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Presidential Candidates Answer Ag Questions

We posed a set of questions to both candidates to get their responses for you. Here's the complete list of questions and responses we received.

As the nation prepares to elect a new president next month, Farm Progress sought to travel beyond the sound bites on agricultural policy. The questions - and answers - below are relevant not only to farmer readers, but also in many ways to the general public, as queries about ethanol, food vs. fuel, trade and farm subsidies continue to make headlines outside the agricultural press.

With that in mind, the following questions were posed to Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama.

FP: If you're elected president, the most recent farm bill won't expire in your term. Would you do anything in the next four years to address any problems you see with the current legislation?

Obama: It's important to implement the 2008 Farm Bill in keeping with the intent of Congress. The legislation is the product of more than 18 months of difficult negotiations that attempted to satisfy a complex set of competing priorities. If particular provisions are difficult to administer or present technical challenges to the Department of Agriculture, I will work with leaders from both parties in Congress and relevant stakeholders to make appropriate adjustments that are acceptable to the key stakeholders involved.

As president, I will work to ensure that the protections in the bill against gaming the system are properly enforced, and I will work with Congress to push for greater reform to ensure that payments are targeted appropriately.

McCain: I support a risk management program for farmers. When a farmer suffers from a natural disaster such as droughts or floods, we should assist them - this is a commitment we have made to our farmers, and I will honor it. As president, I will fight on behalf of family farmers to enact reasonable reforms to our crop insurance program and our system of countercyclical and direct payments.

FP: What are your views on the food vs. fuel debate?

Obama: Corn-based ethanol has been an important transitional technology in helping make America more energy independent. However, it has limitations, and that's why I am committed to accelerating the transition to advanced biofuels. I support an array of policies to speed the transition away from corn and toward low-carbon, sustainable alternatives that do not rely on food crops.

It's important to remember that biofuels are all about security through diversification. There are many flavors of ethanol - different feed stocks, different production approaches, different carbon footprints. In contrast, there is only one flavor of oil - expensive, polluting and largely imported. As president, I will work to phase in at least 2 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol into the national fuel supply by 2013.

McCain: Did not answer this question.

FP: What steps would you take to improve our renewable fuels policy?

Obama: I will focus my efforts in two key areas to:

  • Mandate all new vehicles are flexible-fuel vehicles (FFV). Sustainably-produced biofuels can create jobs, protect the environment and help end oil addiction - but only if Americans drive cars that will take such fuels. I will work with Congress and auto companies to ensure that all new vehicles have FFV capability by the end of my first term in office.
  • Develop the next generation of sustainable biofuels and infrastructure. Advances in biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, biobutenol and other new technologies that produce synthetic petroleum from sustainable feedstocks, offer tremendous potential to break our addiction to oil. I will work to ensure that these clean alternative fuels are developed and incorporated into our national supply as soon as possible. I will require at least 60 billion gallons of advanced biofuels by 2030. I will also invest federal resources, including tax incentives and government contracts, into developing the most promising technologies and building the infrastructure to support them.

McCain: I believe alcohol-based fuels hold great promise as both an alternative to gasoline and as a means of expanding consumers' choices. Some choices such as ethanol are on the market right now. The second generation of alcohol-based fuels like cellulosic ethanol, which won't compete with food crops, are showing great potential.

I support flex-fuel vehicles and believe they should play a greater role in our transportation sector. In just three years, Brazil went from new cars sales that were about 5% FFVs to over 70% of new vehicles that were FFVs. American automakers have committed to make 50% of their cars FFVs by 2012. I will call on automakers to make a more rapid and complete switch to FFVs.

FP: What, if any, changes should be made to help encourage a profitable domestic livestock industry?

Obama: It's important that we have a robust livestock sector in this country. The industry is a major consumer of homegrown grain, it's a source of good-paying jobs, and it generates a significant amount of revenue.

