed hundreds of thousands of acres of American farmland," Thompson and Scott said. "Americans cannot afford China's malign influence in our food supply."

The House version of the farm bill creates greater transparency of foreign ownership of U.S. farmland to determine how much is owned or controlled by foreign entities.

The House Ways and Means Committee recently approved a measure that would stop "countries of concern" from buying U.S. farmland. Those countries include China, Russia and Iran.

"China has been eating our lunch under the current administration," Scott and Thompson said. "We cannot allow our adversaries to meddle in our domestic food supply chain."

But some experts say the concern about Chinese ownership and control of the U.S. food supply is overblown.

Available data and evidence "suggest that Chinese ownership, representing a minuscule fraction of our agricultural lands, does not compromise our ability to produce food or manage our agricultural resources effectively," Professor David Ortega of Michigan State University testified in March to the House Agriculture Committee.

"Food security concerns are raised when discussing the threat of Chinese ownership of American farmland," he said. "The U.S. is not only self-sufficient in basic food production, but we also provide food for many across the globe.

"Food insecurity arises in our country not because of production deficits, but because of issues of affordability and access facing consumers."

The farm bill, which comes up for renewal every five years, initially expired Sept. 30. An extension ensures it will remain in effect through the 2024 crop year, while Congress debates a replacement measure that is due by the current extension's Sept. 30 expiration date.

Some agriculture observers have predicted that Congress won't meet that deadline, and another extension will be required -- to sometime after November's elections.

The House Agriculture Committee on May 29 voted out its version of the 2024 measure by a 33-21 vote. Meanwhile, a Senate version of the bill remains stuck in a subcommittee.