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Times demand new look at farm programs

It may be difficult to imagine in this country, where a safe and abundant food supply is taken for granted, but an estimated 800 million people in this world are chronically malnourished.

Experts say that 1.1 billion live in absolute poverty. Moreover, the shortfall in domestic production of cereals and other crops in their countries is expected to double in the next 25 years.

Michael R. Dicks cites these numbers in an analysis that suggests the need for a new kind of farm program, one that would use dollars now being devoted to AMTA and loan deficiency payments to donate surplus food to other countries.

Writing in The Ferguson AgReport, Dicks notes that USDA food programs have always been an intricate part of U.S. farm policy, helping ensure that urban legislators support the "farm" side of that policy.

"The next farm bill debate could clearly be improved by starting it from one agreed-upon position - that safe and sufficient food is a basic right and not a luxury," said Dicks, Oklahoma State University agricultural economist. "From this fundamental tenet, the debate can be directed over the questions of who, what, when, where and how?"

The fiscal 2001 U.S. Department of Agriculture budget includes nearly $35 billion for food aid programs - $20.11 billion for food stamps, $9.54 billion for child nutrition programs, $4.05 billion for the Women, Infants and Children Program and $1.02 billion for the PL 480 (Food for Peace) program.

Thus, the United States will spend more than $33 billion on domestic food programs, compared to a little more than $1 billion on food programs overseas, says Dicks.

"Although $28 billion were spent during 1999 to boost farm incomes because production exceeded the quantity demanded as 900 million bushels of wheat were unsold, 800 million people still did not obtain enough food," he notes.

"Donating 900 million bushels of wheat would raise wheat prices and move land from corn and soybeans to wheat, thus increasing their prices while reducing the cost of income supports. No payments might be necessary to U.S. farmers, plus problems stemming from global hunger and malnourishment would be at least partially addressed."

Dicks' ideas are not new. I remember Orville Freeman, secretary of agriculture during the Kennedy years, making much the same argument in an interview: U.S. food aid helped countries like South Korea that had been mired in poverty get on their feet economically and become paying customers for U.S. agricultural exports.

While it's unlikely food aid dollars could be used to ship raw cotton, such a program could still have a beneficial effect for the cotton industry. Last fall, Carl Anderson, an agricultural economist with Texas A&M University, startled some producers by suggesting that the best thing for cotton prices would be higher corn and soybean prices.

Dicks said he knows that his thoughts may be labeled an oversimplification of a complicated world food problem and a possible solution. With the agricultural outlook about as gloomy as many can remember, new approaches to farm policy deserve more than a passing glance.

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