WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, departing from traditional GOP policy, said Wednesday the government was pouring too much money into supporting big grain and cotton farms and should spend more on conservation, food safety and other programs that provide broader benefits to the country.
In a 120-page report, the administration said federal farm subsidies were causing "unintended (and unwanted) consequences" by encouraging overproduction of crops and driving up land rents, raising farm costs.
The report also said the 175,000 largest farms, which produce most of the nation's food, have household incomes that average more than $135,000.
"Highly efficient commercial farms benefit enormously from price supports, enabling them to expand their operations and lower costs even more," the report said. "Others have not received enough benefits to remain viable and have been absorbed along the way."
The report made few specific proposals but instead was intended to provide guidance for Congress as it revises programs scheduled to expire a year from now. In questioning support programs that primarily benefit large farmers, the report's conclusions represent a change from longtime Republican farm policy.
"Farmers today operate in global, technologically advanced, rapidly diversifying, highly competitive environment that is driven by increasingly sophisticated consumers," Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said. "The various policies, programs and supporting infrastructure that serves our food system will require updating to meet future needs."
Veneman has not taken a position on a farm bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee this summer, but the administration's recommendations are likely to be more in line with proposals expected to be issued soon by leaders of the Senate Agriculture Committee: Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the panel's Democratic chairman, and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, the committee's senior Republican.
The House bill, which would cost nearly $170 billion over 10 years, would expand subsidy programs for grain and cotton farmers.
Among the report's recommendations:
--The government should help farmers and ranchers "when unexpected events beyond their control occur" without causing producers to become dependent on federal support.
--Congress should pay farmers who take certain conservation measures such as controlling manure and improving tillage methods to cut down on soil erosion. The report notes that two-thirds of the nation's farmland is in the hands of small- and medium-size farms, many of which benefit little from traditional subsidies.
--More money is needed for programs to prevent foodborne diseases and protect crops and livestock from pests.
The report also the government needs to improve the nation's diet through research into better methods of nutrition education. "As a direct consequence of poor diets and physical inactivity, the number of overweight individuals continues to increase. The implications are tremendous for future health, health care costs and quality of Americans."
While critical of existing farm supports, the report sidesteps a debate over whether Congress should tighten limits on payments. Almost two-thirds of the $27 billion in subsidies provided last year went to 10 percent of farm owners.
But the report said that what large farms need most is help in expanding markets, reducing production costs and managing risk.
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