The Next Farm Bill's Balancing Act

October 31, 2016 09:04 AM

All eyes are on the U.S. presidential election for now, but Margaret Zeigler, executive of the Global Harvest Initiative, says farm bill discussions will creep into the conversation sooner than you might think.

“They’re going to start working on it right after the election,” she says.

GHI just released its 7th annual Global Agricultural Productivity (GAP) Report, which spells out priorities for not only the U.S. farming sector, but for agricultural needs throughout the world.  The stakes are high. GHI estimates global agricultural productivity must increase 1.75% annually to have the capacity to sustainably feed 9.7 billion people. So far, the overall trend is close – 1.73% annual growth – but low-income countries have struggled at a stagnating 1.3% growth.

This year’s GAP report had an additional focus on the agricultural business cycle. Outside of the farming community, relatively few people understand the ups and downs of the agriculture industry or are even aware that they exist, according to Ben Pratt, vice president of corporate public affairs for The Mosaic Company. Pratt also serves as chair of the GHI board of directors.

“We need to ensure that the agricultural value chain is competitive in every phase of the business cycle,” he says. “The food price crisis was just six years ago. To think that in half a decade we have created systems that will sustainably produce an abundance of food would be to disregard history,” he says.

It’s obvious that different countries have different needs in regards to sustainable food production, Zeigler says.

“We have a place for productivity improvements everywhere,” she says. “There are different barriers to sustainability, depending on where you are.”

To that end, even some basic new practices could help small-scale farmers around the world, Zeigler says. And in the U.S., it’s more about how to cut costs and manage risk without sacrificing best practices. For example, Zeigler worries that cover crop adoption will slow or even reverse amid low commodity prices as farmers deal with razor-thin budgets.

Back to the next farm bill: GHI has a set of five strategic policy goals the group says is essential to stimulating growth and resiliency in agriculture. First, GHI wants to see more investment in public agricultural research, development and Extension. Since the turn of the century, private R&D has spiked sharply upward while public R&D has slipped downward during that same time.

GAP Fig. 1

“We think that’s a real problem, and it will be a strong policy recommendation we’ll make for the next farm bill,” Zeigler says.

GHI’s other policy priorities include embracing sustainability-friendly technologies, enhancing private sector involvement, cultivating sustainability partnerships and fostering more regional and global trade agreements.

Finally, Zeigler hopes the 2016 GAP report will give policy makers a better glimpse into the lives of farmers and other key players in agriculture. Throughout the report are sprinkled success stories from across the world, from collaborative sorghum and millet research in India that benefits small-scale women farmers in India to a long-term land improvement project on a North Carolina row-crop farm.

“We hope the report tells a bit of the farmer’s story and puts in context outside of the farming community,” she says.

The2016 GAP report was presented in October at the World Food Prize Symposium in Des Moines. For more information, visit

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