Thursday, June 21, 2007

House subcommittee seeks status quo on Farm Bill

A House subcommittee considering the 2007 Farm Bill on Tuesday rejected every proposal for reform and voted to continue the status quo of subsidy programs from the 2002 Farm Bill for another five years. The full House Agriculture Committee will consider the subcommittee's decision in early July, after which there may be an unusual fight on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The current Farm Bill, passed in 2002, spends billions of dollars each year in subsidies that go in large part to an elite group of immense farm businesses. These businesses principally grow row crops such as corn and soybeans that are used for animal feed to support the industries that produce our milk, cheese, beef, and pork. There are almost no such subsidies for fruit and vegetable growers.

To a great extent, the ultimate beneficiaries of the subsidies are not farmers but landowners, whether they live near the land or not, who can charge farmers higher rents because of the subsidies. Due to high land prices, the subsidy system helps prevent young farmers from taking up their parents' work. The current Farm Bill is ineffective in supporting rural economies in the United States.

In the current Farm Bill, subsidies are only partly disentangled from farmers' decisions about how much to produce, so the government programs encourage overproduction. This overproduction damages the environment and helps suppress world commodity prices, which immiserates farmers in the developing world. Thus, the current Farm Bill helps make the world's poorest people yet more poor.

This is the status quo that the House subcommittee voted to continue for another five years.

Who are these people?

The Environmental Working Group, which maintains an excellent database of USDA records on farm subsidy payments, reports that the 18 Congressional districts represented on this subcommittee received more than $10 billion in subsidies in 2003-2005 -- almost one quarter of all the subsidies received nationally. The table is reproduced below. The environmental group's president Ken Cook writes in his weblog, Mulch:
Today’s vote is Exhibit A in the case for not letting farm subsidy policies be decided by the subsidized. The subcommittee asked itself: Is the current inequitable crop subsidy system the best that we can do with billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money every year? And the subcommittee answered, unanimously: Yup!
There is excellent dispassionate yet punchy coverage from Keith Good's Farm Policy, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, and there are good action links for outraged readers from Ethicurean.

Farm Subsidy Dollars and Ranking of Districts Represented on the Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management

Source: Environmental Working Group (.pdf) (excerpt, follow link for complete file).


Janet said...

Thanks for the pithy update. I'd been modestly hopeful we might see some progress this year, but it isn't looking that way. I'm disgusted.

Aliza said...

I now see that you already posted on the Commodity title mark-up (or lack thereof).

Tom Philpott wrote an interesting post on Grist today, responding to what Ken Cook wrote recently about farmers not really being beholden to agribusiness input companies. Philpott strongly recommends not necessarily blaming the farmer for the situation many are caught up in with the increasing prices of inputs and the decreasing prices they get paid for product, in many cases.

Parke Wilde said...

Philpott's article makes the great point that one shouldn't insult farmers as part of arguing against farm subsidies.

Still, as a reader, I don't follow Tom the whole length of the road he covers under the heading, "First, Let's (Not) Kill All the Farmers." Notwithstanding some overly sharp words from Ken Cook, subsidy reformers aren't out to kill all the farmers. Drastically reforming the row crop subsidies, spending some of the money in better farm programs and saving some of the money for better uses altogether, would help more farmers than it would harm.

My Tufts colleague Tim Wise and I had the chance to debate Tim's 2005 report, which Philpott cites in this section, here on U.S. Food Policy ( my post, Tim's response).