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Published: Friday, 5/2/2008

The farm bill: Unseen costs

Something is seriously out of whack when one of America's major ongoing health problems is obesity while for much of the rest of the world it's malnutrition.

Congress and the White House are trying to craft a $300 billion farm bill that continues the practice of government subsidizing farmers who grow certain crops, which tends to hold down supply. At the same time, it's clear that one way for a world economy to reduce its food shortage is for farmers to grow more.

Farm prices in the United States are up, and consumers know it all too well. At the same time, farmers want to retain their federal taxpayer-supported subsidies, including for nonfood products like cotton.

Farmers argue that they should be paid subsidies even when prices are high, because one day prices will fall and they have to plan ahead. They claim that so much of their costs are energy-related that they are entitled to special treatment, an argument that doesn't hold water when the cost of everyone's bread and butter depends on the price of energy.

So where is the country left? Americans are targeted by farmers with an argument that is based, as usual, in the politics of fear: If the nation's farms stop producing, the country will be dependent on imported food, and what will happen when the United States is an island of freedom in the middle of a hostile world?

There is no easy answer, and rational resolution of the problem is made worse by the fact that farm states have disproportionate power in Congress. Just look at what the various candidates had to say when they were trying to win the Iowa caucuses in January. None of them dared oppose farm subsidies, the bulk of which goes to the richest growers.

Now, it's President Bush saying the farm bill costs too much, while Congress doesn't care if it busts the budget, as long as farmers in their states are placated in time for the November election.

Meanwhile, on a global level, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the World Food Program needs another $755 million - a pittance in terms of, say, the cost of the Iraq war - if many people around the world are to avoid starvation because of rising prices of corn, rice, and wheat.

If the United States had more sensible policies at home, it might be able to play a more helpful role abroad.

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