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We can no longer take food security for granted

By John Stencel

European policy assures the continuance of an ample and diversified agriculture at all costs. Japan sees that its farmers, especially its rice farmers, stay in business, despite the fact that wildly escalating land prices make producing food in Japan far more expensive than importing it.

Yet U.S. policymakers, perhaps because our country has never experienced a severe, nationwide food shortage, seem oblivious to the importance of maintaining our nation’s ability to produce food and fiber domestically. I’m afraid the abundance of cheap food for generations caused us to assume it will always be available.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year announced that in 2005, for the first time in half a century, the United States will import more agricultural products (i.e., food) than it exports. In 1995, the U.S. trade surplus in agriculture was nearly $25 billion. If we continue to lose agricultural production at the pace seen over the past decade, in just a few years we could be heavily dependent on foreign food for our daily bread. I prefer to “eat American,” but even if that is not important to you, we have to consider what might happen if we were to have a disagreement with the country that supplies a large chunk of our food. In addition, we have to ask if we are willing to live with the kind of price fluctuations we are currently experiencing on imported oil. What will happen when American consumers go to their neighborhood supermarket and learn that no milk will be available until the following week? Or, what happens when they learn that a staple food has doubled in price due to currency fluctuations in the exporting country?

Sound far-fetched? I hope so, yet recent decisions by U.S. lawmakers indicate complete indifference to the loss of family farm and ranch agriculture in the United States. Lopsided trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, have left independent producers on both sides of the borders poorer, but our government continues to broker these deals. The U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement will soon be implemented and the Central American Free Trade Agreement is on tap for approval this spring.

Supports for agriculture in the form of commodity loan rates have declined over the past couple of decades, while input costs have risen beyond the rate of inflation. Lower loan rates have caused market prices for commodities to decline. Just last month, the Bush administration announced its proposal to reduce the agriculture budget significantly. As if U.S. agriculture is not experiencing enough problems, the U.S. Agency for International Development has announced that in 2006, it will purchase from foreign countries one-fourth of the products used to operate the food aid program.

I fear we are in the process of destroying what we so often take for granted—U.S. food security. I sincerely hope we will wise up and do better before it is too late.