Rarely is there a piece of legislation with as much potential to pull together diverse interest groups as the 2007 Food and Farm Bill. From fair trade activists to supporters of free trade, from advocates of small government to environmentalists, from urban public-health officials to rural family farmers, Americans are calling on Congress to reform our country’s corrupt and distorted agricultural policy. The formation of this broad coalition points to the extent of damage that current farm policy has wrought. Rather than protect farmers, the environment and public health, the Farm Bill has privileged the interests of agribusiness over the welfare of poor people and the environment.
The U.S. commodity subsidy program originated during the Depression, when a much greater percentage of Americans farmed for a living and the economy was in a state of crisis. The government used subsidies to boost prices by controlling supply. Over the years, the way in which we allocate subsidies has drastically changed, so that instead of preventing oversupply, the subsidies encourage it. Now, producers of five major crops — corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice — receive 92 percent of payments, leaving 60 percent of farmers with no government money at all. The subsidies are paid per acre produced, so that the largest farmers receive the most money. (In 2005, the richest 10 percent of farmers received 66 percent of subsidy money.) Consequently, farm size has been growing while the number of farmers is decreasing. While the government provides certain farmers huge incentives to continuously increase production, it does not create counter-incentives to make sure that production is environmentally sound. Three-quarters of farmers who use sustainable practices are turned down for payments from the conservation fund because that program is underfunded. Without a comparable incentive for promoting environmental conservation, it is no wonder that many turn to agrochemicals and fence-to-fence monocropping.
In addition to inadequately addressing environmental concerns, the Food and Farm bill fails the American people in terms of public health. Even though the USDA recognizes that Americans are eating too little fresh produce and too many processed foods, Congress has not addressed that concern in the current Food and Farm Bill. Despite the obesity epidemic, we spend billions supporting commodities used to make processed fats and sugars, and we ignore fruit and vegetable farmers and the nutritional power of local farmers markets. This distorted policy has led to many interesting phenomena in the American diet, such as the fact that fast food, with all its processing and advertising costs, is a cheaper source of calories than simple farm-to-market produce. Subsidized corn and soybeans show up at all levels of the industrial food system, from feed for livestock to high-fructose corn syrup, such that 56 percent of chicken nuggets are made of corn. Public health officials are now estimating that because of obesity related diseases, this generation will be the first to have a shorter life expectancy than that of our parents.
The system of commodity subsidies fails the poor in this country by not making healthy diets affordable for everyone, and it fails poor farmers in other countries by subsidizing commodities so that prices fall below the cost of production. The introduction of subsidized corn to Mexico through NAFTA led to the loss of 1.5 million agricultural jobs, leading to overcrowding in cities and emigration, and the presence of subsidized American cotton is wreaking similar havoc on the small farmers of West Africa. In Mali, where the per capita income is a meager $270, President Amadou Toure estimates that the removal of American subsidies would raise farmer income by 30 percent. This would mean more children in school, cleaner water and fewer people dying of preventable diseases.
These facts paint a very bleak image, of Western countries showering Third World farmers with aid but taking away their source of income, of poor Americans making up the most obese segment of our population, of agricultural practices that degrade wildlife and our environment and of small American farmers losing out while agribusiness grows.
However, as the Farm Bill reaches the Senate this month, it is time not for despair, but for action. A growing coalition of groups in this country shares a common vision of reform: reduce subsidies that hurt farmers abroad and invest the savings in promoting healthy, sustainable agriculture and rural development. We no longer want to see small family farmers abroad having to compete against the wealth of the U.S. government. We no longer want to see poor Americans eating McDonald’s for dinner every night. And although the agribusinesses lobby will work hard to maintain the status quo as the Farm Bill reaches the Senate, other powerful actors are championing reform. Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Agricultural Committee, has introduced a version of the bill that would reduce trade-distorting subsidies. President Bush has vowed to veto the bill if it does not reduce subsidies. And most importantly, urban and rural communities across America will continue to work collectively for reform. On Sept. 21, Mercado/Oxfam, a student group, will head to D.C. to meet with the agricultural advisers of Sens. Christopher Dodd and Joe Lieberman as part of National Student Lobby Day. Look for us in dining halls next week so that we can carry your letters to Washington.
Michelle Castaneda is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.