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Guest Opinions

The Livelihood and Lifeblood of Rural America

Written by K. Michael Conaway

Agriculture is the foundation of our livelihood and the lifeblood of rural America. I like to joke with my urban colleagues who say they do not “have agriculture” in their district that as long as their constituents eat, dress and drive, they have a vested interest in agriculture.

I am honored to chair the House Agriculture Committee, one of the most bipartisan committees in Congress, and Ranking Member Colin Peterson is a great partner. The committee doesn’t agree all the time on every issue, but one of the reasons we are able to work together in a bipartisan manner is that we remember well-meaning people can have different ideas about how to achieve the same goal, whatever the issue may be.

Since I became chairman in January 2015, the committee has held 72 hearings, with topics ranging from the state of the rural economy and the importance of biotechnology, to food labeling and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Vilsack has testified three times, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy testified in February, and we have brought up every USDA agency before the committee in each of the last two years.

Last year, the committee reauthorized all expiring authorities within our jurisdiction, aside from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which has been reauthorized by the House; repealed Country of Origin Labeling requirements for beef and pork products; moved legislation to eliminate a duplicative regulatory burden threatening effective public health programs aimed at mosquito control; and passed legislation ensuring national uniformity regarding voluntary marketing claims for products of agricultural biotechnology.

This year, we have continued examining the growing financial pressures in rural America. Farmers are dealing with a steep drop in commodity prices, which has resulted in the largest decline in net farm income since the Great Depression – 56 percent to be exact. If the collapse in commodity prices were not enough, American farmers and ranchers also face a highly distorted global market where several foreign governments are deploying high and rising subsidies, tariffs and other non-tariff trade barriers.

With no rally in crop prices expected and little relief in sight, it is more important now than ever that we maintain the risk management tools that are vital to U.S. farmers and ranchers. According to a recent estimate by the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, these tools – which were reformed in the 2014 Farm Bill – are costing approximately $17 billion less than would be the case if Congress had simply maintained the status quo.

We have also continued our top-to-bottom review of SNAP, a program that spends nearly $80 billion per year and has grown from a pilot program serving 500,000 in 1964 to a program that served more than 47 million Americans at its peak during the recession. SNAP spending has doubled since 2008 with no substantial Congressional review of the goals of the program or whether those goals are being achieved. SNAP now accounts for almost 80 percent of the farm bill budget and serves one in seven Americans. For the millions of families who rely on food assistance during tough financial times, we have to make sure the program serves as a tool to help lift them out of those circumstances rather than trapping them in a cycle of dependence.

The average American household spends 9.8 percent of its disposable income on food – among the lowest in the world. But, for the bottom 20 percent of the income scale, this is not the case. For these Americans, food takes up a much larger portion of their household budget – a whopping 34 percent on average. When we advance legislation in the Agriculture Committee, these people must remain at the forefront of our minds as we work to address varied issues within the food system. We should not make decisions that increase the grocery bill for those who already struggle to make ends meet.

In America, we enjoy access to the world’s safest, highest quality and most abundant food supply. This is not by accident, but through the hard work of America’s farmers and ranchers and as the result of policies designed to promote the safety and stability of the nation’s food supply.