Farm bill delayed as food costs soar

Combine in field

TEXT OF STORY

Renita Jablonski: Tomorrow was supposed to be the deadline for a new farm bill but it's not going to happen. Congress can't get on the same page when it comes to how to pay for the $280 billion price tag. Beyond the cost, there's the issue of subsidies leading to more political liability as food prices keep rising. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton explains


Sam Eaton: Farm bills loaded with subsidies for the nation's largest agricultural producers are nothing new. But sky high commodity prices are. Richard Wiles of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group says Congress didn't get the memo.

Richard Wiles: Here we have record high farm income, and we have food prices rising. Yet, what the Congress wants to do is give these rich farmers billions of dollars every year while they actually cut money to the poorest Americans. So, it's exactly backwards.

Wiles hopes further delays will force Congress to keep extending the 2002 farm bill. He says that would buy time to create a spending package that would shift billions of dollars in farmer payouts to programs that address more pressing issues, like rising food prices and land conservation. But National Farmers Union president Tom Buis says that approach would backfire.

Tom Buis: You don't write a farm bill for the good years, you write 'em for the bad years.

Buis says despite record prices for key commodities, like corn, soy beans and wheat, many farmers are still barely hanging on.

Tom Buis:Commodity prices are higher than they've been on a variety of commodities, but the input costs to those producers have skyrocketed, as well.

Things like tractor fuel and fertilizer. And he says without government support any natural disaster could wipe out a farmer's profits in an instant. Farm states still pull a lot of weight in Washington, so those subsidies remain largely intact. But other aspects of the pending legislation have changed, albeit mildly.

Aimee Witteman: The policy process in Congress rewards incremental change.

Aimee Witteman with the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says new funding for local food production and nutrition programs make the proposed farm bill better than its predecessor, even though it isn't as radical as she'd hoped. But she hasn't given up that hope. Witteman says as the public feels the pain of surging energy and food prices, Congress's incremental approach to change may no longer be acceptable.

I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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