Farmers feed the world

As the U.S. Senate debated the farm bill in 2012, one of the measure’s authors – Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. – took to the floor to defend it as an indispensable safety net for American farmers who feed the world. Sen. Roberts noted the agriculture industry employs one in five of his home state’s residents and is the backbone of its economy. He expressed pride at putting together a “bipartisan bill that strengthens and preserves the safety net for our farmers” and told the floor:

Mr. President, farmers and ranchers in my state truly help feed a troubled and hungry world, which is why I am proud of this legislation. We’ve worked hard to put together, not the best possible bill, but the best bill possible.

Sen. Roberts also assured his Senate colleagues if he “thought we were in any way writing a bill that would make it more difficult for Kansas and American producers to feed this nation and the world … I would not be standing here today supporting it.”

Roberts is not the only farm-state politician to argue we need to support U.S. farmers because of their crucial role in fighting world hunger. In 2011, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., submitted the committee’s views and estimates for the Fiscal Year 2012 budget cycle. Well aware that the budget would require making tough cuts to address the dire fiscal situation facing the federal government, Chairman Lucas pleaded to exempt agriculture programs from budget restrictions and to preserve the “farm safety net.”

“Addressing the current budget crisis is of the utmost importance,” the committee’s views and estimates document admitted. “It is important to note, however, that there will be an estimated 9 billion people on the planet by the year 2050. To meet worldwide demand for food, we will need to double production.”

The claim that U.S. farmers “feed the world” is more than just a talking point for politicians with agricultural constituencies. It has become a mantra to the agriculture lobby, repeated in countless articles and websites. It is often used to justify industrial agriculture practices, as well as limitless federal subsidies and supports for farm owners.

However, despite its prevalence, the claim that fighting world hunger requires hefty handouts to U.S. farmers does not stand up to scrutiny. In order to craft solutions that address the real causes of global poverty and make our federal farm-support system more sustainable, policymakers must move past this unhelpful talking point and make tough decisions that empower developing nations and strengthen the U.S. agricultural economy over the long term.

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