Wednesday, July 18, 2012

FERN asks: Whose Side is the American Farm Bureau On?

The Nation this week explores the American Farm Bureau, which, through affiliated organizations, is simultaneously one of the most important farm lobby groups and also a major insurance operation.  The story is by Pulitzer-winning writer Ian Shearn.  It was supported by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN).

Interesting passages address influence over the upcoming Farm Bill ...
In Washington, the 2012 Farm Bill has predictably been a top priority for the Farm Bureau lobby team. They have surprised players from both sides of the debate by conceding cuts in traditional subsidies in exchange for a large expansion of subsidized crop insurance that protects against disasters and falling prices at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $9 billion a year. The tactical, philosophical shift garnered praise even from Farm Bureau adversaries. Nonetheless, it should be noted that crop insurance is a small, but significant piece of Farm Bureau insurance companies’ portfolio. In 2011, they collected over $300 million in crop insurance premiums. 
... and contribution to the tenor of U.S. agricultural policy debate:
American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman was succinct, almost militant in his opening address last year at the group’s annual meeting: “We will not stand idly by while opponents of today’s American agriculture…try to drag us down…try to bury us in bureaucratic red tape and costly regulation—and try to destroy the most productive and efficient agricultural system in the world,” he said.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Federal government says all sorts of things about soy milk

Mark Bittman this week describes how he overcame years of heartburn by giving up milk.  Though the NYT columnist agrees this experience hardly counts as a controlled experiment, it does point his critical attention toward USDA's dietary guidance message about dairy.
Today the Department of Agriculture’s recommendation for dairy is a mere three cups daily — still 1½ pounds by weight — for every man, woman and child over age 9. This in a country where as many as 50 million people are lactose intolerant, including 90 percent of all Asian-Americans and 75 percent of all African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Jews. The site helpfully suggests that those people drink lactose-free beverages. (To its credit, it now counts soy milk as “dairy.”)
There’s no mention of water, which is truly nature’s perfect beverage; the site simply encourages us to switch to low-fat milk. 
Regarding MyPlate's inclusion of soy milk in the dairy group, however, not all federal government messaging seems to agree.

Soybean checkoff message

Like Bittman and MyPlate, the United Soybean Board also has high praise for soy milk. The board is a government-sponsored checkoff program, which has authority from Congress to issue federal government messages in favor of soybeans using money from a mandatory assessment on soybean producers. From the soybean checkoff website link we learn:
Soymilk is a great source of high-quality soy protein, frequently fortified with calcium and vitamin D for bone health, and an option for the lactose-intolerant.

Dairy checkoff message 

But the federal government's dairy checkoff program disagrees.  The program has authority from Congress to issue federal government messages in favor of dairy products using money from a mandatory assessment on dairy producers.  The dairy checkoff program has a bitterly sarcastic satirical flash-based interactive website, mocking soy milk for its sugar content, long ingredient list, and food science chemistry manipulations.

Mixed messages

By using checkoff programs to sponsor contradictory messages for different commodities -- while approving each message as "government speech" -- the federal government serves consumers poorly.  When will these programs be reformed?

Thursday, July 05, 2012

House Agriculture Committee to propose deep cuts to SNAP

In contrast with the medium-sized cuts to SNAP proposed by the Senate (see earlier post), the House Agriculture Committee today proposed deep cuts.

"Do Republicans in Congress want to fix the food stamp program — or punish it?," asks David Rogers at Politico:
That’s the question facing the House Agriculture Committee leadership as it rolls out its plan this week to cut farm subsidies together with about $16 billion in 10-year savings from food stamps — also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The Politico account portrays House Agriculture Committee chair Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) as a relative moderate, compared to House leadership that almost appears to want to sink Farm Bill legislation for the year.

The story quotes Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA) to illustrate some Republicans' animosity toward the nation's most important anti-hunger program:
“Americans, working Americans, the middle income and low-income working Americans — they are out there doing the best they can and struggling — are sick and tired of watching the abuses of the system,” Scott said. “I just want to say this one more time. You can’t feed the hungry by starving the farmer.”
"Starving the farmer" is quite some rhetoric. Net farm income this year is $91.7 billion, the second highest on record in nominal terms. For the commercial farm households who receive the highest level of subsidy, average farm income in 2010 (the most recent year available) was $135,000 and average household income was $185,000.  The many farmers who are "starving," relatively speaking, get much lower subsidies.

I am surprised that the politics of this works out well for the House Republicans. If the point is to protect farm programs and taxpayers by sticking it to poor people, it would still seem necessary to craft a bill that actually can pass. Tom Laskawy writes at Grist:
I would argue that the cuts to food stamps will be a non-starter for numerous House Democrats — many of whose votes will be needed to pass the bill, probably ending hopes for a new farm bill before the election.
Picking a no-holds-barred brawl with the Senate, leading to the bill's failure this year, drawing the wider public's scrutiny to farm policy, seems likely to harm the constituencies of rural and urban legislators alike.  But perhaps they see something I don't.