Higher commodity prices and lower farm payments in the future make current U.S. farm policy the low cost budget option and the most WTO compliant, former U.S. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-TX) told the USA Rice Outlook Conference attendees on Dec. 5.

“The 2002 farm bill (that critics) deplore so much has already saved an estimated $17 billion and is expected to rack up even more savings next year and beyond if current policy is maintained,” Combest said. “Compare this to just earlier this year when some predicted that the 2002 farm bill would somehow spend so much in 2006 and 2007 that it would wipe out any previous savings.”

“Maintaining current farm policy is the fiscally responsible thing to do because it is the low cost option,” said Combest, who was ranked among the most conservative of House members.

Combest also cast doubt about the renewal of Trade Promotion Authority and of a WTO agreement, adding that current farm policy is the most WTO compliant.

“It will be a very tough sell for foreign competitors to argue (in a WTO case) that farm payments which are low, or not even being paid out in some cases, can somehow cause them serious prejudice,” he said.

Combest also urged environmentalists to fund renewable fuels research and development to promote crop diversification rather than to attack farm policy, and said fruit and vegetable farmers and conservation would both be harmed by tighter pay limits.

“How can (critics) be for conservation and fruits and vegetables, but then advocate (pay limit) policies that lock both out of farm policy?” Combest asked.

The so-called “equity” argument used by critics against farm policy would drive the farm budget higher because the current budget is too low to meet new needs, Combest said.

“Not one new need identified since 2002 in any way, shape, or form reduces or eliminates a single need in rural America that we worked to address in 2002,” he said, “so I believe a budget increase for the farm bill is absolutely unavoidable.”

Combest, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee, called on the administration and Congress to heed the advice of former CIA Director James Woolsey who has stressed the need to aggressively pursue domestically produced renewable fuels rather than rely on Middle East oil, the proceeds of which can be used to fund terrorism.

“My hope is that the administration and the Congress will see that (they) can more positively reduce the cost of farm policy – which has already been a bargain – by increasing investment in an energy title or an energy bill than by making cuts to the farm bill that would hurt our economy, reduce our competitiveness in the world, and cost us good paying American jobs.”