Will Agribusiness Ever Buy the Farm?

Thinking about how my family spends money on food has made me think about how we, as a society, spend money on food.  Americans spend less of our incomes on food than any other country.  Europeans spend somewhere around 30%–we only spend 10%.  We’ve paid a high price for cheap food, however, and if American food policy doesn’t change dramatically, our children and our children’s children will be paying for it, too.

Wednesday, the House Agricultural Committee passed its version of the farm bill, which, in September, congress will reauthorize for five years.  While we’ve been hearing health care policy debated on the nightly news for months, I’ve heard very little about the farm bill–which is a larger percentage of the federal budget than education and effects the lives of every American.  Until I read Oran B. Hesterman’s Fair Food a few months ago, I didn’t even know  what the farm bill was. I’m a city girl–what do I care about a bunch of farmers?

It turns out I care a lot.   Not only is the farm bill important to our everyday lives, it also has a lot to do with the health care debate.  The obesity epidemic and the costs associated with chronic disease caused by the American diet are, in part, the result of the farm bill.  So you could say health care is so expensive because the farm bill makes sure we all stay sick.  Reforming health care should be a top priority—but it’s like hiring more police officers and then arming every criminal in town with a 38 Special.

In the 1970s, the focus of the farm bill shifted from controlling supply to creating surplus.  Farmers eventually got subsidies for over-producing commodity crops like corn and soy and these crops came to dominate American agriculture.  Farmer’s have had to “go big or get out” and most small farmers have gotten out.  Now 10% of farmers get less than 75% of farm subsidies.  In the past thirty years we have seen crop surpluses larger than the world has ever know.  We’ve had to figure out how to put this surplus to use.  What the hell do we do with all this corn?  The food industry has jumped on that train–and it isn’t delivering corn on the cob.  Instead, nearly all the corn we eat in this country is in the form of corn fed meat and high fructose corn syrup.  Nearly every product in the store–all the unhealthy ones–has corn in it.  And it’s all dirt cheap because industrial corn is subsidized.

Not surprisingly, Wednesday’s farm bill pretty much maintains the status quo.  The senate’s version had more bi-partisan support, but does basically the same thing.  One change we’ll probably see in this farm bill is that we’re finally getting rid of direct payments to farmers.  These payments, totaling about 5 billion dollars a year, go to farmers even when they don’t plant a crop.  Direct payments will be replaced by crop insurance subsidies.  So we’re eliminating subsidies to big agribusiness and giving them to insurance companies.  On the Diane Rehm show, Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group explained:

. . . in the last five years, we’ve given more than $7 billion to some of the most successful, wealthiest (insurance) companies in the world .  .  . We’re doing it in part because we’re — decade ago, we thought we needed to get farmers to buy insurance. We were going to do whatever it takes. So we not only subsidized farmers to buy insurance, we subsidized insurance companies to sell them these policies. And now, they are enjoying extraordinary profits. Over the next 10 years, we are slated to give these companies, some of the extremely wealthy companies, many based in tax havens, $15 billion.  We could avoid all these nutrition cuts, cuts to the environment and invest even more in healthy diets if we were able to just say no to big insurance companies.

Michael Polan has pointed out that we can’t blame subsidies alone for the surplus problem–farmers have always over-produced to keep their heads above water when prices fall.  But with subsidies contributing to the problem of industrialized commodity crop surpluses, we have a health and environmental crisis on our hands.

So big agribusiness wins again. In five years we’ll have another chance to change things. It’s a David and Goliath endeavor, but the fair food movement is gaining momentum and eventually things will change.  When it does, we may see the end of artificially cheap food–but we may also see the end of unaffordable  health care.

Time Magazine: Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food

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