By Andy Fisher

Originally published on Civil Eats.

When bad things happen, someone inevitably mentions that the Chinese character for crisis is the same as for opportunity. Is there a silver lining in Tuesday’s election for our movement’s efforts to reform food and farm policy in the upcoming Farm Bill?  I don’t have any answers, but would like to lay out some of the factors that may affect the next Farm Bill and speculate on how these factors could shape the final bill.

First and foremost, the leadership and composition of the Agriculture Committees will change dramatically. In the House, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) is next in line to assume the role of committee chair. Lucas has not been a champion of agriculture policy reform, and has been a strong supporter of direct payments to commodity producers. He will be joined by many new faces. Over half of the Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee lost their seats. This presents the opportunity for the sustainable food movement to court these freshman committee members to champion small but innovative pieces of legislation. The role of the Democrats will depend in part on whether Rep. Lucas manages the Committee in a partisan (or bi-partisan) fashion.

In the wake of Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s defeat in Arkansas, Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow will most likely become Agriculture Committee chair. Agriculture in Michigan is driven by fruit and vegetable production, AKA “specialty crops.” Stabenow has more flexibility with regards to commodity reform than her Midwestern or Southern counterparts and has also been a strong supporter of local and regional food systems in recent legislation.

The elections have further polarized Congress. Half of the members of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog wing of the Democratic Party lost their re-election bids in the House. As their power to block progressive legislation diminishes, the more liberal members of the House, many of whom represent “safe” Democratic districts, will likely see their power within the Party ascend.  The Congressional Progressive Caucus will represent 41 percent of the Democrats in the House.  This stands in counterpoint to the swollen ranks of the Republican Party in the House, with numerous newly elected Tea Party and conservative members. Both of these trends make a bi-partisan environment less likely.

Even before the election, Congressional and USDA leadership were projecting the next Farm Bill to be the stingiest one in recent history. They predicted that there would be no additional money for new or expanded programs. In fact, 37 existing programs totaling $8-$10 billion are facing extinction in the next Farm Bill. Further pressure comes from the threat of budget reconciliation, a process by which Congress mandates cutbacks to existing programs, including those with mandatory funding and applies these savings to deficit reduction. Innovation in food and farm policy can be especially difficult in this kind of financial environment, when interest groups are circling the wagons to protect their existing programs and spending levels.

How will these factors impact the Farm Bill? Let’s take a look at nutrition programs, commodity programs, and local and regional food system related policies.

Nutrition programs

Many sustainable food and public health advocates are looking for new approaches to promote the consumption of healthier foods and to support local and regional food systems. The recent request by New York City to remove soda from the list of approved food stamp items is one example of this approach. The election results may make such reforms more difficult. Why?

First, Republicans are perceived to be hostile to the food stamp program, and may seek to remove its entitlement status or cut back spending to pay for their budgetary priorities. (It is only fair to note that the Democrats have also raided surpluses in the SNAP program to pay for child nutrition and public education).  In response, the anti-hunger community will likely take a “do no harm” approach to preserve current benefits and regulations, avoiding debate that could open the door for cutbacks.

Health advocates may face other challenges to boosting the nutritional focus of federal food programs. Public health advocates are not the natural constituency for conservative Republicans, who, while gutting funding for the SNAP program may simultaneously frame any proposed limits on the use of SNAP benefits (such as restricting the purchase of soda or junk food) as actions of a “nanny state.”  Attempts to steer SNAP purchasing toward more nutritious foods would also be opposed by powerful players within the food and beverage industry, to whom the newfound majority in the House will likely be sympathetic.

Commodity programs

Historically, regional concerns have often transcended partisan politics in the Farm Bill. In 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi refrained from pushing for commodity program reform because she feared it would imperil the Democrats’ majority in the House by making newly elected Democratic representatives from the Heartland more vulnerable in future elections. The question remains whether Speaker Boehner will have the same concerns. Will he put off deficit hawks who would like to kill commodity programs so that freshman Agriculture Committee members can bring home the bacon? The Senate, assuming Senator Stabenow wins leadership of the Agriculture Committee, offers better prospects for commodity reform.

Local and regional food systems

Until a few years ago, when local and regional food systems were under the radar of most Congressional members, advocating for them was as easy as selling mom and apple pie.  Now that the Administration has put this approach in the spotlight through Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, they have drawn opposition from Big Agriculture and a handful of Republican senators. Big Agriculture may feel threatened, and push the House leadership to oppose advances. Similarly, House Republicans may perceive local food to be the Administration’s issue and seek to politicize it.

Remaining questions

The final content of the Farm Bill will be shaped by numerous other factors, most of which will gradually become clearer over the next six to twelve months. Here is a brief rundown of some remaining questions.

Congress: Ultimately, will the Republicans and Democrats work together, both within the House and between chambers?  Will the highly partisan environment of 2010 continue?

The Administration: Will the Administration come out with a strong proposal for the Farm Bill, and will it invest political capital in its passage? How will the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative impact the Administration’s actions?

Funders: The foundation community is still identifying its strategy for the Farm Bill, which will influence what advocacy organizations are able to achieve. What will be their focus and financial commitment to Farm Bill organizing and education?

Advocacy Community: Most of the advocacy community has not yet identified its policy priorities nor have major new coalitions been unveiled. How will the development and content of this strategic analysis shape our collective efforts to bring about a more sustainable food and farm policy?

Timing: Will the Farm Bill be finished in 2011 or even 2012? Rep. Lucas has voiced his preference for a go-slow approach. The closer the Farm Bill gets to the 2012 elections the more likely an extension into 2013 becomes.

External events: How will climate change play a role in the Farm Bill, either through policy-related efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or through weather events, such as crop failures?

More than ever before, there is grassroots demand for a new food and farm policy based on principles of equity, health and sustainability. The question for those of us working in this field is: how do we translate the public’s interest into policy change?  How do we adapt our targets, strategies and tactics to meet this new power dynamic in Washington? Who are our allies and how do we work together toward collective goals? I urge us all in the movement to find common ground in broad, progressive and effective coalitions. Like the crisis and opportunity cliché, another one comes to mind: United we stand, divided we fall.