FBLE Releases Reports on the Next Farm Bill Today

Three reports out today from the Farm Bill Law Enterprise (FBLE) apply a justice lens to the farm bill debate underway on Capitol Hill.

The reports are the product of a novel partnership between eight law school programs, led by the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC). FBLE’s reports coincide with the imminent release of draft farm bills in the House and Senate, which Congressional observers anticipate next month.

In addition to FLPC, FBLE members include: Duke Law School Environmental Law & Policy Clinic; Harvard Law School Environmental Policy Initiative and Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic; Harvard Law School Health Law and Policy Clinic; Pace University Elisabeth Haub School of Law Food Law Initiative; UCLA School of Law Resnick Program for Food Law and Policy; Vermont Law School Center for Agriculture and Food Systems; and Yale Law School Environmental Protection Clinic.

By combining expertise in food, public health, and environmental law, FBLE is the first effort of its kind.

New farm bills happen only every five years. The current farm bill expires in September, and if Congress does not act by that deadline many important programs will perish.

“The farm bill is the most important piece of legislation affecting our food and farming system,” says Emily Broad Leib, FLPC’s Director and an author on FBLE’s reports. “My colleagues and I decided to invest the time working together to address this legislation because it’s so vital to justice in the food system.”

In addition to members programs, FBLE recruited law students from across the country to work on the project. In 2016, the newly formed FBLE dove into collaborative research. Together, faculty and students analyzed each of the farm bill’s components, research that is now available to anyone who is interested in learning more.

This research helped FBLE members develop shared goals for a farm bill that meets the long-term needs of our society. These goals include a reliable and nutritious food supply, an honest living for farmers, a healthy environment, and a strong safety net against hunger.

FBLE’s reports make recommendations for how the next farm bill can begin to meet those goals by maintaining key programs that work, adding new programs, and redistributing funding in ways that are better for health, the environment and justice.

Each report focuses on a specific theme: Diversified Agricultural Economies; Food Access, Nutrition, and Public Health; and Productivity and Risk Management.

FBLE expects its reports will convince more people to get involved, and FBLE’s website will also track the bill’s progress over the coming months.

If the farm bill seems daunting, don’t despair. Understanding the farm bill can feel like stumbling through a dark maze, but FBLE is here to give you a flashlight.


Food Law & Policy: An Essential Part of Today’s Legal Academy

Food Law & Policy is the study of the basis and impact of those laws and regulations that govern the food and beverages we grow, raise, produce, transport, buy, sell, distribute, share, cook, eat, and drink.

A recent article by FLPC Director Emily Broad Leib and Baylen J. Linnekin, adjunct professor at George Mason University, was published in the Journal of Food Law and Policy.  Food Law and Policy: An Essential Part of Today’s Legal Academy is a follow-up to their 2014 analysis of the development and history of the relatively new academic field of Food Law & Policy (“FL&P”). In the 2014 article, they traced the roots of FL&P to Food & Drug Law and Agricultural Law, noting that it differs from its parent fields in that FL&P explores the regulation of food by various agencies, at all levels of government, and across the range of agricultural, health, labor, economic, environmental, and other issues that intersect with food. They also developed ten criteria to measure the breadth and depth of a legal-academic field; FL&P met seven of the ten criteria in 2014 and was firmly entrenched in terms of course offerings, clinical projects, and scholarly writing.

Their new article finds that, four years later, the field now meets all ten of the criteria for an academic field, and its continued growth has solidified its place in legal academia. The article endeavors to assess and discuss this growth by reviewing the same ten criteria of a legal-academic field and tracking developments in the four years since the initial data collection. As the article details, FL&P’s newfound strength within each of the ten criteria demonstrates the field has grown strong roots.

“FL&P courses—and the faculty who teach them—are now the norm at many of America’s top schools…”

Some findings from Food Law and Policy: An Essential Part of Today’s Legal Academy:

  •   In 2013, 20 of the top 100 law schools offered FL&P courses. In 2017, 34 of those 100 schools offered courses.
  • In 2013, there was 1 dedicated FL&P clinic and 30 clinics at 23 schools pursued FL&P projects; in 2017, 4 schools boasted dedicated FL&P clinics, and 69 clinics at 48 schools conducted FL&P projects.
  • In 2013, there were less than 10 Food Law Societies at U.S. Law Schools, while today there are more than 30.
  • The Academy of Food Law & Policy, launched 2016, is the first dedicated professional association for the field and boasts nearly 80 members, including several international members.
  • In 2014, Lisa Heinzerling of Georgetown University Law Center published the first dedicated FL&P casebook, Food Law: Cases and Materials, and several other casebooks are under development. 

Download and read the full article, Food Law and Policy: An Essential Part of Today’s Legal Academy.

Learn more about the Academy of Food Law & Policy.


Harvest Boxes Are A Dangerous Distraction

Written by Eva Greenthal; an MS/MPH candidate at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and intern at the Food Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School.

When the Trump administration released its FY2019 budget, which included a  plan to overhaul the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), outrage ensued.

A standard box of USDA commodities at a food bank. Source: USDA

The proposal would replace half of SNAP recipients’ EBT benefits with cheap, non-perishable commodity provisions. Neither Democrats nor Republicans in Congress expressed support for America’s Harvest Box. Critics attacked the proposal as mean-spirited, infeasible, unhealthy, and bad for business. They likened it to an early iteration of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), to which some people attribute the staggering rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes among American Indians and Alaska Natives. Politico reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich tweetedin search of supporting viewpoints, evidently unable to find any aside from Mick Mulvaney, Sonny Perdue, and a few USDA spokesmen.

