When Some Farm Subsidies Go Away, Will Our Food System Be Healthy? | Civil Eats

When Some Farm Subsidies Go Away, Will Our Food System Be Healthy?

Every good foodie knows that farm subsidies are the root of all evil and a big reason why obesity rates continue to rise, right? This thinking has become so commonplace among the good food movement that we’ve stopped questioning this assumption and pretty much take it as gospel.

But now is a critical time to start asking questions about what the consequences would be–intended or otherwise–if subsidies go away. This week, Congressional agriculture committees proposed cutting $23 billion out of Farm Bill programs over the next 10 years, and by most reports, one type of farm subsidies called direct payments are the first thing on the chopping block. Even the corn and soybean lobbies seem resigned to the end of direct payments to growers of commodity crops.

So if the most often-cited example of farm subsidies is about to end, does that mean we’re on our way to a food system that makes broccoli more affordable than fast food burgers? It’s not quite that simple. As we describe in a new report, released this week with the Public Health Institute, subsidies are not making junk food cheaper and more abundant than healthy food –the real culprit is the deregulation of agriculture markets, the failure to enforce anti-trust law and the millions spent on marketing junk food.In a market controlled by just a few buyers of crops like corn, wheat and soybeans, and no mechanisms to manage overproduction that causes prices to collapse, subsidies have served as the bandage that partially stops the bleeding of farmers who often cannot stay in business any other way. Pulling the subsidy rug out from under the small and midsized farmers who depend on this support to keep farming in lean years could result in even fewer independent family farmers and even larger mono-cropping behemoths who buy up that land and keep using it to produce crops like corn and soybeans.

Commodity crop overproduction has been around long before the current subsidy program existed. During the New Deal, farm policies encouraged farmers to idle some of their land so they wouldn’t overproduce and established a national grain reserve, much like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve we have today. It prevented crop prices from skyrocketing during times of drought or falling too low during times of surplus. Overproduction was kept in check, and the stable commodity prices functioned like a minimum wage for farmers.

Beginning in 1985, food processors, grain traders, meat companies and marketers mounted a strong and successful lobbying effort against these policies. In 1996, crop prices were high and budgets were tight – much like they are today – and the agribusiness lobby called for policies that would, as they put it, give farmers “the freedom to farm.” That Farm Bill eliminated land-idling programs, letting farmers plant as much as they wanted, and production increased over the next few years. That, along with the elimination of grain reserves earlier, resulted in farmers overproducing themselves into bankruptcy, and the subsidy system we know today was born.

While simply doing away with payments to commodity farmers may help deficit hawks reduce the federal budget for the short term, the longer-term impacts may land us with a food system that’s even more consolidated and gives even more control to the cabal of agribusinesses we’re fighting to diffuse.

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What, then, would effective food and farm policy reforms look like if we want to promote healthy foods and reduce obesity? Rather than just ending subsidy programs, we should develop responsible federal supply management programs that reduce overproduction and stabilize price and supply, undoing the damaging deregulation that took place in the 1980s and ‘90s.

While the idea of simply moving the dollars used to subsidize corn and soybeans over to apples and spinach is obviously appealing, it won’t solve the problem. A rural farmer with a few thousand acres of wheat can’t suddenly switch to growing tomatoes to sell directly to consumers at the farmers market. The demand and infrastructure needed to sustain this type of transition away from intensive commodity crop production no longer exist. Ending subsidies won’t change this. Doing the hard work of reforming the commodity policies in the Farm Bill could, along with enforcing anti-trust law and regulating the marketing to children of junk food.

Read more at Food & Water Watch’s Web site.

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Wenonah Hauter is Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, a national consumer organization based in Washington, D.C. She has worked extensively on food, water, energy, and environmental issues at the national, state and local level. Her book Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America examines the corporate consolidation and control over our food system and what it means for farmers and consumers. Experienced in developing policy positions and legislative strategies, she is also a skilled and accomplished organizer, having lobbied and developed grassroots field strategy and action plans. From 1997 to 2005 she served as Director of Public Citizen’s Energy and Environment Program, which focused on water, food, and energy policy. From 1996 to 1997, she was environmental policy director for Citizen Action, where she worked with the organization’s 30 state-based groups. From 1989 to 1995 she was at the Union of Concerned Scientists where as a senior organizer, she coordinated broad-based, grassroots sustainable energy campaigns in several states. She has an M.S. in Applied Anthropology from the University of Maryland. Read more >

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  1. Thank you for the snapshot of this issue. I really appreciate your analysis and work.
  2. It's great to have FWW keeping this in front of food activists. For the 2008 farm bill, too many advocated for agribusiness, by only calling for reduced subsidies for the farmer victims, but nothing to stop agribusiness from getting below cost farm commodities. So yes, we need supply reductions (bottom side of price, for farmers, and price floors also,) plus reserve supplies (topside to protect consumers and livestock farmers, and yes, processors, plus price ceilings to trigger release of reserves onto the market, as in Daryll Ray's new study, and as in decades of previous, nonsubsidy farm bill programs).

    The problems started in 1953, not 1985, however. On that see my historical charts of price floors, prices and subsidies, in my YouTube video, "Michael Pollan Rebuttal."
  3. Thank goodness for the common sense! It is feasible to transition some producers to more healthful foods, but simply shifting subsidies won't do it. More complex policies are needed to affect change in our food production system and eating habits.

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