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Food aid, farmer interests protest proposed ag budget cuts

By JERRY HAGSTROM

If the budget cuts proposed by House Republicans for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year go into effect, nearly 18 million hungry people worldwide will lose American food aid and farmers will lose benefits guaranteed to them under the 2008 farm bill, key lobbyists said over the weekend as they began campaigns to try to stop the cuts in either the House or the Senate.

The federal government is operating under a continuing resolution in effect until March 4, and Congress needs to pass a new spending bill by that date. This 2011 proposal, which was announced Friday and would cover the period until the end of the fiscal year on September 30, is unrelated to the budget proposal for fiscal year 2012 that President Obama is scheduled to announce today. The Obama proposal would cover the fiscal year beginning October 1.

Responding to the political sentiment that led to the rise of the tea party movement and the shift of control of the House of Representatives from Democratic to Republican, the House Appropriations Committee released a proposal for financing the federal government through the end of the fiscal year that includes a $60 billion cut in government spending.

Of that $60 billion cut, $5.2 billion or 22 percent would come from the agriculture function and there would be additional cuts to food aid in the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development budgets. The agriculture budget cut includes a $747 million reduction in the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, but the impact of that cut is unclear because the birth rate is down.

“This year, our nation is spending $1.5 trillion more than we have, running our debt to $14 trillion. The taxpayers have told us loud and clear that this is simply unacceptable, and have demanded that we get our nation’s fiscal house in order,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said in a statement when he released the budget. “My committee has taken a thoughtful look at each and every one of the programs we intend to cut, and have made determinations based on this careful analysis.”

Senate Democrats, who control that chamber, have already described the House Republicans’ proposal as unrealistic. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said in a news release, “It is clear from this proposal that House Republicans are committed to pursuing an ineffective approach to deficit reduction that attempts to balance the budget on the back of domestic discretionary investments, which constitute only a small percentage of overall federal spending. The priorities identified in this proposal for some of the largest cuts —environmental protection, health care, energy, science, and law enforcement — are essential to the current and future well-being of our economy and communities across the country.”

The House Republican spending proposal is unlikely to become law as written as the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Obama will have to agree to the final bill, but it has laid out the beginning of the House negotiating position. The House is expected to act on the proposal by the end of this week, but the Senate may move so slowly that there may be another continuing resolution before Congress passes a final bill to fund the government through September 30.

Ellen Levinson, executive director of the Alliance for Global Food Security, a coalition of humanitarian and industry groups that deliver food aid, said the Republican proposal would cut U.S. international food assistance to its lowest levels in a decade, dropping the food aid budget 42 percent or $800 million from its fiscal year 2010 level.

“Cutting food aid is particularly devastating now, because food prices have soared to their highest levels in decades and low-income, food-deficit countries are struggling with growing hunger and unrest,” Levinson said.

U.S. food aid now reaches 50 million people per year, she said. The House proposal would cut 15 million people from the Food for Peace Program, which targets communities where there is persistent hunger and 30 percent or more children are undernourished, and cut 2.5 million children from the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, Levinson said.

“Reductions in Food for Peace will also severely limit the ability of the United States to provide assistance in response to conflicts, drought and other disasters, when hunger sets in quickly and people’s lives are endangered,” she added.

The United States has traditionally been the world’s biggest donor of food aid, and Levinson’s alliance on Sunday called on Congress “to restore funding to the Food for Peace and McGovern-Dole Food for Education Programs to assure that the United States continues its leadership role in the fight against global hunger.”

U.S. farm groups and shipping companies have formed a coalition with humanitarian groups to include food aid in the farm bill and other legislation. The impact of an $800 million reduction in government food aid purchases on the commodity markets is unknown.

Meanwhile, Ferd Hoefner, the Washington lobbyist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, said in a blog post for his members Saturday that the cut proposed in agriculture would be “enormous.” Hoefner noted that, while the budget resolution focuses mostly on discretionary spending, it includes more than $500 million in cuts to the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Stewardship Program, the Wetlands Reserve Program, and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program.

“NSAC strongly opposes the cuts to farm bill mandatory conservation and renewable energy programs,” Hoefner wrote. “If Congress decides that deficit reduction requires farm bill spending to be on the table, then we strongly believe ALL farm bill spending should be on the table and that cuts should be fair and equitable and based on the merits. Singling out the 10 percent of farm bill spending represented by conservation and renewable energy spending to take all the cuts is grossly unfair. In our view, either everything is on the table, or nothing is on the table.

“We also believe the appropriations bill is not the appropriate venue for making farm bill cuts,” he added. “Such adjustments to the farm bill should be made by the Agriculture committees and only in the context of a broad agreement to find savings in mandatory programs on a government-wide basis.”

Hoefner said the bill would eliminate (“zero out” in budget jargon) many sustainable agriculture programs, including the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, Organic Transitions research program, the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach (for minority and beginning farmers), the USDA Office of Tribal Relations, Farm Service Agency conservation loans, the Resource Conservation and Development program, the regional integrated pest management centers, the regional Rural Development Centers, the National Integrated Food Safety Initiative, and the Hunger Free Communities program.

“NSAC intends to work with members of Congress to pursue amendments on the floor next week to restore funding to many of these important functions,” Hoefner wrote. “It is unacceptable in our view to focus terminations on very modest programs for sustainable and organic agriculture, beginning and minority farmers, and initiatives to reduce pesticides and pathogens in food production. Funding cuts should be based on careful evaluation of the need for and effectiveness of programs, not simply aimed to chop out small programs that only just barely begin to level the playing field for chronically underserved parts of agriculture.”

Hoefner also noted that the bill’s provision to limit the Conservation Stewardship Program by $39 million would force the government to break the terms of the five-year contracts already signed with farmers in 2009 and 2010 by delaying contract payments.

“Reneging on contracts already in effect would truly represent government at its very worst,” Hoefner said. He also noted that the proposal to cut the Wetlands Reserve Program by 19 percent or nearly 48,000 acres would be a permanent reduction in the acreage level for the WRP established in the 2008 farm bill.

USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (formerly the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service) would also take a big hit under the bill, Hoefner said.

“Formula funds” to land-grant colleges and institutions would go up by $25 million relative to fiscal year 2010, but competitive grant programs would be funded at their 2010 levels rather than at the significant increased levels called for in President Obama’s budget request. The agency’s administrative funds would also be cut, USDA’s Agricultural Research Service would be cut by 10 percent.


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