The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee held its first 2012 farm bill hearing, “The Role, Risks and Challenges for American Agriculture and the next Farm Bill.”
Members acknowledged the challenges of writing a new farm bill with tight budget constraints and the perception that high prices render the safety net less important.
However, members acknowledged that agriculture is cyclical and noted that current disasters resulting from floods, droughts and tornadoes remind everyone that risk management tools are critical. Most members focused on the need for crop insurance and some expressed support for a permanent disaster program citing times when crop insurance isn’t sufficient to cover widespread disasters.
Members also discussed the challenges that agriculture faces in supplying adequate food and fiber to a growing world population — noting that experts forecasted that demand will increase 70-100 percent by 2050. Members also cited the importance of funding research designed to improve productivity.
Chairwoman Stabenow (D-Mich.) said in her opening remarks that the starting focus for discussion would not be on programs, but on principles the farm bill should accomplish. Sen. Johanns (R-Neb.) noted stakeholders often think from one five-year farm bill to the next, but in drafting the 2012 farm bill, lawmakers must weigh agriculture's long-term role in meeting the needs of a “troubled and hungry world,” which he said is key to the nation's future.
The Senators and witnesses suggested a greater emphasis should be placed on research, conservation and risk management.
Cautions against deep cuts
However, Sen. Conrad (D-N.D.) cautioned against cutting too deeply into programs for U.S. farmers, especially when “the playing field is tilted against them.” He said the European Union is “outdoing us in support three to one.”
Sen. Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and several other Senators asked Agriculture Secretary Vilsack about ethanol. He responded that he supported the need to have a “glide path” for phasing out ethanol subsidies as well as the need to make additional investments in ethanol related infrastructure.
“We hope you don’t provide a cliff,” Vilsack said, citing the devastating blow delivered to the biodiesel industry when subsidies totally stopped last year. “If there is to be an end, there needs to be a glide path and perhaps a redirection to help bolster the industry. At a time when high gas prices are already hurting consumers, the situation would be worse without ethanol. Americans are paying 89 cents a gallon less because we have the ethanol industry.”
Vilsack added that when people hear “farm bill” they immediately think mostly if not entirely of subsidies. The reality is the farm bill is far more expansive than that, and one of the key steps moving forward will be to publicize the key role that research plays in agricultural development and progress.
More land is going to non-agricultural uses, yet the world's population is growing. Research and new technologies will be critical to meet future needs. Biotech crops already have increased farmer income. Fortified seeds, drought-resistant crops, and other innovations benefit the United States and developing nations.
Vilsack also noted that the 2012 farm bill will be smaller than the 2008 farm bill with the question being how to leverage available funds as cuts will be difficult to make. He said, though, that the present time poses an opportunity for the Agriculture Department to have greater efficiency and flexibility and improved services and delivery.
Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the United States is poised to continue its leadership position in agricultural research. However, he said, “We need a 21st century review of our agricultural research.” A lot of research is important, but also repetitive or routine, he added; and there is not enough generic, basic research.
Sen. Grassley (R-Iowa) cited the importance of crop insurance and ethanol programs and encouraged Secretary Vilsack to continue to push for tighter limitations and income tests to insure payments “go to those who truly need them.”