Farmers deserve our thanks, not criticism

“Our farmers deserve praise, not condemnation; and their efficiency should be cause for gratitude, not something for which they are penalized.”

Those were the words of President John F. Kennedy, and they still ring true.

All too often you can open a newspaper to at least one article attacking the American farmer and condemning the policies enacted to ensure America maintains the world's most affordable, abundant and safe food supply.

Farmers and ranchers are the lifeblood of this country. In addition to feeding and clothing us — no small feat considering the world's population will reach 8 billion by 2025 — they are an economic engine we all depend on.

American agriculture generates approximately 20 percent of this country's Gross Domestic Product and employs 17 percent of its workforce. At a time when the U.S. trade deficit is reaching record highs, the United States retains a trade surplus in agricultural products. At a time when our dependency on foreign oil has never been greater, agriculture provides fuel for our automobiles. Farm and range lands are home to three-quarters of the nation's wildlife.

The positive impact is felt far beyond the farm. American shoppers spend less of their incomes on groceries than shoppers from any other country in the world.

We have all witnessed the repercussions of heavy dependency on foreign sources for oil. We would be remiss to become equally dependent on foreign sources for food. Regardless of the number of farmers in your state, the importance of farm policy to every family in the country becomes clearer with every report about China's food safety issues.

It perplexes me that anyone would want to weaken the policies that helped create the success story which is American agriculture.

Rather than spend time recounting the misinformation used by farm critics, I'll highlight things they won't tell you.

Critics will never mention that farm programs have come in approximately $25 billion under budget since the 2002 farm bill was enacted.

They also will gloss over the fact that every nation around the world subsidizes its farmers and many do so at much higher levels than the United States. Former U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman routinely noted that agriculture is the most heavily distorted economic market in the world.

Critics won't mention that foreign tariff levels, discriminatory sanitary/phytosanitary regulations, and discriminatory foreign state-trading enterprises exclude U.S. agriculture products from many markets around the world. Critics won't mention that conversely the United States is more open to foreign agriculture imports than any other nation with an established agricultural sector. Our bound tariff levels on foreign agriculture goods average 12 percent. Critics won't mention that U.S. farmers face average bound tariffs levels five times higher at 62 percent.

Critics also won't mention that, in the midst of trade negotiations to address these inequities in the global marketplace, proposals currently on the table would unilaterally disarm American farmers and ranchers and do nothing to level the lopsided playing field they face.

Finally, critics won't tell you that the farm safety net accounts for less than 0.3 percent of the federal budget. Considering it ensures a safe and abundant food supply produced right here in America, that seems like a very wise use of federal dollars.

As the 2007 farm bill wends through the Senate, it is my intention to make sure American farmers and ranchers are not unilaterally disarmed. I will strive to ensure they have a strong safety net so they can build upon U.S. agriculture's many successes.

The farm bill represents a critical connection between farming, environmental stewardship, and nutrition for the world's people. I am proud of our farm families and what they provide. And I am proud that our farm policy represents a commitment to these hard-working Americans.

Like every policy crafted in Washington, the farm bill should be thoroughly debated. But during that debate, we must be careful not to attack the men and women who put food on our tables and clothes on our backs. I will take every opportunity to tell my colleagues about the enormous contributions our farm families make and the need to provide them with a modest level of support in an increasingly uncertain global marketplace.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., serves as the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee Subcommittee on Production, Income Protection and Price Support and the Senate Finance Committee Subcommittee on International Trade and Global Competitiveness.

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