Farm Bill Critics Also Featured Witnesses at Farm Bill Hearing

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) recently presided over a spirited hearing during which his invited witnesses were often critical of current farm policy.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) recently presided over a spirited hearing during which his invited witnesses were often critical of current farm policy. The witnesses, mostly academics from around the country, criticized the way billions of dollars are paid out to farm landowners, the lack of stability for farmers that depend on government revenue insurance, the subsidization of crop insurance companies, and even government aid that can be used to buy high-calorie soda drinks.

"That's why I brought in folks like this to stir up the water this morning," Peterson said. "And they did. And that's good. It's the kind of thing we need."

Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University's Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, did a large share of the stirring in his testimony, calling a main staple of farm subsidies — direct payments — a complete waste of taxpayers' dollars.

"Farmers receive $5 billion a year for nothing more than owning or renting farmland," Babcock said. "Despite mighty efforts by some of the world's best agricultural economists to find some market impact of direct payments, the evidence suggests they represent money for nothing."

Congress needs to do more to support farmers' conservation efforts, Purdue University professor Otto Doering said, but also warned that tax payers might not stand for lawmakers approving billions of dollars in direct payments again in 2012. Doering also warned lawmakers about giving too much support to corn-based ethanol production as that pushed more land away from other crops like soybeans, cotton and wheat.

For his part, Peterson questioned whether the food stamp program, created to reduce hunger, may be contributing to obesity among low-income people. "If we're going to get into obesity, then we are going to have look at what subsidies we're providing in the nutrition programs and whether they are in fact contributing to it," said the chairman.

Peterson said lawmakers working on the 2012 farm bill would look at the supplemental nutrition assistance program, formerly known as the food stamp program, which provides food to almost 40 million low-income people. Nutrition programs account for nearly 80 percent of all expenditures related to the farm bill, a multi-year authorization package that sets agriculture- and nutrition-related policy.

Peterson said delving into the nutrition program may help answer an apparently contradictory question: "How can you have obesity and hunger at the same time?" He also suggested that making high-calorie soft drinks ineligible for the food stamp program might be a small way to improve nutrition and stretch federal dollars.

However, Peterson also made it clear that he doesn't think that subsidizing fruits and vegetables or increasing the food-stamp rolls are solutions to obesity.

The White House recently called for expanding enrollment in federal nutrition programs and using the next farm bill to boost production of fruits and vegetables through unspecified economic incentives. The goal is to increase the U.S. supply of fruits and vegetables 70 percent by 2020.

"I do not believe the solution to obesity is spending more money on fruits and vegetables," Peterson told reporters.

Iowa State' Babcock warned against directly subsidizing produce farmers, saying that would cause growers' prices to crash. Babcock pointed out that fruit and vegetable acreage is relatively small compared with that for crops such as corn, so farmers are more sensitive to subsidies and more likely to increase plantings in response to them, he said. It would be better to subsidize transportation or other costs needed to get produce to underserved markets, Babcock said.

Government crop subsidies have long been directed at grain and cotton growers, rather than produce operations, although a growing amount of federal money is going toward buying fruits and vegetables for school lunches and other nutrition programs. More money also is being provided for marketing and research.

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