by Elizabeth Leuin

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, recently proposed the nation’s most comprehensive urban agriculture legislation. The Urban Agriculture Act of 2016 will increase economic opportunities for new urban farmers, expand access to existing USDA support programs, and create incentives for innovative agricultural research.
Urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA), or farming within and around cities, is a rapidly growing sector of the nation’s food system. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 800 million people practice urban agriculture worldwide. In the U.S., a burgeoning local food movement and an increasingly urbanized society are driving a steady rise in the city farming population.

Vertical farming, stacking plants in tall rows to allow for denser production, is one way urban agriculture is exploring innovative scaling opportunities to ensure greater yields while allowing local food systems to develop. As alternatives to traditional agriculture gain momentum in both academia and popular culture, UPA is quickly becoming a viable component of a diverse sustainable agriculture paradigm. From innovative techniques like vertical farming to more traditional practices in nontraditional locations, UPA encompasses a wide range of practices, including rooftop gardens, aquaculture, community plots in abandoned land, and livestock grazing in open space. Potential benefits include greater food access and alleviated food deserts, new regional markets, increased community engagement, energy efficiency, and bringing new farmers into the labor market.

The Agriculture Act of 2016 includes farm enterprise development, environment measures, research and technology, designating the USDA as the agency responsible for implementation and developing policy details. Policy highlights are below, distilled into broad categorical objectives:

Healthy Food Access:
·         Creates incentives for farmers who use sustainable practices and commit to supplying healthy food to their communities
·         Invests $5 million in community garden development

Economic Development and Financial Support:
·         Pilots professional development and mentorship programs for beginning urban farmers
·         Increases access to risk management tools and loans for farm equipment

Environmental Protection:
·         Introduces national soil testing and contaminated soil remediation program
·         Pilots projects to strengthen links between good environmental practices, healthy food, and public health outcomes
·         Outlines programs to increase community composting

Data, Research, and Outreach:
·         Creates the “Office of Urban Agriculture” to be housed within the USDA
·         Commissions a census and impact studies of urban agriculture in the U.S.
·         Invests $10 million in research to explore market opportunities and new technologies

Though Senator Stabenow introduced the act as a separate bill, she stated in a call with reporters, “This is a bill to start the conversation and create the broad support [that] I think we will have in including urban farming as part of the next farm bill.”

It is unlikely her proposal will pass in its current form, but Stabenow emphasized the value of discussing policies now that could improve urban farmer livelihoods in the next farm bill, due in 2018. She said, “It’s not about introducing something at the last minute. We want to be at the beginning of the process so that we’re part of the whole strategy on what the overall farm bill looks like.”

The Urban Agriculture Act has support from national farming groups including the National Farmers Union and American Farm Bureau Federation. However, opposition from rural farmers may rise if USDA support programs do not increase in funding, as rural and urban farmers will need to compete for the same limited resources. The Congressional Budget Office has not yet released a cost estimate for the bill in its current form.

Though substantial modifications and cuts are expected before this or similar laws are adopted by Congress, Senator Stabenow’s announcement reflects the explosive growth of non-traditional agriculture and publicizes the need for developing federal support.

 

Elizabeth Leuin is a  Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy.  Before coming to GSPP Elizabeth was an Agribusiness Advisor with the Peace Corps in Cameroon