Food Politics

Sunday, May 4, 2008

THE WHOLE world is feeling the impact of soaring food and commodity prices. A recent series in The Post reported that poor families in West Africa are selling precious livestock to buy staples, while some consumers in our own area have taken to hoarding cut-rate groceries. The surge in costs, unlike anything global food markets have seen since the 1970s, has many causes. It reflects one good trend -- rising demand for food as India and China prosper -- and a dangerous one -- rising oil prices. There has been drought in wheat-exporting Australia. Many countries have banned or discouraged food exports. Yet several contributing factors are made in the U.S.A. The Federal Reserve Board's interest rate cuts are weakening the dollar. They may also be driving speculators to bid up the price of commodities. And ethanol subsidies, coupled with Congress's new mandate to produce 36 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2022, are diverting land from other crops to corn production -- and corn from food to energy.

Correcting policies that exacerbate the food crisis will be one of the next president's most urgent tasks. Yet, so far, agriculture has played only a minimal role in the campaign debate; to the extent it's been discussed at all, it's mostly been in Iowa and other farm states. You'd hardly know that, for the past several months, Congress has been drafting a farm bill that would heap further subsidies on an already bloated sector. You'd hardly know that higher food prices are probably here to stay and that the United States needs a long-term strategy to deal with them.

During the Senate's farm bill debate in December, Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain all voted for an amendment to eliminate federal direct payments to farmers who make more than $200,000 per year. This was to their great credit, though the measure ultimately failed. Mr. McCain, a veteran opponent of ethanol subsidies, can fairly claim to have seen today's market distortions coming. He opposes current barriers to imports of ethanol. Last week he declared -- in Iowa, no less -- that, if he were president, he would veto the farm bill. Though the latest draft would trim ethanol subsidies a bit, he argued that it does not slash farm supports nearly enough.

Mr. McCain was not only right on substance; he may have picked a political winner, too, as voters focus more on the contradiction between subsidies for farmers and rising grocery bills. Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton, by contrast, are locked into the strong pro-ethanol-subsidy positions both took before the Iowa caucuses. (Both have expressed support for an eventual transition to non-corn-based ethanol.) The Democratic contenders even promised to support a permanent disaster relief fund such as the one being pushed by Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Max Baucus of Montana, both also Democrats. This is a $4 billion subsidy to farmers who plant dry, environmentally fragile lands in the Northern Great Plains.

Last week, President Bush announced $770 million in proposed new aid to the world's hungry. He coupled this with a renewed call to spend 25 percent of the money to buy grain in local markets abroad, as opposed to only in the United States, as current law requires. This reform would make food aid much more efficient. So far, agriculture lobbies have blocked it. The candidates should back this reform. Times are changing -- in food policy and in food politics.

The Ideas Primary, a series of editorials on the issues of the presidential race, can be found at

© 2008 The Washington Post Company