Q&A: Food Fight - What’s at Stake with the Farm Bill

Q&A: Food Fight - What’s at Stake with the Farm Bill

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Editor’s note: Efforts by Congress to reauthorize the Farm Bill last fall failed with lawmakers approving a nine-month extension of the 2008 bill. Now, with another budget showdown looming and deep “sequester” cuts on the table, the omnibus Farm Bill – the bulk of which goes to fund key nutrition programs – could be further squeezed. New America Media editor Ngoc Nguyen speaks with Congressman Jim Costa (D-CA), ranking member of the House agriculture committee and member of the natural resources committee, on reforming the Farm Bill.

New America Media: Why is the Farm Bill important?

Rep. Jim Costa: American farmers, those in California as well, produce the highest quality food products -- fish, fruits and vegetables -- at among the highest yields anywhere in the world, and doing so allows American consumers [to have a] relatively inexpensive plentiful supply of food for their families on their dinner table, and obviously they do that with only four percent of the nation’s population …California’s population … directly involved in the production of food and fiber. So, every society to be successful has to have a reliable, healthy supply of nutritious [food] although not all of our folks eat a nutritious diet and we’re trying to address that. We do have challenges there. But, in addition to providing a strong reliable food supply we are also able to produce above and beyond what we are able to consume and we export those products around the world that help us with our balance of payments. So, from the standpoint of national security having a large healthy food supply is critical and it’s also important to our economy.

NAM: One of the most contentious issues in the Farm Bill is the subsidies for farmers. Why are they necessary and what is your stance on these direct payments?

Costa: I think we have to reduce the direct payments or subsidies that are given to the six commodities in which those -- they call them program crops -- subsidies are provided … that’s wheat, soybean, corn, rice, cotton and sugar. A lot of people are unaware of [this, but] in California, we produce over half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables and none of those are subsidized; therefore, they are not dependent upon a Farm Bill for any direct payments. But a farm bill does provide monies for research, which is important for our land grant universities, for more drought-resistant plants, for crops that require less use of herbicides and pesticides. Research that allows for protection in terms of more efficient harvesting, tillage, better impacts on our environment, detection and eradication of invasive species. [The] Farm Bill also provides funding for crop insurance; agriculture is risky enough.

[The] EQIP program for better energy conservation, air quality, improving our water efficiency … those are the kinds of things included in the Farm Bill that are not involved at all [with] subsidies and direct payments. And we are trying to reform this bill both on the Senate side and the House side … reform those six program crops to end the direct payment of those farm subsidies that really don’t apply to very much of California agriculture.

NAM: Does doing ending subsidies (direct payments) mean more money for other programs under the Farm Bill; for instance, would it boost funding to nutrition programs?

Costa: The reform is to save money. $14 billion in program crops saved in the House bill for an overall savings of $35 billion a year. And, on the Senate bill, there was cost savings of $23.5 billion a year. So, that’s the direct benefit if we were able to pass these reforms … we would be able to reduce the amount of money that is spent on those six program crops and end those direct payments.

A lot of people don’t realize that the nutrition programs amount to about 80 percent of the total funding -- monies for women, infants and children (WIC), monies for supplemental assistance for poor people, elderly, and money that goes for the school lunch and breakfast programs.

Because of challenges with our nation’s budgets and fiscal house, that’s part of a larger debate here … to try to agree that [this year’s Farm Bill] would be less than the 2008 Farm Bill. The Senate bill that came over to us if we had enacted it into law [would have made] $23.5 billion in savings from the 2008 Farm Bill by cutting $14 billion in subsidies, $6 billion in conservation programs and $3.5 billion in nutrition programs.

The House bill made the same savings … as the Senate in the program crops … $14 billion cuts in different areas in conservation programs of $6 billion … where the House ag [agricultural] committee voted to make more or deeper cuts in the growth of the nutrition programs was approximately $14.5 billion. Neither of those proposals are today the order of the day because we are starting over.

NAM: With hunger and poverty on the rise in the country, wouldn’t cutting nutrition programs devastate many Americans, including those in your district in California’s Central Valley?

Costa: When you look at the totality of how much we increased the nutrition programs in 2008 … the last reauthorization of the Farm Bill, we dramatically increased the funding for WIC [Women, Infants and Children], SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] program, school lunches, school breakfast programs … the net effect of either the Senate proposed cuts or the House ag committee’s proposed cuts would in effect be a reduction in the growth rate of those nutrition programs and not an actual reduction in the current amount that is provided.

NAM: As Congress takes up the debate again this year, what is your vision for how to reform the Farm Bill?

