Clocking in at over 350 pages, the farm bill is one of the most complex pieces of legislation in the United States. With the 2014 law set to expire this year and Congress currently debating a new farm bill, students and fellows in the Yale Law School have partnered with lawyers and law students across the country as part of the Farm Bill Law Enterprise to author four reports that break down the farm bill into more manageable sections and recommend actions to Congress.
The farm bill — which addresses issues ranging from crop prices to support for ranchers and generally sees bipartisan support — is reviewed around once every five years. Through the Farm Bill Law Enterprise, which includes Harvard Law School, Duke Law School and Yale Law School, among others, students, lawyers and others who work in food legislation are taking advantage of this unique opportunity to pass reform.
“The farm bill is the most significant law affecting our food and agriculture system and the most important environmental or public health legislation that Congress will consider this year,” said Lee Miller LAW ’16, one of the authors of the reports and a clinical fellow at Harvard’s Food Law and Policy clinic. “[The Farm Bill Law Enterprise] … provide[s] research and recommendations that cut across traditional boundaries in order to promote solutions.”
Congress is set to vote on the farm bill later this year.
Joshua Galperin, the director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the Law School, described the thorough research that went into creating the reports and the long process involved.
“[We] had conversations with people around the country — advocates, lobbying organizations, farm representation organizations, farmers, business people, health and nutrition activists,” he said. “Reports are a summary of what different pieces of the farm bill do already and recommendations for how they can be better.”
Each of the four reports focuses on a distinct aspect of the bill. The first focuses on diversified agricultural economies, the second on food access, nutrition and public health, and the third on productivity and risk management. The final report addresses governance, transparency and accountability.
Brian Fink, the farm and food legal fellow at the Law School and an author of the fourth report, said he hopes his report will give more people a voice in decision making that affects them.
“We’re interested in diversifying representation in the food system,” he said, describing the food system as the collection of decision-making groups affecting food policy in the United States. “Farm workers, for example, are a huge part of the food system, but they’re not a represented constituency.”
But it is not only those in the food system who are affected by the bill. He explained that everyone in the United States, including farmers, is affected by the bill.
Galperin agreed, adding that the work he and his colleagues are doing is unique in its scope.
“There has never been a sort of academic group that has tried to take the farm bill as a whole and think about the best ways to move this forward” he said. “[It is] a huge piece of legislation that covers a lot of things in American life that we don’t think of as farm related.”
Students and experts interviewed expressed differing opinions about the impact the reports will have. While some said they are hopeful the suggested reforms will pass, others were more skeptical.
Mark Bomford, director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project, said it would be “very optimistic” to think that Congress will consider the entirety of the reports and use them to shape the 2018 farm bill. Nonetheless, he said, the reports are a “really good start” at addressing such a complex type of legislation.
Alex Schluntz LAW ’18, who began working on the farm bill in 2016 through the Environmental Protection Clinic at Yale and is the only student cited as an author on the Enterprise’s reports, said that the reports provide a model for future academics interested in breaking down complex pieces of legislation.
“[It is] a good starting point for future discussions and a really good source for future researchers, policymakers or analysts,” she said. “[The reports and the Farm Bill Law Enterprise] add to the body of knowledge that people can draw on in the future and make the farm bill more accessible to the public and farmers as well as to policy makers.”
Christine Kwon LAW ’17, who contributed to the Environmental Protection Clinic’s work on the farm bill, said she appreciated the opportunity to contribute to “timely, nationally critical work.”
She pointed out that the reports have the opportunity to impact $1 billion legislation that touches on nearly every aspect of the U.S. food and agriculture system. Bomford said that the farm bill is “unavoidable” in discussions of the future of agriculture.
The first farm bill was passed in 1933 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
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