Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman says USDA is planning a series of forums with members of the ag media and other interest groups to make sure farmers get the information they need on the 2002 farm bill.

The secretary also took a swing at critics of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, accusing foreign government spokesmen of distorting the provisions of the new farm bill for their own political aims.

“Since the bill was signed, we've heard a lot of noise out there, particularly from people from other countries regarding what's contained in this new bill,” she said, speaking to reporters in a telephone press conference. “Many of the claims we're hearing, we think, are just unjust, and some, for their own political purposes, are distorting the facts.”

She specifically referred to claims that the new law provides a 70 percent increase in farm program support for U.S. farmers, and that support has “ballooned out of control,” according to some critics.

“People are comparing apples and oranges,” she said. “When examining the support we provide for our farm sector, it's important to add in the emergency supplemental support that's been provided during the last four years into those figures.”

Veneman said Congress has been approving about $7.5 billion in additional funding per year for the last four years. The new farm bill provides roughly $7.4 billion each year in new spending for farm programs.

“So the farm bill continues with roughly the same amount of support as we've been providing our farm sector over the past four years through the '96 farm bill and the supplemental support,” she noted.

“Some in other countries are also contending that this farm bill undermines our international trade position. The WTO permits the United States to spend $19.1 billion annually for certain types of farm program support. This compares to $31 billion for Japan and $62 billion for the European Union.”

Thus the EU can provide three times more support to its agriculture than the United States, the secretary said. Additionally, U.S. markets are relatively open compared with other countries.

“Our tariffs on agricultural products average about 12 percent,” she noted. “The food and agriculture tariffs around the globe average around 62 percent. In Japan, they average 59 percent. In the Cairns Group, it's about 30 percent. It's also about 30 percent in the European Union.” (The Cairns Group consists of such countries as Australia and Canada who claim to provide lower subsidies to their farmers.)

“So while some of our trading partners want to point fingers — and, some would argue, throw stones while living in glass houses — I think their criticism is, in large part, to deflect attention from some of the realities I've just mentioned. Again, obligations, and the Congress provided a circuit breaker to assure that that will continue to be the case.

The European Union, for example, accounts for 90 percent of the export subsidies used by the world's agricultural producing nations.

“That is the most trade-distorting kind of support,” she said. “So there are major reforms that need to take place throughout the world through the Doha Round, the new round of WTO negotiations, and the United States remains committed to aggressively pursuing trade reform.”

To help U.S. farmers learn more about their new farm bill, USDA is launching a number of initiatives, including more forums such as the telephone press conference from USDA's broadcast studios in Washington on May 22.

“We're going to continue these forums with key USDA personnel in the coming months, on a regular basis, so that we can help answer questions that you all are hearing from your farmers and ranchers and your constituencies, and so we can continue to have good productive dialogue,” Veneman said.

Among the other initiatives are the new Website at www.usda.gov/farmbill, which will be updated daily with the latest information on the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act. The day Veneman spoke, USDA staff members put a side-by-side comparison of the new and old farm bills on the site.

“I think that given the fact that this has been a very short timeframe since the president signed the bill on May 13, we are working very aggressively to implement it and help farmers learn about the legislation,” she said.

“I also would add that this is a bill with a lot of change in it. It's going to take some time, and that's one of the reasons we want to be as communicative with everybody as possible, to make sure everyone understands what we're doing, and how to access the information.”

Later in the week, she said, USDA would be sending letters to producers throughout the country with information about the farm bill and instructions on how they can help the department implement the farm bill.

“That letter is going to give a brief synopsis of the changes in the new farm law that are relevant to them,” said J.B. Penn, undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services, who participated in the press conference. “It's going to talk about the kinds of information that we're going to need to implement the new programs, and it's going to give some notion of when that information will need to be provided.”

Penn said additional information would be provided through the media, through press releases, through the Extension Service. “I know that some of the commodity groups themselves, with our participation, are holding meetings around the country to try to acquaint farmers with all the provisions in the new law.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.