Slow pace of Farm Bill could further hamper hemp industry’s recovery

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Significant delay in enacting the upcoming U.S. Farm Bill could further hamper a hemp industry that’s hoping to bounce back after two years of historically low production.

A nearly $1 trillion spending package, the Farm Bill authorizes agriculture and food policies ranging from crop subsidies to nutrition assistance programs. It’s a once-in-five-year chance to advance hemp industry goals. Specifically this year, the legislative package is an opportunity for a desperately needed reset that can clarify hemp rules for business and to protect consumers.

With a politically divided Congress, the 2023 bill (officially, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2023) represents one of only a handful of measures nearly guaranteed of passage. But delays in resetting House of Representatives Republican leadership last month contributed to a slow pace for the Farm Bill.

Lawmakers usually finalize the highly complex, wide-ranging provisions in the bill by the end of the year in which it is scheduled for updating. It’s possible that Congress could pass a short-term extension of the current Farm Bill to buy more time to negotiate a new bill, but it is also possible that the new Farm Bill will not be enacted until 2024 – and could be delayed even further.

Critical hemp issues

The 2018 Farm Bill, which legalized hemp at the federal level, left some important issues unresolved. Most important is regulating CBD as a food additive and dietary supplement. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow CBD to be added to food or marketed as a dietary supplement. The Farm Bill could change this by allowing CBD to be more widely available and used in end products. Clear rules would go a long way toward protecting consumers against the many potentially unsafe CBD products now on the market under no safety or other rules, and establish a clear playing field for growers and processors.

Also critical is the setting of a general framework to address delta-8 THC and other hemp-derived psychoactive compounds. This would help to ensure that these products are safe and consistent in quality, and give guidance to where and under what conditions these products may be sold. Delta-8 THC, is a downstream synthetic CBD-based product that imitates the “high” of marijuana. The unregulated – and therefore often unsafe – products have flourished at a frightening pace.

Stakeholders are also hoping for an increase in THC levels allowable in hemp “on the field” from 0.3% to 1.0%, to relieve farmers from the worry that their crops will go “hot,” or over the limit, making them useless.

Funding at risk

Specific ongoing funding programs that could benefit hemp growers are at risk if the bill is pushed back to 2024, such as the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a voluntary program that provides financial and technical assistance to agricultural producers to improve or protect natural resource conditions on working lands. EQIP gives farmers as much as $450,000 for qualified projects. Funded by the Farm Bill, the EQIP budget was $1.7 billion in 2023.

The 2023 Farm Bill could also provide funding for research into the health and economic benefits of hemp, to support the development of new hemp-based products.

The next Farm Bill could also help the hemp industry by:

  • Providing more USDA funding for state hemp programs;
  • Opening up hemp to subsidies other crops enjoy;
  • Repealing a ban on felons operating in the industry;
  • Permitting hemp grain for animal feed.

Tough to negotiate

Fundamental disagreements between Republicans and Democrats on major issues such as the SNAP food program are always thorny to negotiate in the Farm Bill and often cause delays. Also, Congress is facing a number of other pressing issues, such as the budget and national security.

Observers have said that if the Farm Bill is pushed to 2024, some lawmakers may be reluctant to vote on the measure in an election year, fearing that it could be used against them by their opponents.

Total U.S. hemp fields harvested plunged by nearly 50% in 2022, dropping to just 18,251 acres, according to figures reported by producers to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). American farmers harvested about 33,500 acres in 2021, the first year USDA officially recorded industrial hemp data. Indicators show that little improvement or growth can be expected for 2023.

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