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Issue Date:  November 9, 2007

-- EPA/Nic Bothma

Frank Tamborello with Hunger Action Los Angeles talks with attendees at Feria de Comida Justa Oct. 22 about the Farm Bill.
Farm Bill reaches Senate floor

Advocacy groups hope for cap on subsidy payments


Every five years Congress revisits the agricultural, nutrition and food policies and passes a multibillion-dollar piece of legislation known as the Farm Bill. The 2002 bill ran out Sept. 30.

In late July the U.S. House of Representatives passed their version of the bill, which proved to be a disappointment to conservation, sustainable agriculture and small family farm advocacy groups who had been pressing for a “green” bill that would both reduce subsidy payments to already prosperous farms and enhance conservation programs for land and waters while providing a more adequate safety net particularly for small family farmers.

A greener bill also made good sense because it put U.S. farmers in compliance with the World Trade Organization, which dislikes trade-derailing farm subsidies.

The bill is now being considered by the Senate.

The Farm Bill is a multi-title bill, meaning that individual sections address different portions of the U.S. agricultural sector. These titles include commodity programs, conservation, agricultural trade and aid, nutrition programs, farm credit, rural development, research, forestry and energy.

Sustainable agriculture and small family farm advocates have been pushing to substantially revise the commodity program payments, which now primarily go to large farms. Pouring money into these payments, they say, means driving the demand for increased industrial agriculture -- more intensive planting of corn and soybeans. Cutting these payments frees up funds for conservation programs.

According to Bread for the World, an international anti-hunger advocacy group, U.S. farm policy in recent years has also become unintentionally devastating for small farmers in the developing world. “Because the commodity payment system encourages U.S. farmers to concentrate on just five crops, world markets are being flooded with these crops, which are then sold at prices lower than what it costs to produce them,” said David Beckmann, Bread for the World president.

The House essentially maintained the status quo on commodity payments.

“Political expediency trumped moral responsibility in the House’s vote,” said Beckmann. “In the end the House made only cosmetic changes to the outdated commodity payment system.”

Anti-hunger, religious, farm and labor groups asked Senate leaders on Sept. 28 to force action on an overhaul of U.S. farm law delayed by disagreements over funding and crop subsidy reforms. Sixty-one groups said in a letter to Senate leaders that “it is vitally important” for the bill to be brought to the floor promptly.

On Oct. 18 Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, announced that a basic agreement had been reached with key members of the committee. Harkin believes that the core policy decisions and budget framework would get the support of a solid bipartisan majority in the Senate.

“The proposal is a forward-looking bill with critical investments for the future in energy, conservation, nutrition, rural development and promoting better diets and health for all Americans,” said Harkin.

The conservation title extends key conservation programs and increases critical funding and the nutrition title increases food stamp benefit levels, according to Harkin.

U.S. Rep. Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa) criticized the exclusion of a hard cap for farm payments in the proposed Senate bill. He supports limiting payments to $250,000 per farming couple.

“I have yet to see a good reason for 72 percent of farmers getting 10 percent of the benefits of the farm program,” Grassley said in a statement.

There has been intensive lobbying by the nation’s fruit and vegetable growers this year to persuade Congress to broaden subsidies beyond traditional farm crops such as corn, wheat, rice and cotton. Physicians’ groups have weighed in as well on behalf of fruit and vegetable promotion for healthier diets, intensifying the debate.

“The real scandal in Washington is the Farm Bill,” said Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Senators take millions from corporations that produce bacon, burgers and other fatty foods. Then Congress buys up these unhealthy products and dumps them on our school lunch programs. Companies get rich and kids get fat.”

Robert Gronksi, policy director of the National Catholic Rural Life Center, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, said: “It’s not a bad bill, the way it’s taking shape. Congress members, of course, have to bow to programs in place locally and there’s pressure to maintain the safety net as it is. We need to urge our senators to build on the House version in the areas of conservation and helps for small family farms and to set some reasonable limits on farm subsidies.”

Beckmann of Bread for the World is concerned for the 35 million Americans who struggle to put food on their table. “Members of the Agriculture Committee spoke eloquently about the need to do more, but their words didn’t translate into changes in farm policy that would make that happen. We hope that when the full Senate takes up the bill, they’ll follow through.

“Small changes to commodity payment programs could make a big difference for hungry people in this country, many of whom live in rural communities.”

Rich Heffern is an NCR reporter and editor. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2007

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