Not all parts of House farm bill pass muster with rural advocates

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — There may be some good in the House’s version of the farm bill that passed July 27, but there was also some bad, according to Robert Gronski, policy coordinator for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

The good parts include expanded food stamp and nutrition education programs and increased funding for fruit and vegetable programs for schools, Gronski said in a July 31 statement, as well as funding for a new loan program to support local processing and distribution that will make it easier for local farmers to serve schools and other institutional markets.

“It also adopted an important policy to allow schools to use geographic preference to purchase local food in all federally funded child nutrition programs,” he said.

Still, he added, “the House bill took two major steps backward. The House version cut billions of dollars from the Conservation Security Program to pay for increases in other conservation programs. More disappointingly, the House bill included a misleading commodity reform policy that would expand rather than cut payment limits that farmers and agribusinesses can receive from the commodity program.”

Gronski noted two other deficiencies in the House version. “This bill also does not adequately address our concern of noncompliance with trade obligations of our subsidies that disproportionately impact farmers in developing countries whose livelihoods depend on agriculture,” he said. The World Trade Organization has ruled some U.S. crop subsidies have not conformed to international rules to prevent subsidized exports from undercutting domestic markets in other nations.

The House bill, he added, lacked comprehensive competition reforms in the livestock industry and greater protections for farmers who raise poultry under contract for the large national chicken-processing firms.

The Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister who is president of Bread for the World, a national Christian citizens anti-hunger lobby, issued a bleaker assessment.

“Political expediency trumped moral responsibility in the House’s vote on the farm bill,” Rev. Beckmann said in a July 27 statement. “In the end, the House made only cosmetic changes to the outdated commodity payment system that benefits the favored few at the expense of broader, more equitable support for U.S. farmers of modest means.”

Rev. Beckmann added, “While obviously disappointing, the passage of the House’s version of the 2007 farm bill is by no means the end of the push for broad reform. Wealthy special interests can only plug the leaks in the dam for so long.”

Both Bread for the World and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference are members of the Religious Working Group on the Farm Bill, which has pushed for major revisions in crop subsidies and for added funds to reward sustainable agriculture practices.

The bill, which had been approved unanimously by the House Agriculture Committee, passed the full House 231-191, with some backlash from Republicans on a tax increase to help pay for the nutrition programs.

“Members of Congress had to decide to either close a tax loophole enjoyed by foreign corporations avoiding paying American taxes or feed our nation’s hungry children. To me that’s a no-brainer,” said a July 31 statement by Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, who called the farm bill a “landmark bill.”

Following reports this spring and summer of tainted and adulterated products imported from China, Buis hailed a provision calling for country-of-origin labeling for meats, fruits and vegetables “to allow our nation’s consumers the right to know where their food comes from.”

The American Farm Bureau Federation, which calls itself “the voice of agriculture,” also praised the farm bill in a July 27 statement by Bud Stallman, president.

“This farm bill benefits all sectors of agriculture, including new support for fruit and vegetable producers, and it provides real policy reforms,” Stallman said. “The bill meets the needs of more of America’s farmers by providing $1.6 billion in new funding for specialty crop research, conservation, pest and disease programs, and nutrition.

“Overall,” Stallman added, “this bill directly benefits America’s taxpayers because it is fiscally responsible, spending $20 billion less than the prior farm bill. That is real reform.”

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