American Agriculture’s Long Reach: Why the Farm Bill Matters for Development

June 23, 2017

A healthy US agricultural sector is critical to global food security. As major producers and exporters—accounting for roughly one out of four metric tons of corn and wheat exported globally—American farmers help keep food affordable around the world. But American farmers also receive public assistance that too often comes at the expense of American taxpayers and consumers, as well as millions of poor farmers in developing countries. Policies designed to aid US farmers provide subsidies to compensate them when prices are low or raise producer prices by restricting imports. Other policies create or expand demand for commodities, for example, for use in biofuels. And in some key areas, the lack of effective regulation allows farmers and ranchers to continue using unsustainable practices.

Members of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have started work on the 2018 farm bill, which provides an opportunity to shape policies so they better serve American taxpayers and consumers, as well as the poor in developing countries. Even in the face of budget pressures, it will be difficult for Congress to broadly reform the farm bill because of entrenched political interests. Indeed, with the return of lower commodity prices in recent years, preserving the modest steps in the 2014 farm bill towards increased market orientation may be challenging. Nevertheless, there are areas where narrow adjustments could make a difference, especially for developing countries most vulnerable to food insecurity, climate change impacts, and drug resistant diseases.

Recommendations to Congress for the next farm bill

In the next farm bill, Congress should:

  • Reform how food aid is delivered;
  • Reject biofuel subsidies that support ethanol consumption; and
  • Support data collection and a transition program to help producers adopt alternatives to the use of antibiotics in livestock.

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