The following post was originally published on Agri-Pulse’s opinion page.
Our Nation has been going through an extremely difficult economic period and many challenges lay ahead. Yet going forward, agriculture stands in a prime position to help lead the country to future growth. In fact, U.S. agriculture may indeed be entering a Golden Era led by strong demand from Asia and Latin America for our grain, fiber, produce and meat products. It is this environment, coupled with a growing concern over budget deficits, and increased Government spending along with many changes in the makeup of Congress, that we begin the writing of the 2012 Farm Bill. Trying to balance these confluences of factors including the politics and equity of all the interests of those affected by our farm policies will be an enormous challenge.
As someone who has been involved in some fashion with the writing of farm bills over the last 30 years, I’ve taken a keen interest in the next farm bill and how some of the key issues will be resolved. So, here is a list of what I think will be some of the key questions that Congress and the Obama Administration will have to deal with:
1. Given our tight budgets, the debt ceiling deadline in March/April, and the likely reduction of much Government spending from current levels, how much funding will be made available through the budget process to fund our Nation’s food, nutrition and farm programs?
2. How will Congress balance the needs of production agriculture with the growing expansion of nutritional assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly food stamps)?
3. There has been growing interest among some producer groups and Members of Congress in expanding risk management tools, i.e. the dairy industry. Will Congress make a major step towards enhancing risk management programs in the 2012 Farm Bill?
4. Does the survival of the biofuels industry depend on continuing programs in place, even during periods of high commodity prices and input costs? Or are there other means of supporting the industry, such as infrastructure development, that are less impactful on commodity prices?
5. How will recent WTO decisions impact the viability of current programs and subsidies and will those recent decisions have significant impact in changing those payment structures? How far will our government, and other governments, go in pursuing non-distorting trade subsidies in the future?
6. How much can we and should we invest as a country in longer term agriculture projects, particularly in conservation and land sustainability programs, that have widespread public support inside and outside of production agriculture?
7. At what levels can we continue to fund a research infrastructure that invests in solutions to problems as widespread as climate change adaptation, environmental challenges, yield and productivity increases at home and around the world, challenges to pest and drought resistance, water quality and availability, and do it without arbitrarily restricting the kinds of technologies we will be examining? And how do we balance the push for competitively versus non-competitively awarded research at a time when the U.S. is being challenged in an increasingly competitive global marketplace?
8. And finally, how do we commit the necessary resources to feed a hungry world with adequate emergency food assistance and agriculture development assistance in order to meet the challenge of feeding a growing world where 1 billion people, mostly women and children, are malnourished?
These are all daunting challenges, important to not only food security, but our national security as well. And there are plenty of other challenges that I have not mentioned that are also critical; for example all the needs in properly developing our rural development agenda which indirectly affects all of the items mentioned above, and making sure that our food safety inspection authorities are properly funded. And some of these challenges will no doubt require policy makers to make choices as some of these varied priorities will no doubt be competing for the same budget dollars. And yet, notwithstanding the budget challenges, and some re-setting of priorities, we as a country cannot unilaterally withdraw from doing so many of these things we have so well. All I have written about will continue to demand American leadership, and that requires sensible national Government funding levels and a commitment to seek great public/private partnerships as well. Above all, America’s role as an international leader in a very volatile world demands our continuing engagement in the production, distribution and consumption of adequate and safe quantities of food.
The 2012 Farm Bill provides all of us who support agriculture and rural America with a real opportunity to take on these challenges and create polices that enhance farm and rural prosperity while helping to build increased support for these programs by all Americans.