American farmers can compete with those in any other nation, says Rep. Terry Everett, “but they cannot, and should not, be forced to compete with other governments.”

The Alabama Republican, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee's Subcommittee on Specialty Crops and Foreign Agriculture Programs, said the committee, in reviewing the USDA's export and market promotion programs as part of the development of a new farm bill, is looking for ways “to expand our overseas market share and to combat unfair trade practices.”

U.S. ag exports this year are projected at $53.5 million, but recent USDA data show the European Union and other major competing nations outspent the U.S. by 20-to-1 on export subsidies and market promotion — more than $1 billion total, compared to only $287 million for the U.S.

“I don't think we should lower our export program levels without the European Union doing the same,” Everett said, “and I certainly don't think we should do so before we go into the next round of negotiations.”

Representatives of the USDA, members of Congress, and several farm organizations testified at the Washington hearing.

“The test of any farm policy is how it performs in a depressed market,” said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Fla. “Unfortunately, the 1996 farm bill has failed to sufficiently protect our nation's farmers.

“While the nation's economy as a whole has been booming, rural America continues to suffer a severe economic depression. Markets are crumbling, prices are continuing to drop, and American farmers are struggling for survival.”

Support of production agriculture “is a national security issue,” Boyd said, and federal farm programs “should provide an economic safety net for farmers and help open, expand, and maintain global market opportunities. This safety net is a vital component of a stable domestic farm policy.”

The government's Market Access Program (MAP) is “a common sense program in the midst of periodic global economic turmoil and trade wars,” he said, and “successfully helps our farmers to export their products globally,” as well as assisting in promoting their products through consumer promotions, market research, and technical assistance.

“All regions of the country benefit” from the programs' employment and economic effects,” Boyd said.

But, he noted, increasing imports and falling exports have resulted in a whittling of the U.S. agricultural trade surplus to $10.3 billion in 1999, compared to $14.8 billion in 1998 — the smallest U.S. surplus in a decade.

Although some progress has been made through trade agreements, “there is still much to be done to open foreign markets” for U.S. ag products, he said.

“Our farmers are currently trading with countries that spend 20 times more on agriculture export subsidies and market promotions than the U.S. The European Union currently spends $100 million to promote their agriculture products in the U.S. alone — that is 10 percent more than the U.S. spends on its Market Access Program for the entire world.”

Boyd and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., have introduced legislation to restore the amount of funding available for MAP to its original 1991 authorization level. It would authorize the secretary of Agriculture to spend up to $200 million on MAP, but not less than the current $90 million. It would set a minimum $35 million for promotion of U.S. bulk commodities overseas through the Foreign Market Development Program (FMDP) and would allow use of unspent Export Enhancement Program funds for either MAP or FMDP.

“MAP and FMDP are the only available programs that give our farmers a chance to compete on a level playing field in the global marketplace,” Boyd said.

e-mail: hembree_brandon@intertec.com