U.S. food and farm policies: a delicate balancing act

· Volatile food prices have had a disquieting effect on geopolitical stability.

· Food price surges from 2007 to 2008 and since 2010 have exposed the deficiencies in a global trading system to deal with such shocks.

· Corn is a source of fuel as well as food, and corn-based ethanol has become a major factor contributing to food-price volatility.

· There is growing concern about how the world will feed 9 billion people by 2050 in the face of scarce water and land.

· There is better understanding of how climate change impacts agriculture and how agriculture contributes to and could potentially reduce climate change.

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· There is a better understanding about the importance of nutrition in human development, especially in the first 1,000 days of life, and the economic outcomes of malnutrition over the course of one’s life.

· There is a better understanding of the role of agriculture in promoting nutrition and health, and the importance of linking these sectors through policies and programs.

· Rising public concern about hunger and obesity in the United States and other developed countries is focusing greater attention on policies that affect food production and consumption.

Many U.S. food and farm policies are out of balance with the challenges hungry and poor people face today. Most of these policies predate the last reauthorization of the farm bill, and the years since have shown how much the world has changed -- making the next reauthorization the perfect time to adopt food and farm policies that will reduce hunger globally and create opportunities for smallholder and beginning farmers in the United States and around the world.

No one doubts that farming is a risky enterprise, but the current risk management tools the government offers don’t match what most farmers need and want, or constitute a fiscally responsible use of taxpayer resources --particularly in a time of record deficits. Other countries with advanced economies such as the United States have policies that are more equitable, lead to sustainable stewardship of the land, are non-trade distorting, and support healthy foodstuffs without putting farmers at further risk.

At the same time, we must protect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) so that it continues to work the way it was intended -- rising in response to need -- and also create incentives for healthier choices for SNAP recipients.

However the process moves forward, resulting legislation should better address both short- and long-term challenges to global and domestic food security. This would include investments in agricultural research at U.S. land grant colleges to develop solutions to growing food in changing climate environments; helping farmers earn higher incomes by selling their products directly to consumers -- including to millions of low-income families without access to healthy, nutritious food in their communities; allowing greater flexibility in food aid procurement and improving the nutritional quality of the foods the United States provides; or rewarding farmers that use sustainable and responsible environmental practices.

Addressing hunger overseas and in the United States rarely converge as neatly as they do in the farm bill, and changes in food and farm policies too often occur incrementally. But the times call for bolder, determined thinking about how U.S. food and farm policies can help meet global and domestic challenges. We stand ready to move forward with a new farm bill that meets the needs of the 21st century.

Rev. David Beckmann is the president of Bread for the World and a 2010 World Food Prize Laureate