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Food security issues, farmers’ pessimism greet the 2023 farm bill

(Mario Lopez) – While headlines focus on deep partisan divisions and the accompanying rhetorical bombast from all sides, Congress has managed to move some pieces of bipartisan legislation this year.

That approach soon will be necessary for the periodic reauthorization of the farm bill. Usually, this bill has been passed under less confrontational auspices in Congress between the two parties, but it now comes up at a time when food security issues are in the limelight.

The farm bill is a gigantic package of legislation that affects a variety of key industries beyond what laymen would consider strictly agriculture, from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for lower-income families to programs that make up the farming safety net.

The 2023 version of the farm bill comes at a time of major challenges for farmers, many of whom face supply chain disruptions, drought conditions, increases in interest rates for loans, price spikes for fuel, transportation and production materials, and — like American families — the general effects of high inflation.

It is no wonder that farmers’ pessimism continues to grow, according to Purdue University’s Ag Economy Barometer, a monthly survey and analysis of economic sentiment among farmers. In recent editions, about half of survey respondents “expect their farms to be worse off financially a year from now,” including a record high of 51 percent in the July report.

The food and agricultural trade effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which has been a major exporter of agricultural and food commodities, has reinforced the national security implications of issues with food supply issues that the COVID-19 pandemic also brought to the forefront.

Indeed, the national security implications of agricultural and food supply policy are weighing heavily in the farm bill’s pending reauthorization, with strained relations between China and the U.S. adding to the growing pile of concerns regarding the need for ensuring an abundant and safe food supply for America. Rep. August Pfluger (R-Texas) recently touched upon this theme, saying, “When you look at a farm bill, I hope that we can all look at this as a national security issue.”

The farming safety net and related agricultural trade policy has been a source of tension during previous farm bill hearings and debates. One program that has earned bipartisan support is U.S. sugar policy, which was approved with a historic bipartisan margin of 141 House votes the last time it was reauthorized.

While some economic conservatives would prefer a more immediate move to a market free from government intervention for commodities such as sugar, others prefer a more step-by-step approach, especially given the nature of the global sugar market. Some governments, such as India and Brazil, subsidize their sugar production and then dump the excess sugar on the global market at prices far below the cost of production. These factors contribute to sugar — a vital commodity in overall food production — being one of the most distorted commodity markets in the world. Still, American trade commitments make us the third largest importer of sugar in the world.

The good news for free-market defenders and proponents of less government interference is that loan programs embedded in our sugar policy are designed to not cost American taxpayers any money — in fact, sugar producers who receive loans pay them back with interest.

There have been proposed paths that could take us toward a freer market — the most notable one pushes for countries that trade in sugar to eliminate all tariffs and subsidies before the U.S. would repeal existing sugar policies, resulting in a truly free market. In the meantime, however, American sugar producers contribute $23 billion to the American economy each year.

With geopolitical uncertainty and conflict on the rise, and the correlated sense that food security and national security go hand in hand, the coming farm bill may be one bright spot in a congressional environment that is often hindered by partisan discord.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. This column was originally published in The Hill.