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President Bush's veto of the 2008 Farm Bill further adds to the bewildering debate around it, confusing advocates for progressive policies that support sustainable family farmers instead of factory farms and corporate agribusiness. He has been quoted as saying "... lawmakers were not doing enough to limit payments to wealthy landowners, many of whom don't farm." This message comes from an Administration that has championed payments and programs benefiting not only wealthy landowners but corporate agribusiness, exporters, the livestock industry, food processors, and grain traders at every step.
We agree that loopholes for those who don't farm -- whether land investors or McMansion developers -- should be closed, but limiting which farms can participate in farm and conservation programs due to off-farm income is not the answer. The Bush Administration is virtually silent on the real bad actors contributing to our broken industrial food system; they get a free pass. Why don't they care that owners of mega-dairy and -livestock operations can tap up to $300,000 in taxpayer subsidies to clean up their pollution through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP)? Or that Bush's "Justice Department" appears poised to approve the pending JBS-Brazil acquisition of two of the top five beef packing companies in the U.S. that will make a Brazilian company the largest beef packer in the U.S. and the world, which threatens the livelihoods of virtually all America's ranchers.
The Bush Administration, while touting an anti-subsidy line for wealthy farmers, has irresponsibly and continually ignored what would be responsible measures to stabilize commodity prices for farmers: an effective government policy that includes a strategic food reserve to help stabilize volatile food prices for consumers, a price floor reflecting the true costs of production for farmers, and meaningful conservation and land stewardship programs. Without policies that ensure farmers receive a fair market price -- not just in times of crisis or through misguided demand-driven policies like ethanol production -- taxpayer-supported payments or subsidies become essential to cushion low prices and to avert widespread foreclosures and rural community shutdowns. For these reasons the National Family Farm Coalition does not support the commodity title of this farm bill.
The Administration has opposed the decade-long efforts of Senator Grassley and others supporting real structural market reforms and to restore competition in livestock markets to provide independent family livestock operators fair access to their markets. This competition is being blocked by increasing market concentration with four companies controlling 80 per cent of the meat slaughtered in the U.S.
Responding to questions on the rise of global food prices during an April 29 White House press conference, President Bush stated that we should "... buy food from local farmers as a way to help deal with scarcity, but also ... to put in place an infrastructure so that nations can be self-sustaining and self-supporting ..." This is the correct position on international food aid and one with which we agree yet it is ironic that the Bush Administration's continued support for free trade and the WTO has contributed to the crisis by dismantling the domestic food production in many of these countries. On May 2, President Bush advocated lifting restrictions on exports and concluding the Doha round of the WTO to help solve the world's food crisis. He further stressed the cultivation of genetically engineered crops under the false pretense that they resist extreme weather conditions and increase yields.
This message in the midst of the farm bill negotiations helps explain the Administration's position on the bill: they truly care more about completing the Doha round than enacting sensible domestic farm policy. It is ironic that the direct farm payments most criticized by the San Francisco Chronicle, the editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post are the payments explicitly allowed under the World Trade Organization (WTO), i.e., payments that are decoupled and delinked from production.
It has never been more critical to the survival of millions around the world that we define the problem correctly and pursue a solution that builds food sovereignty. While higher prices for grain, seed, and fertilizer fueled by speculative trading practices contribute to escalating food prices, the significant role of diesel fuel prices in both the farm production and distribution systems must be addressed at domestic and global levels. The excessive corporate profiteering of oil and grain companies must be exposed and curtailed.
We need to re-establish programs and policies that authorize farmer and country control over agricultural production systems, including the right to limit low-cost imports that destabilize local, agrarian-based economies. This is an essential step to stabilizing the farm and food economy globally. It must start with the people and the communities on the ground -- not with corporate agribusiness, misguided free trade agreements, oil companies, and GE-seed representatives.
Katherine Ozer (email@example.com) is the Executive Director of the National Family Farm Coalition, a farm and rural advocacy membership organization based in Washington, D.C. NFFC advocates a new direction in farm and food policy based on the concepts of food sovereignty.