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The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 is wide-reaching legislation touching farming, energy, forestry, and nutrition, among other industries. Over 90% of the funding for the Farm Bill, as its otherwise called, goes towards subsidization of U.S. farmers, and it heavily favors five grains in particular: corn, wheat, cotton, rice and oilseed (i.e., soybeans). This bill expires this year and if its 2002 passage is any indication, the renewal and specific focuses of the 2007 Farm Bill will be highly contentious.
Farmers have experienced growing financial stability over the years. Corn, soybean, wheat and rice all returned significantly higher returns per acre in 2007 year to date than in 2006. Cotton, on the other hand, remained relatively flat. Corn in particular nearly tripled in returns per acre ($120 vs almost $350), while rice, soybeans and wheat saw increases around 50%. In addition, farms have the lowest debt levels since 1960 with a 12% debt to asset ratio. Debt ratios peaked at 22% in 1985 and remained around 15% through the early 2000s.
Total assistance from the U.S. government averaged approximately $17 billion per year from 2002-2006.
The Farm Bill legislation has truly global effects, as subsidies can profoundly affect the price of commodities traded on worldwide markets. And if the bill was contentious in Washington, D.C., it may be even more so on the international stage. The legislation gives U.S. growers such pricing advantages, the World Trade Organization (WTO) responded in 2004 by ruling the Farm Bill's cotton subsidies illegal on the grounds of "dumping," or selling below cost. Similar challenges to corn, wheat, rice and/or soy may have far-reaching consequences for commodity growers in the U.S., especially if the country makes concessions to lower subsidies in order to gain negotiation leverage at the Doha Round, the WTO's important forum for global free trade discussions.