To begin with, it's vital that we immediately implement country-of-origin labeling to ensure that American producers receive the full value of raising high-quality, homegrown products. We also need to ensure that our trading partners are treating our products fairly, based on scientific standards. I will continue to fight for full access to Japan's and Korea's beef markets. In the past, I have worked to provide farmers and ranchers across the country with disaster assistance funding and supported the Permanent Disaster Program in the 2008 Farm Bill. I will continue to work to ensure that livestock producers have assistance when events beyond their control adversely affect their operations.

It's also important that independent producers are protected against anti-competitive behavior. I will fight to ensure that farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions and transparency in prices. I will work to ensure that the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act is enforced and works to prohibit price discrimination against independent producers.

McCain: Our nation's future security and prosperity depends on the next president making the hard choices that will break our nation's strategic dependence on foreign sources of energy and will ensure our economic prosperity by meeting tomorrow's demands for a clean portfolio. I will make the necessary choices - producing more power, pushing technology to help free our transportation sector from its use of foreign oil, cleaning up our air and addressing climate change, and ensuring that Americans have dependable energy sources. I will lead the effort to develop advanced transportation technologies and alternative fuels to promote energy independence and cut off the flow of oil wealth to repressive dictatorships like Iran.

FP: What steps might you take as president to stabilize fertilizer prices, which have doubled and tripled?

Obama: A major key to stabilizing fertilizer prices is addressing the skyrocketing costs of natural gas. Through my policies for continued domestic production combined with investments in efficiency, we will take some of the pressure off the resource and increase supply, bringing costs down.

McCain: I believe in promoting and expanding the use of our domestic supplies of natural gas. When people are hurting, and struggling to afford gasoline, food, and other necessities, common sense requires that we draw upon America's own vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Within the United States we have tremendous reserves of natural gas. The Outer Continental Shelf alone contains 77 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. It is time we capitalize on these significant resources and build the infrastructure needed to transport this important component of electricity generation and transportation fuel around the country.

FP: As we author trade agreements, are there ways to level the playing field in regard to individual countries' regulations, such as employee conditions and chemical use?

Obama: For too long, Washington has put the interests of free trade ahead of broader concerns about our economy and American workers. I will break from the failed trade policies of the last eight years. As president, I will ensure that our trade agreements include strong, enforceable labor and environmental provisions in the core of the agreements. And I will direct the U.S. Trade Representative to aggressively protect intellectual property rights, monitor our trading partners to ensure they are complying with the terms of agreements, and take action when violations are found.

McCain: I believe that globalization is an opportunity for American workers today and in the future. Ninety-five percent of the world's customers lie outside our borders, and we need to be at the table when the rules for access to those markets are written. To do so, the U.S. should engage in multilateral, regional and bilateral efforts to reduce barriers to trade, level the global playing field and build effective enforcement of global trading rules.

FP: What commitment would you make to improving the U.S. waterway infrastructure used to transport commodities for global export?

Obama: Unfortunately, maintenance and upgrades to our waterways have been chronically underfunded. As president, I will increase funding so that we can upgrade and maintain our waterways as they are a vital component of our rural infrastructure and enhance the competitiveness of our homegrown products. I also supported the Water Resources Development Act, which authorized major upgrades to our waterways infrastructure, including the Upper Mississippi River and Illinois Waterway System. As president, I will work to provide the funding necessary to advance these new projects, as well.

McCain: Did not answer this question.

FP: What would be your policy concerning greenhouse gases? How would it affect farmers? Would you pursue approving the Kyoto Treaty?

Obama: As a result of climate change, the polar ice caps are shrinking, causing sea levels to rise; extreme weather is wreaking havoc across the globe; droughts are becoming more severe; tropical diseases are migrating north and numerous species are being threatened with extinction. To address this challenge, I support implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This market mechanism has worked before and will give all American consumers and businesses the incentives to use their ingenuity to develop economically effective solutions to climate change.

I will use some of the revenue generated from this cap-and-trade permit auction to invest in climate-friendly energy development and deployment. This will transform the economy, especially in rural America, which is poised to produce more renewable energy than ever before, creating millions of new jobs across the country. I will also develop domestic incentives that reward forest owners, farmers and ranchers when they plant trees, restore grasslands or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, creating new opportunities for rural America to help solve the climate crises.

