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John Block: What’s In The Farm Bill?

The obvious issues in the farm bill are nutrition programs, crop insurance, and farm safety net supports. However, there are some important sections in the bill that could be almost as important that don’t get much attention.

The first one deals with trade. Trade accounts for 25 percent of U.S. farm receipts. When we plant our crops, we can count on seeing one-third of that production go to some other country. 95 percent of the world’s customers are not in the U.S. The growing world population, expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, will need our food.

We are good at what we do, but we can be even better. The U.S. Department of Ag Trade function has not been significantly reorganized in 35 years. This is the time to reorganize the trade-related agencies, programs and activities at the USDA. Create a new Under Secretary for Trade and Foreign Agriculture Affairs. The Trade Under Secretary would report directly to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. This would give that individual a high-level position to lead in trade negotiations with senior foreign officials. That would give our Trade Secretary the power and respect to effectively fight to keep existing foreign markets open and gain access to new markets. It’s not easy. We are constantly facing a wall of non-tariff barriers holding back our exports.

Both the House and Senate have trade reorganization language in their farm bill proposals. The final bill needs to give the Department of Agriculture this new focus.

Another issue that I hope is fixed in the farm bill is the country of origin labeling (COOL) language. Either get rid of COOL altogether or, perhaps, approve a label that simply says “North American.” COOL is our non-tariff barrier. A consistent trade policy should be to avoid such trade restrictions.

The final issue is California’s trade barrier. California has a law prohibiting the import of eggs from farms that don’t meet California’s strict hen housing requirements. There is some possibility that this trade barrier can be dealt with in the farm bill. If not – congratulations to Missouri’s Attorney General, who has announced that he intends to sue California for their egg restrictions.

John Block was Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 1981-1985, where he played a key role in the development of the 1985 Farm Bill.

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