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Mixed Reactions to US Farm Bill

Caitlin G. Johnson

WASHINGTON- The $300 billion U.S. Farm Bill, which is expected to be passed into law despite this week's veto by President George W. Bush, is getting high marks from advocates of U.S. food and nutrition programs but was blasted by those concerned about the global poor and giveaways to the already rich.0523 05 1

The legislation that sets laws and spending guidelines for a range of nutritional and agricultural programs doesn't usually attract much public notice when it comes up for reauthorization every five years.

This year, however, may be different. Congress passed the bill with a bipartisan majority big enough to reverse Wednesday's veto by President Bush -- marking only the second time a veto of his would be overturned. Then a procedural mistake was uncovered, meaning the bill will likely be passed in Congress and vetoed again in the coming days before the Senate and House of Representatives make their final votes to enact the legislation.

But as the political maneuvering continues in Washington, advocates and others around the country are vocally calling attention to what they see as bill's pros and cons: a significant increase in domestic nutrition funding on one hand; big subsidies for "mega-farms" and worrisome foreign food aid rules on the other.

Strengthening Food Programs at Home

Anti-poverty advocates praise the bill for adding more than $10 billion over 10 years to key domestic nutrition programs, including free fruits and vegetable snacks in schools with high shares of low-income students and the Food Stamp program, which is expected to reach a record 28 million enrollees this year.

The bill also adjusts food stamp benefits and tax-time deductions to keep pace with rising prices and allows families to deduct more child care expenses from their income -- a move that will mean an average of nearly $500 a year more in food stamps for some 100,000 households, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a policy analysis organization.

"As a package, this is the most significant set of improvements in the Food Stamp Program in nearly 15 years," Stacy Dean, director of food assistance policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told One World.

Results, a grassroots citizens lobby organization, called the bill "an important first step toward the goal of ending hunger in America."

Diane John-Smith who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, turned to food stamps when she was unemployed for two years. She says she had to spend down her 401K retirement fund in order to be eligible for food stamps.

Since 1986, the food stamp asset limits have remained $2,000 for most households -- meaning anyone with savings, a car, or other assets greater than that amount is generally ineligible for enrollment. The new Farm Bill "unfreezes" those limits by indexing them to inflation, so they will not decrease in real value each year.

John-Smith says it is about time the food stamp program got an update and more funding. "I am just so gratified [by the increase in funds]. $10 billion over ten years is significant and it's going to make a difference for a lot of people."

Concern Over "Mega-Farm" Subsidies and Foreign Aid Rules

At the same time, some aid organizations are criticizing the bill for failing to fix what they call a "broken" system of U.S. food aid abroad and increasing subsidies to wealthy farmers at home, at the expense of smaller farmers.

"Although we, too, cheer the increases for programs for nutrition, Congress failed to deliver any serious reform [on farm policy and food aid]," Laura Rusu, a spokesperson for Oxfam America, told OneWorld.

"The current subsidy system does little to protect family farmers in the U.S. or alleviate problems in rural America. Taxpayers actually provide the funds that enable the biggest producers to gobble up smaller farms, driving land prices up and making it difficult for family farmers to afford to stay in business, and nearly impossibly for beginning farmers just starting out," she added.

According to Oxfam, the largest 10 percent of producers receive about 75 percent of the $20 billion in U.S. commodity subsidies each year.

Leo Tammi, a sheep and livestock farmer in Mount Sidney, Virginia, says he's pleased that the bill adds money for nutrition and conservation, but is "more than a little disappointed that there wasn't the kind of reform in crop subsidy payments that many of us were hoping for."

"I think most taxpayers wonder why we need to subsidize the upper-income mega-farms that will continue to be receiving the subsidies," he told OneWorld.

Oxfam and its allies -- including national groups such as the Environmental Working Group, the Center for Rural Affairs, Citizens Against Government Waste, and the Episcopal Church -- also fault the bill for failing to shift U.S. food aid policy away from an emphasis on U.S.-grown commodities to offering more cash assistance that would enable countries to buy more quickly and directly from local sources.

Such a move, they say, would make U.S. assistance abroad much more efficient and support local industries in those countries at the same time, helping break the long-term cycle of poverty.

For some groups that support the domestic provisions -- which make up two thirds of the Farm Bill's focus -- the commodity subsidy provisions made it a difficult decision to support the bill.

"As pleased as we are with the nutrition title, we are as equally disappointed in Congress' failure to enact meaningful commodity reform," Jos Linn, Results' domestic outreach organizer, told OneWorld.

"To make only cosmetic changes to a system that continues to reward rich farms at the expense of struggling farmers is inexcusable. Commodity supports also exacerbate world poverty through their trade-distorting effects and strain relations with our trade allies."

Linn was referring to the phenomenon that allows U.S. farmers to sell their goods abroad at excessively low prices because the subsidies provided by U.S. taxpayers make up the difference in revenue. This drives down prices -- and incomes -- for farmers around the world, and creates particular hardship for those in Africa and other parts of the world where vast majorities of the population depend on income from farming.

"Congress chose the easy way out," added Linn, "and we all will have to pay for it."

In a statement quoted by the Food Research and Action Center, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) said the bill was the result of necessary compromise.

"This bill has reform in it. Could we have done more? Perhaps, but had we done more, we would not have gotten a bill. What did we get as a result of the compromises made? We got nutrition. What a wonderful thing. We got food stamps," Reid is quoted as saying.

Before his veto, Bush called the bill "bloated" and costly. In a May 13 statement, the administration criticized the bill for failing "to reform subsidies to multimillionaire farmers at a time of high farm income and rising grocery prices."

Still Time for 'Tweaks'

Congress is expected to vote to override the veto, since the bill originally passed both houses with more than the two-thirds majority needed to do so.

"There's still time for Congress to tweak the bill for reform while retaining the gains made on the nutrition front," said Oxfam's Laura Rusu.

"A lot of Americans haven't paid attention to the Farm Bill debate, undoubtedly thinking, 'I'm not a farmer, this isn't for me.' But if you care about where your food comes from, where your taxpayer dollars go, and how we hurt or help poor people, you should care about the Farm Bill," she said.

© 2008 One World

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