President Bush's fiscal 2009 USDA budget includes increased funding for food safety and security programs but would not provide the level of funding needed to meet the projections for commodity program spending under the current farm law, critics say.

Total USDA expenditures are estimated at $95 billion in fiscal year 2009 or roughly the same level as in 2008. The administration's proposals would “save” about $600 million in commodity program outlays in 2009 compared to projected costs under the current farm bill, officials said.

“This budget provides the critical resources we need to keep our agriculture community strong,” Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer told reporters attending a briefing on the budget. “And it's in keeping with the president's policy of funding the highest priorities while restraining spending.”

But critics said the president's budget fails to provide needed funding for key conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and actually contains cuts to vital environmental, bioenergy and nutrition programs.

“The administration's farm bill proposals represent a reform-minded and fiscally responsible approach to supporting America's farmers and ranchers,” a USDA budget document says. “For conservation, the administration's proposals would improve program efficiency and increase conservation funding by $7.8 billion over 10 years.”

“Yet the proposed fiscal 2009 budget proposes to cut the EQIP program by $201 million, from $1.25 billion to $1.05 billion,” said Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “It also reduces funding for the Conservation Security Program from $501 million to $360 million and eliminates funding for the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.

“It is difficult to see how slashing farm bill agricultural conservation program spending by $437 million is a down payment on a farm bill proposal to increase spending by $7.8 billion. As with last year's farm bill proposal, we are forced to ask: Will the real White House farm bill proposal please stand up?”

Schafer, making one of his first public appearances after being sworn in as secretary Jan. 28, said the USDA budget advances the president's goals of building a strong agricultural economy and improving the quality of life in rural America.

“The president's agriculture budget supports his commitment to increase the competitiveness of agriculture, ensure the safety of the food supply and provide nutrition and housing assistance to those who need it most,” said Schafer. “This budget aims to enhance those programs with a proven track record for achieving results and keep spending under control to reduce the deficit.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad said the president's cost-cutting efforts fall short of those needed to bring down the federal deficit, however. (The total fiscal 2009 administration budget projects a deficit of $410 billion.)

“Once again, the president has tried to conceal the true fiscal impact of his budget by leaving out large costs,” he said. “He provides at most half a year of war funding. He leaves out the cost of the Alternative Minimum Tax fix beyond 2008.

“And he again assumes multi-year cuts in domestic discretionary programs, without detailing where these cuts are to occur beyond the first year. It is telling that President Bush didn't bother to print copies of his final budget. Perhaps he just ran out of red ink.”

Conrad said the president's budget does not provide sufficient funding to write a new farm bill, only $2.5 billion in new funding over five years

Other conservation groups also said the USDA budget falls short of meeting the country's environmental stewardship needs.

“The administration has sent another disappointing signal to the agriculture community,” said Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust. “The final farm bill is being negotiated now, and this would have been a great opportunity for the administration to demonstrate leadership and help move this package along.”

Schafer defended the administration budget, saying “tough choices” had to be made to keep spending under control to meet the president's goal of eliminating the federal deficit by 2012.

“In fact, this budget proposes to terminate about $1 billion in lower priority programs, earmarks, and other activities that duplicate programs,” he said. “In addition, some programs are reduced, and we are proposing some shift in emphasis from grants to loans and from direct loans to loan guarantees. These shifts permit us to continue to address the priorities of USDA but at a lower cost to the U.S. taxpayer.”

Among the highlights of the fiscal 2009 budget:

  • The president proposes $264 million for on-going programs to support the multi-agency Food and Agriculture Defense Initiative. The 2009 budget represents an $81 million increase for USDA to “continue improving the safety and security of America's food supply and agriculture,” Schafer said.

  • The president requests a record funding level of $1.1 billion for the Food Safety and Inspection Service to ensure the demand for inspection is met. “USDA has been working to strengthen the scientific basis of meat, poultry and egg products inspection so the risk of exposure to any food contaminant will be even less than it is now,” he said.

  • Under current law, CCC expenditures are projected to decline from $20.2 billion in 2005 and 2006 to $10.5 billion in 2009, Schafer noted. He said the decline in net outlays has been due to higher commodity prices owing to the growth in ethanol production, poor weather conditions around the world, rising market demand in Asia, and other factors.

    “In 2007, the administration submitted a comprehensive set of fiscally responsible farm bill proposals for strengthening the farm economy,” he said. “The administration's proposals would save about $600 million in commodity program outlays in 2009 compared to projected costs under current law.”

  • The budget includes $4.6 billion to provide conservation financial and technical assistance on a cumulative total of 260 million acres. In dollar terms, the largest of these programs is the Conservation Reserve Program, at just under $2 billion in 2009.

    Schafer said funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program will be increased to just over $1 billion in fiscal 2009, which the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition's Hoefner claims actually represents a decrease from $1.25 billion. The secretary said the budget proposes $181 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program.

    The fiscal 2009 budget includes $801 million in discretionary funding for ongoing conservation work, including programs that provide high quality technical assistance to farmers and ranchers.

  • The budget provides resources for increased participation and food costs in USDA's three major nutrition assistance programs: Food Stamps, Child Nutrition and WIC, with the nutrition assistance budget totaling $62 billion.

  • Food stamp participation is projected to increase 200,000 from an average of 27.8 million in 2008 to about 28 million in 2009. The maximum food stamp allotment would increase by about 5 percent. The budget of $40.2 billion includes resources to fully fund estimated food stamp participation. The budget also provides a $3 billion contingency fund if actual costs exceed the estimated level.

  • The budget provides nearly $600 million in increases in Child Nutrition Programs to accommodate program needs for a total budget of $15.3 billion.

  • The budget proposes $6.3 billion to support an average of 8.6 million WIC participants per month, up from 8.5 million in 2008.

  • The budget requests over $2.3 billion to support USDA research programs. For fiscal 2009, the budget continues to emphasize the use of competitive grants through the National Research Initiative and the Hatch and McIntire-Stennis programs. Consistent with this approach, $185 million of research and $44 million for building and facilities earmarks are not funded.

  • The budget increases funding for high priority bioenergy research aimed at improving the efficiency of converting cellulose to biofuels. Research also supports key initiatives for food and agriculture defense, and emerging diseases in crops and livestock. Finally, the budget includes funding needed to complete the 2007 Census of Agriculture.