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Gazette Editorial Board
Widespread drought in the United States and in southern Europe is driving up grain prices to record levels. Beef and pork producers increasingly can't feed livestock at a profit because of high grain prices and the skyrocketing expense of hay that's in short supply.
If the drought continues much into August, food prices are expected to rise sharply by early 2013. And the U.S. government has little in grain reserves, largely because Congress did away with the federal strategic grain reserve in the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act.
A crisis appears to be brewing for American consumers and many farmers. But where is Congress going on this issue? Nowhere, so far, except closer to a monthlong recess beginning Aug. 5.
The hangup is in approving a new five-year farm and food bill because the current one expires in September. The Senate has passed its version, and so has the House Agriculture Committee. Republican majority leadership in the House, however, is resisting floor debate, possibly until after the November election.
We don't think it's right or wise to wait that long. Congress should at least OK legislation that provides some short-term disaster relief - not bet on the drought ending anytime soon.
Most grain farmers who have taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance should be able to weather the drought. But livestock producers don't have such insurance, and without a new farm bill's renewal of disaster programs, many could go out of business.
Then there's the prospect of sharp increases in food prices. And remember that about 80 percent of the farm bill spending goes to food assistance for the poor and school meal programs.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican and a farmer, wants the House to take up the farm bill before recess. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-California, said this week there is no plan to do so but allowed that legislation to ease conditions for farmers could be passed anyway.
A breakthrough may be on the horizon. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, 1st District, is trying to get at least 218 House members to sign a discharge petition needed to force the bill to the House floor.
And on Thursday, the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, D-Minn., indicated he would support a Republican-backed, one-year extension of the current farm law, with disaster assistance to livestock producers, if it would ensure conference committee negotiations on a new bill with the Senate.
Congress can and should act before the recess. The food supply is more critical to Americans' daily life than the amount of time many members of Congress want to devote re-election campaigns during the break.
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