A Farm Bill for All

We can cater to narrow interests or construct broader policies that promote energy security, development, healthier diets, and better markets.

As the House Agriculture Committee prepares to markup the 2007 Farm Bill this week, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on the sheer scope and breadth of the Farm Bill and this massive piece of legislation’s potential to affect the lives of a significant number of Americans from all walks of life.

The Farm Bill not only provides a safety net to our farmers, it provides a blueprint and a mandate for the nation’s food stamp and nutrition programs, rural development initiatives, land conservation programs, renewable energy efforts, overall research and development, and numerous other programs vital to both rural and urban America.

Yet the vast potential of the 2007 Farm Bill remains largely untapped.

We at the Center for American Progress are convinced that the 2007 Farm Bill can reward farmers, help improve our energy security, and combat global warming by encouraging the next generation of sustainably produced biofuels. And internationally, the 2007 Farm Bill should contribute to reductions in global poverty, neutralize bitter trade disputes, and open new markets overseas to sell U.S. products grown here at home.

The current farm policy is not benefiting as many farmers, ordinary Americans, or countries as it should. Today’s commodity programs do not apply to over 61 percent of U.S. farms. But this week, the House Agriculture Committee and the entire House of Representatives have an opportunity to set a new course. Congress can and must improve the competitiveness of our nation’s farmers by expanding the modern safety net to serve more farmers. Congress should also reinvest a modest portion of current funding for agricultural commodity programs toward the further development of new renewable energy sources, conservation, and research and development for specialty crops.

Five commodities—corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, and wheat—receive 90 percent of all farm payments. And the U.S. government subsidizes a considerable number of non-farming landowners; some estimates suggest that the federal government has paid over $1.3 billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all. Commodity-based direct payments also tend to inflate land values, which is a particular barrier to small farm operators and young, new farmers who rent land in order to farm.

The actions of the House Agriculture Committee remain uncertain at this juncture, primarily as a result of the Committee leadership’s failure so far to press for modest subsidy reform as a means to find savings to pay for other farm bill priorities. Reforming the current subsidy system appears to be dependent upon the Speaker and other House leaders’ abilities to avoid a divisive fight on the House floor between those who support current subsidies and those who want reform while at the same time meeting the funding needs for other programs such as nutrition and conservation. The House leadership must find a bipartisan consensus for reform and good public policy that serves a broader cross-section of the nation’s agricultural producers.

In the midst of this rapidly changing legislative landscape, Congress should commit, at a minimum, to:

  • Promoting Sustainable Biofuel Production. Investment in advanced biofuels and improved fuel economy standards must be accompanied by enhanced environmental safeguards and incentives for biofuel producers to conserve land and water resources, maximize lifecycle greenhouse gas reduction methods, and grow energy crops in a sustainable manner. Any consideration of utilizing land currently enrolled in Farm Bill conservation programs for biofuel production must ensure that the primary conservation goals of the programs are not compromised. The use of transparent certification and labeling criteria to encourage sustainable production of biofuels in a voluntary Renewable Fuels Certification Program such as the Center for American Progress is advocating, should be implemented immediately. Farmers must have a central role in this effort.
  • Growing Clean Energy from Farm-based Renewable Energy and Biofuels. Establish mandatory financial incentives and low-interest loans in the 2007 Farm Bill to encourage farmers to grow dedicated energy crops in a sustainable manner and allow development of farmer cooperative and locally-owned biorefineries and biofuel facilities. Reward all U.S. farmers for environmental stewardship, including growing dedicated energy crops to produce the next generation of biofuels sustainably, by encouraging reinvestment of $5.2 billion in commodity-based direct payment subsidies into “green payments” for environmental programs on working lands.
  • Payment Cap Limitations. Enhance the safety net for U.S. farmers while imposing limits on subsidies that encourage trade distortions and overproduction. Enact stricter payment limitations to ensure that assistance goes to actual producers and reduce payment limits to $250,000 per farm from the current $360,000. Reinvest savings from deferred subsidy payments in rural America for the research, development, and deployment of bio-based fuels and products.
  • Building a Strong Safety Net for American Farmers. Fully fund rural development grants and programs and enhance renewable energy and conservation programs with new funding in the 2007 Farm Bill. Encourage new investment in education at land grant universities and rural colleges to ensure a highly skilled rural workforce can lead U.S. agriculture in biotechnology and renewable energy. Explore greater use of revenue assurance, adjustment assistance, and other risk management tools to protect farmers against volatile revenue streams.

  • Opening New Markets. Our agriculture, energy, and trade policies must evolve toward new realities to give our farmers a plan for the future and provide our trade negotiators with the flexibility to bring home the best deal possible. Our current farm policy is being challenged as a violation of international trade rules by Brazil, Canada, and several other nations. Instead of defending ourselves against endless trade disputes, Congress should be proactively advocating for a farm policy that strengthens U.S. agriculture, encourages exports to new markets and new customers, and ensures trade liberalization, development, and poverty reduction move forward simultaneously.

The House Agriculture Committee faces a choice this week: The United States can maintain misplaced allegiance to the interests of a narrow few in the form of legislation with only minor changes, or it can enlist more farmers and people everywhere in a broader farm policy that promotes energy security, rural development, healthier diets, and better markets overseas. In the interest of crafting a 2007 Farm Bill that accurately reflects the priorities of more Americans, we hope that Congress chooses the latter course.

Carolyn Brickey contributed to this article.

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