Costa: The way we are supposed to legislate, ultimately, to produce a bipartisan series of compromises that result in good agricultural policies for the next four years that will allow Americans farmers, ranchers, dairy men and dairy women to continue to produce cost effective, nutritious food for American consumers and still allow us to compete on foreign markets … That’s the goal. And, so what we’re trying to do is to make the reforms in the direct subsidies payment, save money, improve our nutrition programs, reforms we could make there as well. People who have the need for a balanced diet on a daily basis in this country get that support. In this partisan atmosphere that we are dealing with, it is critical we get commitments from the House leadership … as the House leadership did in 2008 with Speaker Pelosi … allow us to work together to produce good public policy for American and California agriculture and for American consumers.

NAM: How will the debt ceiling debate affect the status of the Farm Bill?

Costa: One could make a different number of predictions, because even the House or Senate versions would save billions of dollars that could be used to factor into the overall agreement on sequestration and how we put together the budget resolution to be complete for the last six months of this fiscal year. And, certainly the administration and members of Congress are looking for savings and that’s what we tried to do last year. So, an overall agreement, they could look for the cost savings [that have] already been identified by the two bipartisan bills of last year as a basis to help solve some of the larger deficit issues that we are dealing with.

NAM: The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) ran ads criticizing your stance on the environment and public health. How will you protect public health and the environment in the future?

Costa: There are a number of things we’ve done. In the Farm Bill there were monies for the EQIP program that would help improve air quality in the Valley. In addition to that, I’ve supported efforts to improve CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards … so that we can get more fuel efficient vehicles that will as a result produce less emissions into the Valley. We’re a closed air basin in the San Joaquin Valley, but we also have a non-attainment basin in Southern California, and so … we’re going to have to continue to strategize among a host of solutions, because there’s not one single solution that will improve the air quality of people who live in the San Joaquin Valley.

NAM: The League of Conservation Voters’ ads also pointed to your past support for oil and gas subsidies – do you continue to support subsidies to the industry?

Costa: I have indicated more than one time that I am willing to, as a part of overall reform of our tax structure, to look at those subsidies along with other kinds of subsidies that we talked about today -- program crops and the like. But they have to be taken in context. I think the League of Conservation Voters made a very unfair attack when they made those claims last year, they didn’t take into account that I helped author the legislation that created the air district in the San Joaquin Valley, they didn’t take into account the fact that over the opposition of many of those energy companies, I voted for cleaner burning fuels and I voted for renewable fuels consistently, tax credits for air, wind and solar power and those all get put by the wayside, so I think it is very unfair criticism on the [League of] Conservation Voters part and I’m sad that they didn’t take the time to meet with me first and discuss this.

NAM: What do you see is the energy future in California and is fracking for shale oil a part of it?

Costa: Well, I think we’ve got to use all the energy tools in our energy toolbox both in the short term which is today and the intermediate term, next 10 years, and beyond, over the next 20 years to reduce our dependencies on foreign sources of energy and to at the same time do the kind of transitions we need to do to have cleaner burning fuels and more opportunities for renewable energy usage and conservation, which California has been the leader on for years. In addition to that, we are going to see by the year 2030, the 2030 plan in California in which 30 percent of the fuels we use [in the state] are renewable. That makes us a leader in the nation and the country … so there’s a lot of efforts going on there to use all the energy tools in our toolbox. There is no silver bullet you can’t do this overnight. The natural gas you speak of and the recent discoveries that have expanded natural gas … is today, given the challenges of the air basin in the San Joaquin Valley and Los Angeles … one of the cleanest burning fuels we can use. Which is why to meet the air quality standards, natural gas continues to be the energy du jour among fossil fuels.

NAM: In addition to natural gas, there is potential for a shale oil boom in the state. It is estimated that the Monterey Shale formation houses some 15 billion barrels of oil. Is California headed for a shale oil boom?

Costa: I think it is early to determine what the potential benefits [are] on that. Forty-eight percent of our oil in California is produced primarily in Kern County. People don’t think of this, we are the world’s 8th or 9th largest economy and if our economy was not that large, we would in essence be an oil-exporting state because we produce almost half our own oil in California. There are fields in Kern County that 20, 30 years ago were determined to be on the downward slope, but today due to technologies -- to steam and other methodologies -- we are being able to provide additional energies from those resources, so I think your point as it relates to shale [oil], we’re still looking at the potential there, obviously, it needs to be done as with any energy utilization … safe, in a way that is cost efficient and protects our environment and I will continue to look at it very carefully.
 

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