Editorials bashing the Harvest Box rolled out of every major news publication, and panic over the backwards proposal dominated the food policy news cycle. This meant mission accomplished for the Trump administration and authors of the budget. As articulated by Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, “This isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction.” While proposing $213.5 billion in cuts to SNAP over the next ten years (up from $192 billion in the FY2018 budget), they managed to include an even-more-alarming change that successfully deflected attention away from budget cuts– the true threat to SNAP.

“This isn’t a serious proposal and is clearly meant to be a distraction.” Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) 

SNAP is our nation’s foremost safety net for families struggling to make ends meet. The program helps feed over 42 million Americans each month, over half of whom are children or the elderly. It also serves as an economic stimulus, with $1.73 in economic gains for every $1 spent on SNAP. To cut funding to SNAP by any amount, let alone the 30 percent proposed in Trump’s budget, would mean some Americans would not receive the assistance they need to feed their families. This would lead tomore poverty, more food insecurity, and worse health outcomes.

If anything, SNAP could benefit from an increase in funding. A report released last month by the Urban Institute found that the current maximum per-meal SNAP benefit is not enough to cover the cost of a low-income meal, which averages $2.36 across the country. Additional SNAP funding could be used to increase the maximum benefit amount, for technological improvements to increase administrative efficiency, and for programs that incentivize and enable SNAP recipients to purchase healthier foods.

The Harvest Box proposal elicited a strong reaction from advocates, members of Congress, and the private sector alike. The energy behind this public consensus should be transferred back to the true issue at hand— budget cuts that threaten SNAP. A strong social safety net is critical to ensuring that all Americans can put enough food on the table, and to promoting resilience for families experiencing hard times. Cuts to SNAP would threaten the health and well-being of millions of low-income adults, children, and seniors, and should be opposed just as loudly as critics opposed the Harvest Box.


For Conservation Compliance, Weak Enforcement Is A Loss For Taxpayers And The Environment

Written by Sarah Munger for FBLE 

This is the second in a three-part series devoted to conservation compliance. The first post introduced the conservation compliance sections of the farm bill and explained why they are critical to soil and water quality.

This post explains how USDA’s implementation of conservation compliance lacks effective enforcement and transparency.

Conservation Requirements

Under conservation compliance farmers whose land includes highly erodible land (HEL) as determined by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), or that contains a wetland, must comply with conservation provisions to maintain eligibility for farm bill benefits. These benefits include crop insurance subsidies and USDAs commodities, credit and voluntary conservation programs.

Farmers with HEL must develop and comply with an NRCS approved conservation plan. Generally, plans “involve relatively inexpensive management measures like no till planting, crop residue management, crop rotations, [or] cover crops.” These practices are intended to reduce soil erosion and improve soil health. Developing the conservation plan is a cooperative processbetween an NRCS soil conservationist and the farmer: the soil conservationist’s aim is to offer technical assistance to best accomplish production goals without degrading the soil.

Source: USDA NRCS, 2012 Natural Resources Inventory Summary Report


For land designated as a wetland, farmers are generally prohibited from: (1) planting crops on converted wetlands; and (2) converting wetlands to make agriculture production possible. However, there are many exceptions. NRCS determines what land qualifies as a wetland and when a conversion has occurred.

Certification and Enforcement

For both HEL and wetlands, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) makes farm bill benefits eligibility decisions after NRCS makes technical determinations of non-compliance. Yet, for both requirements, farmers are considered in compliance when they submit a self-certification form. Arguably, the self-certification policy is a product of both the agriculture sector’s sentiment that environmental regulation is too intrusive, and USDA’s limited resources and will to effectively enforce environmental protection requirements.

Summary of Conservation Compliance Status Reviews

Source: USDA NRCS, compiled by CRS, Conservation Compliance and U.S. Farm Policy


Although, NRCS does conduct random compliance reviews, the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) has repeatedly noted that NRCS and FSA demonstrate inconsistent and disjointed enforcement. In general, the OIG has found incongruent data sets between the agencies when making compliance and eligibility determinations. This led to the agencies apparently failing to conduct compliance reviews for at least 10 states in 2015.

The OIG has also noted that few tracts of land are found non-compliant in comparison to the number of tracts reviewed. Further, many non-compliant land tracts remain eligible for USDA benefits. For instance, even when farmers are found non-compliant, FSA restores the majority of threatened farm bill benefits. In 2014 alone, FSA issued over one thousand variances or exemptions for land tracts after NRCS determined that they were non-compliant.

Enforcement Reporting Requirements

At the end of the day, enforcement is critical to ensure that tax-payer dollars are well-spent to accomplish public goals that include improved soil and water quality that underpin a resilient food system. Poor enforcement has undermined these conservation goals. As a recent USDA report illustrated, soil erosion rates on cultivated crop land have remained mostly unchanged since 1997. Within the last five years, however, overall erosion rates have actually increased slightly.

Unfortunately, Congress and the public remain unaware of the true scale of the problem because the current farm bill does not require USDA to report compliance or conservation results, just program enrollment data.

More transparent reporting requirements and coordinated interagency data collection would improve enforcement and, consequently, conservation results. After all, as the former Deputy Secretary, Jim Mosley, said, “Conservation compliance is a reasonable expectation of farmers who receive  USDA benefits, including assistance for crop insurance premiums.”

Look out for the final post in this series, which will discuss the perennial debate regarding coupling and decoupling compliance and crop insurance benefits.