Sound farm bill top priority, a secretary tells Outlook Forum

Implementation of a new farm bill “stands at the top of the list” of priorities for the USDA, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman says, noting that the Bush administration “has spent a great deal of time on Capitol Hill in the last year, discussing and debating the new farm bill.”

Speaking at the Agricultural Outlook Forum 2002 in Washington, she said “the president is strongly committed to our farmers and ranchers, and to fulfilling all of the great potential that lies ahead.”

The administration has indicated it will support Congress in boosting spending for farm programs by $73.5 billion over the next 10 years in a move to replace the emergency payments that have added significantly to the cost of the 1996 FAIR act.

“Once Congress passes a new farm bill and it is signed by the president, we need to be ready to move forward with implementation,” Veneman said, pledging to “work hard” in the House-Senate conference committee “to achieve a sound farm bill that will best help a broad range of America's farmers and ranchers.”

She reiterated that the administration hopes the next farm bill will include, among other things:

  • Support for adding the $73.5 billion and spreading it evenly over 10 years, rather than “frontloading” spending as the Senate version of the farm bill would do.

  • Provisions for a safety net for farmers without encouraging them to over-produce, thereby depressing prices, which she termed “self-defeating.”

  • Establishing farm savings accounts, which would see the government matching a portion of money set aside by farmers in tax-advantaged accounts that could be used to offset losses during years of low returns.

  • Support for increased agricultural trade, “consistent with our international obligations.

  • New conservation measures to help farmers better manage working lands.

In discussing priorities for this year, Veneman said homeland security and protecting the nation's food supply will also be at the top of the list.

‘Entire food chain’

“We're working with the entire food chain — from production to processing to transportation, retailing, and everything in between. We want to make sure we have best management practices, a strong set of checks and balances, and that we will be able to deal with any circumstance, deliberate or accidental, that might affect our food supply.”

While emphasis will be placed on opening new markets for U.S. commodities, she said “we also have to make sure other countries live up to their trade obligations.” The USDA will work to insure that phytosanitary and sanitary regulations are based on sound science and “not allow other countries to restrict our products, including the products of biotechnology, under the banner of protectionism.”

Some of the policy initiatives by the European Union, Japan, and China, particularly with regard to biotechnology, “are wrong-headed and would move free and open markets backward, hurting U.S. farmers.”

More work also must be done, Veneman said, to eliminate unfair trade practices. “We must continue to have constructive dialogue (with other nations) so we can advance our trade agenda, not create more barriers.”

She said achieving Trade Promotion Authority (formerly called “fast track authority”) for President Bush will get top priority. “Since fast track authority expired in 1994, the U.S. has had to sit on the sidelines while other countries have shaped trade agreements beneficial to their industries and people.” She praised the agriculture community for “being one of the strongest advocates for trade promotion authority,” which empowers the president to negotiate trade deals which Congress can only approve or disapprove, but not revise.

Strong conservation programs are a part of the USDA's programs, Veneman said, citing “imaginative new thinking that is creating exciting prospects for farmers and the nation.” Conservation is “a good example of bipartisan support in the House and Senate farm bills, which have allocated billions of additional dollars over the next several years to help farmers and ranchers address environmental concerns, particularly on working lands.

“I believe this is a momentous change, with strong implications for the future of farm programs and the farm safety net. This increased funding will provide incentives for farmers and ranchers to adopt conservation practices that reduce soil erosion, reduce fertilizer/manure run-off into our waterways, and enhance wildlife.”

Examples of programs that are helping producers in these areas, Veneman said, include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQUIP) and the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). These state and local efforts, she said, would be assisted at the federal level through increased funding for the Farmland Protection Program (FPP) authorized in the Senate and House farm bills. “Together, these efforts will reduce the conversion of farmland to non-farm uses and preserve open space for the enjoyment of all.”

Ethanol as example

New technology, Veneman said, is increasing the demand for agricultural products by finding alternative uses that increase returns to producers and give consumers products that are better for the environment.

Ethanol is an example, she said, and the energy bill now before the Senate contains a renewable fuel standard that, if it becomes law, would triple ethanol use over the next decade.

Biotechnology “will create new opportunities for farmers,” Veneman said. “Science and technology are changing every aspect of people's lives — the way food is produced, marketed, and distributed in this country and around the world. Medicine and biotechnology are coming together, spurred on by human genome mapping. In the not-too-distant future, we'll be producing new crops and products that will help heal and make people healthier.

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