October 30, 2007 / 4:59 PM / 12 years ago

Farm bill risks WTO challenge: committee chief

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The new U.S. farm law could bring “a lot of WTO challenges” because of higher crop support rates, said the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee on Tuesday.

Chairman Tom Harkin, who has touted green payments as a wiser investment, also said amendments may be offered during Senate debate next week to increase food stamp benefits. “That costs a lot of money,” said the Iowa Democrat, but it is overdue.

“There may be some amendment, I know it’s being worked on right now,” he said, to cut the $5.2 billion a year in so-called direct payments and put the money into land stewardship, rural development, energy and public nutrition.

Members of the Agriculture Committee approved a five-year farm bill last week that would create an optional program, called average crop revenue, to protect farmer revenue. It would be a signal change from traditional U.S. supports, which respond only to price, not yields.

Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner says the Senate bill wrongly boosts some crop supports, such as wheat, barley and canola, at peril of complaints to the World Trade Organization. “This loan rate situation is a problem for us,” Conner said on Monday.

“I think we’re going to have a lot of WTO challenges on this. I agree with Chuck Conner on that,” said Harkin during a telephone news conference.

A better approach, he said, would be to expand green payments that reward soil, water and wildlife stewardship. “But there’s just not the support in committee to do that.

“I’ll have more to say about that on the floor,” he said.

Harkin said he would look at amendments to “see if we can do something to boost up the nutrition section of the farm bill.” He pointed to two factors used in determining food stamp benefits, the so-called standard deduction and the asset limit, which has been $2,000 for years.

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