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Opinion: Next farm bill must address long-term food needs

The next Farm Bill, whether written in the midst of a budget-reduction effort or, more preferably, in a period of greater reflection, will allow policymakers to address the short- and long-term needs of food production, distribution and consumption at home and around the world.

Yet almost all of the discussion to date has focused on how much Congress’s debt-cutting supercommittee will slash from current agriculture and farm spending, and whether or not its members will listen to the Senate and House Agriculture committees when it comes to these budget decisions. 

The budget process is likely to obscure some of the deeper problems affecting the production and consumption of food. In the process, government might miss a signature opportunity to provide transformational leadership for the coming decades. While there is an obvious need to deal with budget pressures in the short term, Congress must take time to reflect on both the short- and long-term implications of farm policy. 

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Most commodity prices are at record-high levels. Part of the reason is the growing demand for food — especially grains — as the incomes of such developing nations as China, Indonesia, India and Brazil rise. Population growth is an added pressure. In the next 30 years, 9 billion people might occupy the planet, a nearly 40 percent increase from current levels.

Mother Nature has also helped increase commodity prices: Floods, drought and climate have made agriculture far less predictable than in the past. But commodity prices can fall as fast as they rise, even if prices continue to trend higher over the long term. As John Maynard Keynes was fond of saying, “The only difference between the long term and the short term is that in the long term, we are all dead.” Most farmers and ranchers, especially those who are not that well-capitalized, live and die by the short-term prospects of economic survival.  

Farm policy should be written with both the short- and long-term future of food security in mind. In the short term, farmers need some assistance. But at a time when market prices are at record levels, $4 billion or $5 billion of direct payments to farmers from the federal government, notwithstanding current strong market conditions, is no longer justifiable. Furthermore, many farmers are quite capable of managing without any government assistance at all, and therefore we should tighten limits on how much individual farms can receive in crop subsidies. 

Farm program subsidy payments, in principle, should be countercyclical in nature, kicking in primarily when market prices tank. And most of these programs should be directed at smaller and mid-sized operations that need them and the safety net they provide. The bulk of farm program spending should be directed at a meaningful, financially sound risk-management system for all farmers that helps shield them from volatile worldwide climate conditions and political instability. I believe the American people will support this assistance, if it is fiscally sound and well-managed. 

But this farm bill should address other critical long-term needs as well — needs that cannot be tackled if all available money is spent on maintaining the status quo.  

Historically, a key part of farm programs has been to conserve resources such as soil and water. Such programs must be adequately funded for the long-term future of food production. There is precious little new land that can be put into production to feed a hungry world. So conserving existing land resources and developing better crop yields are critical. Admittedly, there might be duplication and inefficiencies in current conservation programs. But excessive budget cuts in this area could do more harm than good.  

Water issues demand high priority as we fund agriculture research in the future. Roughly 1.6 billion people live in conditions of water scarcity.  Because nearly 80 percent of the world’s fresh water is used to irrigate crops, conserving water resources is a monumentally pressing problem Congress must address. A research initiative that focuses on water availability during times of deep climate stress is particularly urgent.

Research is also important to solve many of the challenges facing both producers and consumers. Yet government funding for research institutions has been falling in real terms for the past decade. Sound research is essential to helping us feed a growing world and increasing yields of staple crops without placing stress on the environment. It will also help ensure the safety of our food supply and help consumers navigate the deeply conflicting yet critical issues of diet, health and obesity. 

The strength of American agriculture has been our national research infrastructure, which has helped develop the technologies to feed a hungry world.  We must maintain that long-term vision in the face of myriad threats.  

And we must not be afraid to explore new technologies under a regulatory system that ensures that public health and safety needs are met. U.S. government research institutions, assisted by major foundations including Ford and Rockefeller, saved tens of millions of lives during the “green revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the need is equally great. We can foster new revolutions in production, water conservation and environmentally responsible farming if we provide the will and resources to fund new technologies.

A new farm bill will also need to address the food-security safety net for hungry Americans; develop a modern food-assistance program to help the developing world become more food self-sufficient; ensure that rural Americans have the infrastructure they need, including housing, water and sewer facilities; and provide American agriculture with the tools it needs to be competitive in the modern world of trade and commerce. 

Agricultural policy is about protecting the interests of farmers and ranchers to produce the food we eat in the short term. But it is equally important to provide for a safe, healthy, environmentally sustainable food supply for generations to come. The good news is that we can do both.

Glickman is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center and co-chairman of its Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiative. He was a Democratic representative from Kansas from 1977 to 1995 and secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001.