With more than one-third of all U.S. counties declared agricultural disaster areas so far this year, National Farmers Union leaders said they are concerned that the current disaster program will not cover the total magnitude of the losses.

The NFU sent a letter to President Bush, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and House and Senate members asking for additional aid for farmers and ranchers embroiled in yet another year of weather-related disasters. The letter notes that current law penalizes those who have been hardest hit by consecutive disasters.

“The 2003 agriculture disaster package( passed last February) overlooks those with multi-year production losses by providing disaster aid for only one of the last two years,” said NFU President Dave Frederickson. “Without legislation, many producers, who are realizing reduced production in the current year, will be without the economic resources necessary to ensure the viability of their operations in the future.”

Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 6, the secretary of Agriculture designated 1,304 U.S. counties as primary or contiguous disaster areas for the current year. Because many of these counties were also declared disaster areas during the previous two years, many producers who were eligible for aid under the recently implemented act will still suffer economically from two out of the last three years.

“Drought has continued to ravage many regions of the nation for several years in a row and is rapidly spreading into other major production areas of the United States,” Frederickson said.

“Therefore, we seek an assistance package that, at a minimum, will allow those who have suffered production losses from 2001 through 2003 the opportunity to receive additional assistance for losses in years left out of the current disaster aid program.”

WTO failure

On another front, Frederickson said the National Farmers Union thinks it is appropriate that nations and their trade negotiators take time off to re-evaluate the reasons behind the World Trade Organization failure in Cancun.

The failure to achieve an agreement in Cancun creates a new opportunity to enhance fair trade and allow producers to achieve reasonable market prices, which would reduce the need for trade-distorting practices used throughout the world.

“The trade agenda must be expanded in a way that addresses global market concentration, labor and environmental standards and exchange rate fluctuations in addition to the traditional trade issues of market access, domestic supports and export subsidies,” he said. “These competitive imbalances are perpetuating a race to the bottom when it comes to farm commodity prices. If these issues that directly affect trade and profitability are not addressed, it will be difficult for negotiators to reach an acceptable consensus.

“We are pleased that our trade negotiators did not adopt a flawed trade agreement just to move the process forward. However, rather than striving to meet an arbitrary deadline, our trade negotiators should be concerned with developing new balanced and comprehensive proposals that create real economic benefits for agricultural producers without sacrificing fair trade.”

Frederickson said any suggestion that the United States should pull domestic supports out from under American producers without a proven plan to offset them is economic suicide for family agriculture producers and rural communities.

“National Farmers Union has advocated reducing the need for domestic supports by establishing trade policies that allow farmers to receive a fair return from the marketplace,” he said. “A balanced multilateral solution will certainly be better than many bilateral or regional trade agreements that are doomed to fail in addressing the real cause of the Cancun failure.

“Our trade negotiators must make sure they are not, once again, put in a situation where no deal is better than a bad deal.”

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com