McCain: I will propose a cap-and-trade system that would set limits on greenhouse gas emissions while encouraging the development of low-cost compliance options. A climate cap-and-trade mechanism would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and allow entities to buy and sell rights to emit, similar to the successful acid rain trading program of the early 1990s. The key feature of this mechanism is that it allows the market to decide and encourage the lowest-cost compliance options.

FP: What would you do to enhance world market opportunities for U.S. farmers? What, if any, trade agreements would you seek to push for approval or revisit as president?

Obama: Trade is vital to our agriculture sector. About 50% of the wheat, 20% of the corn, and 35% of the soybeans we grow in the United States are exported. These markets increase demand for our homegrown products and provide American farmers with additional revenue. Our farmers are among the most efficient in the world, and if given a level playing field, can compete effectively with anyone in the world.

There are several steps we must take to remain competitive and expand our access to markets. I support providing full funding to vital market promotion programs that enhance our access to important international markets. I have fought to break down trade and investment barriers that restrict our access to markets and will continue to do so. I supported bipartisan efforts to lift Korea's and Japan's bans on American beef.

It's also important that we ensure that our trade agreements create a level playing field for American businesses and workers, and that our farmers and businesses secure robust market access as a result of these agreements. Trade agreements must contain strong and enforceable labor and environmental standards so that American farmers are able to compete on a level playing field. I will also continue to support providing resources to research and technology that enhances the productivity and profitability of our farmers.

McCain: I believe that globalization is an opportunity for American workers today and in the future. Ninety-five percent of the world's customers lie outside our borders, and we need to be at the table when the rules for access to those markets are written. To do so, the U.S. should engage in multilateral, regional and bilateral efforts to reduce barriers to trade, level the global playing field and build effective enforcement of global trading rules.

FP: Your campaign material speaks of corporate farms and corporate agribusiness; please define and contrast a corporate farm vs. a family farm.

Obama: I believe it's important that we support both the local farms that feed the community and the large farms that feed the world. Americans today enjoy the safest, most abundant food supply in the world. At the same time, it is becoming more and more challenging for smaller-scale farmers and ranchers to stay in business and transfer their land and agricultural traditions to the next generation. When we lose these farms, more traditional methods of production are lost and we fray the link that connects our society to the land.

We must pursue policies that address and properly balance both of these dynamics. That means providing a robust safety net and risk mitigation tools to producers that are targeted appropriately, training and providing capital to the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and ensuring that legislation that protects independent producers from anti-competitive behavior is enforced properly.

McCain: Did not answer the question.

A snapshot of the issues

Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama to define their positions on the following issues. Here are their answers, edited for space:


Obama: Supports policies that fostered development of biofuels industry. Proposes increasing the renewable fuels standard and investing in cellulosic ethanol.

McCain: Wants to "eliminate mandates, subsidies, tariffs and price supports that focus exclusively on corn-based ethanol and prevent the development of market-based solutions which would provide us with better options for our fuel needs".


Obama: Supports a "reasonable estate tax policy that would effectively repeal the estate tax for 99.7% of estates." Wants to keep a 45% rate for the remaining 0.3% of estates that have more than $7 million per couple. 

Plans to maintain current capital gains rate for those with incomes below $250,000. Those in the top two income brackets would pay a new rate of 20%.

McCain: Wants to keep the top tax rate at 35%, maintain the 15% rates on dividends and capital gains, and phase out the Alternative Minimum Tax.  Also would cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 25% and establish a permanent tax credit equal to 10% of wages spent on research and development.


Obama: Supported the 2008 Farm Bill; wants a safety net that "targets assistance appropriately."

McCain: Supports a risk management program for farmers. Wants "reasonable reforms to our crop insurance program and our system of countercyclical and direct payments."

Believes "the current model of legislating target prices for countercyclical payments does little to help farmers in a marketplace where the cost of inputs exceed the target price schedules."


Obama: Wants to "fix NAFTA so that it works for American workers." Believes NAFTA was oversold and underperformed.

McCain: Did not answer.

Levee/dam repair

Obama: Believes that Washington has failed to upgrade and maintain levee and dam system, calling it a "disgrace."

McCain: Did not answer.

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