You don’t have to be lactose intolerant to be sickened by the Farm Bill currently being considered in Congress, but if you read the bill you’ll probably start to feel a little queasy when faced with dairy products in the future.
The new Farm Bill which just passed the House and is headed to the Senate spends $286 billion over 5 years to underwrite the expenses of giant agrobusinesses, maintain the production of unnecessary and unprofitable crops, pay farmers not to grow certain profitable crops, guarantee high prices for key agricultural products, and artificially lower the prices of others. It pays farmers to grow crops for which there is little commercial demand and buys up excess production of favored crops at a premium price at taxpayer expense. It’s a huge festering pile of bill-shit put together to answer the demands of lobbyists and representatives from the largest agricultural states with little consideration of what might be best for consumers, for the economy or for most farmers.
50% of the spending in the bill is concentrated on just 7 highly agricultural states with influential representatives and almost half of the spending in the bill goes to support only about 6% of our farmers most of whom work in large agrobusinesses producing certain favored crops. When the bill goes to the Senate it will be in the hands of Sen. David Obey (D-WI), the King of Government Cheese, whose tireless work on behalf of the dairy industry explains some of the worst ideas featured in the bill, including the government’s plan to purchase and warehouse over 2 billion pounds of dairy products at an average price of about a dollar a pound.
While taxpayers should object to paying over $50 billion a year for utterly unnecessary regulation, subsidization and massive loan programs, it seems like other groups find plenty to object to in the farm bill for other reasons.
Small farmers represented by the Center for Rural Affairs point out that the loan programs are designed to help large agro-businesses grow larger and force smaller farmers off their land. In his analysis of the Farm Bill, CFRA’s Chuck Hassebrook concluded that because it “increases the limitation on direct payments by 50 percent over current law…mega-farms would be subsidized to bid land away from smaller operations – driving up cash rents, narrowing profit margins and tightening the noose on family-size farms struggling to prosper and survive in farming.” The Farm Bill will continue the history of US agricultural policy which has been destroying small farms. The CFRA claims that small farmers are literally dying out. In 1978 there were 350,000 farmers under the age of 34. Today there are only 70,000. Young people are just not going into farming because current rules make entry-level farming unprofitable.
Health advocates were looking for reform from this Congress and are not at all happy with the Farm Bill. Dan Inhoff, author of Food Fight observed “We didn’t get a food and farm bill, we got a fat bill. It’s agribusiness as usual. It’s high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oil for all, and it’s at the expense of the land and the people and the taxpayers.” Many groups have raised concerns that the bill subsidizes profitable but unhealthy crops at the expense of healthier alternatives. They’re particularly unhappy with the subsidies, price protections and import restrictions for the sugar industry, and the ongoing incentive programs for the production of corn syrup.
Environmentalists are equally dissatisfied, and again the problem is subsidies. The bill underwrites the production cost of certain high-dollar commodity crops which are environmentally destructive at the expense of more sustainable crops which could be grown instead. They had been hoping to see as much as $6 billion diverted from subsidies and applied to land management and conservation programs. The farm bill also raises global issues because subsidies reduce the selling price of US farm products below actual production cost and below the price at which they can be produced in other parts of the world, making farming unprofitable in many emerging economies which could be bolstered by agricultural exports in a free market. The folks at Food and Water Watch promote the idea of ‘food sovereignty’, where the first focus of agriculture should be to produce for local markets first and export second so that regions will be agriculturally self-sustaining. Seems like common sense to me and the exact opposite of both US agricultural policy as expressed in this bill and the government based food-distribution systems favored by international NGOs and the WTO.
One area in which the bill really falls short despite the inclusion of ‘bioenergy’ in the title is any meaningful effort to promote existing biofuels and make them more widely available. There are a few million dollars set aside for research on biodiesel and ethanol production, but nothing much to help encourage immediate increase in availability and use of these already viable fuels. There’s even a measure to prohibit sugar producers from selling their excess production for use in making ethanol, despite the established fact that sugar from beets or cane is more efficient as a source of ethanol than corn, which continues to receive incentives for ethanol production.
But for me, it always comes back to the dairy programs. Tasty though they certainly are, dairy products are about the most unhealthy foods you can put in your body. What’s more, dairy agriculture is incredibly environmentally destructive. Cattle are the single largest source of man-made greenhouse gasses and runoff from dairy farms pollutes groundwater and waterways. i wouldn’t want to shut the industry down, but why is the government guaranteeing them billions of dollars of sales at artificially inflated prices so they can stockpile cheese, butter and powdered milk? All this does is encourage increased production and the pollution which goes with it, while keeping prices artificially low to encourage excessive consumption. It makes no sense at all, except that legislators from dairy states are playing pivotal roles in the budgeting process and letting the dairy industry lobbyists have anything they ask for.
As far as I’m concerned most of the Farm Bill could be scrapped. This nightmare of government micromanagement, gratuitous protectionism and outrageous favoritism does nothing positive for the country. It hurts small farmers, hurts consumers and hurts taxpayers. My vision of American agriculture doesn’t consist of fewer and fewer small farmers and giant agrobusinesses destroying the environment to produce questionable mutant crops which they sell at artificially controlled prices. I’d like to see food sovereignty inside the US, with small farmers supplying local markets with seasonally appropraite produce at a market-determined price and the agrobusinesses focussed on industrial crops like cotton, biofuels and oils.
There is a movement for a complete overhaul of the Farm Bill led by Senators Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Frank Lautenberg (R-NJ) who are offering an alternative bill called the FRESH Act. It’s not perfect, but it does away with most subsidies, reduces costs and sensibly restructures loan programs to be more equitable. Best of all, it includes a grant program for biofuel production, allocates money for conservation programs and does away with the $2 billion dairy boondoggle. It even complies with some of the international trade agreements which the current Farm Bill would violate. The FRESH Act deserves some serious consideration.
President Bush seems to be on the right side of this issue and is threatening a veto of the Farm Bill. The debate in the Senate will carry on next week, so now is the time to take action. If you’d like to see more emphasis on an open market for agriculture and less emphasis on pork and protectionism, write your Senator and demand something better, or write President Bush and urge him to veto the bill and send a strong message to Congress that it’s time for less greed and more responsibility. Mention the FRESH Act and see if we can give it a little push.