Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Farm Bill Op-ed by David Beckmann

Op-ed in the May 19th Washington Times...
By David Beckmann - Many praise the recently passed 2008 farm bill as 'the best we can do.' But for us at Bread for the World, it is only half a loaf. We know that the United States can and should do better. True, there are things to commend in this half a loaf. We rejoice that additional funding amounting to $10.3 billion has been given to nutrition programs, especially in light of the growing global hunger crisis that is hindering the efforts of struggling parents to feed their children. The $300 billion farm bill increases benefits for the food-stamp program and opens it up so that more can participate. About 28 million low-income Americans receive help from this critical program each month, yet the benefits do not last beyond the third week.

Passage of the Hunger Free Communities grant program as part of the nutrition title will enable community-based organizations to work together to plan and implement local strategies to end hunger. The long-overdue increase in funding for TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program) will help food banks meet the 20 percent increase in demand for their services.

We are also encouraged that the farm bill contains a pilot program that allows for local or regional purchase of food aid from sources closer to those in need. This will lower transport costs, speed up delivery and free up more money to buy food. Under our current system, food aid must be purchased, processed and packaged in the United States and transported only by U.S. ships.

While we commend the relief that the 2008 Farm Bill will bring to more low-income Americans, it is the missing half of the loaf — the lack of substantial reform of the bill's commodity programs — that worries us. This missing half has long-term and pernicious effects on global agriculture and trade. Current policies have helped stymie agricultural development in poor countries, leaving millions of people mired in poverty, and have helped create the current hunger crisis worldwide.

Rather than respond to the new reality of global agriculture, the 2008 farm bill locks the United States into another five-year protectionist system that hampers the desperate efforts of small farmers to feed their families. For the 10 million people in Africa who earn roughly $1 to $2 a day and depend directly on cotton farming for their livelihood, cotton subsidies in the farm bill will continue to depress their markets in Africa.

In negotiating the farm bill, funding for the highly successful McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Program was reduced from $840 million in mandatory funds passed by the House to only $84 million. Congress missed a once-in-five-year chance to guarantee that funding will be available to ensure that schoolchildren in poor countries, for whom education is crucial to escaping poverty, get at least one nutritious meal a day.

Congress has also failed to make our commodity programs significantly fairer and more equitable for our own farmers here at home. The bill does little to target subsidies to where they are most needed, but continues to concentrate payments to the largest and wealthiest landowners.

At a time of record farm income and commodity prices, this farm bill will continue direct payments at around $5 billion annually and institutes a new $3.8 billion permanent disaster fund. This new fund provides the clearest evidence that the current 'safety net' programs are not functioning properly for our nation's producers.

When the House passed the 2008 farm bill last Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated that "this will be the last time the farm bill looks like this." We certainly hope so and we will hold her to her promise. There is much more work to make reform a priority in the Senate. Unfortunately, too many of our senators do not realize that voters — and especially people of faith — are ahead of them on food and farm policy.

The 2008 farm bill sustains the injustice that keeps low-income people, not just in the United States but all over the world, mired in poverty and hunger. Our faith mandates us to keep working to reform the legislation until it truly serves the needs of poor farm and rural families and all people around the world who struggle to feed themselves and their children. The abuses in the 2008 bill are now exposed, and they will not just be swept under the rug.

David Beckmann is president of Bread for the World, a collective Christian voice urging an end to hunger.

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