Ask Farm Aid | October 7, 2008

Where do John McCain and Barack Obama stand on agricultural issues

October 2008

Dear Hilde,

I have been following the presidential debates pretty closely but haven’t heard much about food or farming. Where do McCain and Obama stand on agricultural issues?

Thank you,

Carol Jenkins
Lincoln, NE

Dear Carol,

You’re absolutely right! Mention of food and farm policy has certainly been limited if not absent in the recent debates. Often in presidential campaigns, farm issues are quietly swept under the rug once the Iowa caucuses are history. The logic, perhaps, that only Midwesterners care about farms, is obviously faulty – but I don’t doubt there are many political strategists and advisors out there who rank economic bailouts and foreign dependence on oil as far sexier topics for garnering public attention and swaying more votes than farming and food. When it comes down to it, though, we don’t have to farm to be concerned about farm policy. We all eat. We all depend on quality, fresh food for good nutrition and health; and on family farmers to steward our natural resource base and produce goods and jobs that support and stimulate our local economies and communities. With massive floods in the Midwest and two major hurricanes in the South devastating farmland and farm livelihoods this past summer, record-high production costs, volatility in grain and oilseed markets, and food and fuel prices soaring in the United States and abroad – supporting a viable, stable and sustainable farm base should be a clear component of any federal policy agenda, let alone presidential debate.

But is it?

While agricultural topics haven’t been so popular on the stump, both McCain and Obama have rural positions posted on their websites. Figuring out how to whittle down these documents into some sort of organized comparison was admittedly daunting. On issues such as biofuels and the 2008 Farm Bill, the candidates’ positions couldn’t be clearer (and more polar!) On other issues, however, it felt a bit more like comparing apples to oranges (or kumquats for that matter), as the candidate’s websites bring up different concerns altogether – highlighting their divergent views on the role of federal government in agriculture as well as the sort of farming future they envision for America.

To help you sort through the deluge of eye-blurring rhetoric, I decided it best to make a table comparing apples to apples. In addition to scouring the candidates’ websites, I sifted through news articles and blogs from both sides of the political spectrum, contacted rural advocates in DC and the Midwest, and did my best to cut to the chase.

Before I proceed: a quick but important reminder that Farm Aid is a non-partisan organization. While we certainly have opinions about the sort of federal policies that are best suited to build and strengthen a vibrant network of family farmed agriculture in the United States, we in no way intend to tell anyone how to vote. We just want you to vote.

Back to those apples:

Farm Bill
  • Obama supported the 2008 Farm Bill for its increased funding for hunger and conservation programs, but admits it’s far from perfect when it comes to subsidies.
  • McCain opposed the 2008 Farm Bill and called on President Bush to veto the bill.
Subsidies
  • Obama supports payment limitations on agricultural subsidies and wants measures to close loopholes that allow mega-farms to skirt the limits.
  • McCain wants to end the subsidy program altogether as he believes they distort markets
Agricultural Markets
  • Obama supports free trade with meaningful labor and environmental protections. He wants to crackdown on anti-trust violations and concentration to ensure competitive and fair markets for US family farmers.
  • McCain strongly favors free trade economics, and wants to open and expand foreign markets for American agricultural goods; he believes in reducing regulation of the markets.
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL)
  • Obama is pro-COOL – a federally mandated program that requires retailers to mark selected food products with country of origin information.
  • McCain is anti-COOL.
Biofuels
  • Obama supports using federal programs for furthering the development of biofuel technology.
  • McCain wants to eliminate renewable fuel mandates and federal support for ethanol production.
Disaster-relief
  • Obama supported new provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill for a permanent disaster assistance program so farmers don’t have to wait for Congress to pass legislation in the wake of a disaster.
  • McCain supports market-driven approaches to risk management; while he states that the government should assist farmers in time of disaster, he has historically voted against disaster relief legislation.
Immigration
  • Obama favors immigration reform intended to address labor issues in agriculture.
  • McCain favors immigration reform intended to address labor issues in agriculture.
Agriculture and the Environment
  • Obama wants stricter measures in place to cut down on factory farm pollution. He also wants to increase incentives for farmers and private landowners to conduct sustainable agriculture and protect wetlands, grasslands and forests.
  • McCain states his support for environmental stewardship programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetland Reserve Program, but doesn’t mention any specifics.
Future of farming
  • Obama promises new policies to promote family farms and local and regional food systems, including programs that attract young people to agriculture and provide financial assistance in the transition to organic production.
  • McCain sees free trade and global food systems as the greatest opportunity for American farmers.

So, now that you have a basket full of fruit to consider, we leave the rest up to you!

Please exercise your democratic right and responsibility to vote by hitting the polls on November 4th; and for every other day of the year, take comfort in your power as consumers and citizens to vote with your forks, wallets and actions. After all, as democracy advocate and author Frances Moore Lappé puts it so beautifully: “Every aspect of our lives is, in a sense, a vote for the kind of world we want to live in.”

Until next time…
(When we’ll have a new president-elect!)

Hilde

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