Divided We Subsidize Agribusiness

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on May 21, 2008

Does anyone else feel a little like we’ve entered the Twilight Zone? Today we have Bush — yes, that same Bush whose gall in blatantly supporting corporate and wealthy interests over those of regular citizens has seemed to know no limits — vetoing the Farm Bill, and he’s doing it, get this, because it gives too much money to the rich. He says the income caps for farm subsidies should be lower. Is that the shadow of a pig flying outside my window?

Even stranger, this is the time that Congress manages to stand up to him and muster enough votes for an override.

[Editor’s note: According to an article in the May 22 edition of The Washington Post, a “clerical error” that omitted a section of the bill before it went to the White House means that the House will have to vote again on the bill today.]

Now, of course, many of you in the community development community and working in low-income neighborhoods are saying, “Um, yeah. Thank god they’re going to override it! That bill has got huge increases in food stamps and crucial nutrition programs. We need it to pass.”

And that’s true. The farm bill is a masterful example of that bizarre American tradition of lumping unrelated programs and amendments into one bill in order to have something for everyone and make it hard to vote against.

A majority of the funding in the bill does go to nutrition programs that sorely need funding. Some of it also goes to worthy conservation programs.

The problem is the billions and billions of dollars going to subsidize millionaire agri-business “farmers” (in this bill the income cap does come down to $750,000, $1.5 million for couples). The mishmash of different subsidies, but especially the $5 billion in automatic payments for crops such as corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton, amount to a incredible redistribution of wealth upward from taxpayers to a few rich folks. Ten percent of farmers get 70 percent of the subsidies. The automatic payments are made no matter what happens to prices, even if a farm turns a record profit, as commodity growers are certainly doing this year.

Can you imagine the outcry if residents of low-income neighborhoods got welfare payments or Medicaid no matter how much money they personally earned? Perhaps as a poverty-reduction strategy what we should do is buy marginal land in the name of poor urban folks and claim it’s being planted in soybeans and corn.

Seriously though, these subsidies are encouraging monoculture commodity farming over sustainable, diverse farming, diversion of food-producing land to biofuels that won’t actually help with global warming, and huge expense of taxpayer dollars without actually providing a safety net to the majority of the country’s farmers.

All the complex details of how to create a fair agricultural safety net, from crop insurance to conservation requirements, may be something to leave to the agriculture policy wonks. But the fact is that organizations that care about and are fighting for things like sustainable communities, family farms, fighting hunger globally, and environmental protection all think the (agriculture part of) the farm bill is atrocious. The New York Times soundly trashed it, calling it “disgraceful.” But they lost the support they should have had from most progressives because the nutrition programs were part of the bill.

As hard as it is to be on Bush’s side about anything, low-income advocates should think twice about being bribed to support manifestly awful policy like this. Poor urban residents are going to need a functional global food system and affordable food prices long-term too.

If it makes you feel any better, the veto is almost certainly only grandstanding on Bush’s part, probably trying to belatedly burnish McCain’s image. He not only knew it would be overridden, but as Dan Morgan over at Foodpolicy.com points out, he insisted early on on keeping the worst subsidies in there:

But a larger share of the blame may go to the White House. For all the Bush administrationís rhetoric about the need for more subsidy reform, it insisted on keeping or expanding the biggest subsidy of all — the $5 billion in automatic payments. That stand cost it the high ground in the end game of negotiations over the farm bill.

The fight on this one is over for now, but going forward, it’s time to do a little soul-searching: What do we do when important legislation is held hostage to horrible legislation? When, and how, do we put our feet down for sustainable long-term policies that built a better world overall, even if it puts some short-term (yet crucial) Band-Aids at risk?

About the author more ¬Ľ

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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