The latest edition of the federal farm bill, a 1,000-page tome that Congress produces every five years, continues an unbroken string of laws that would pour taxpayers' money into a system that helps big farms get bigger, gluts the market with starches, sweeteners and fats adding significantly to the girth of the average American and does little to encourage cultivation or consumption of foods that are better for you, in ways that are better for the Earth.
The bill that has come out of the Senate Agriculture Committee with bipartisan support, and may make its way to the Senate floor in days, is celebrated by its backers because it does eliminate the least-popular part of the process. Direct subsidies to growers of wheat, corn, rice, soybeans and cotton would be zeroed out, saving some $5 billion a year.
Those are or were taxpayer incentives that have pushed farmers to devote more and more acres to producing those easy-to-store crops at levels that far exceed the market's demand. Government subsidies have made up the difference when grain gluts lead to price crashes. Meanwhile, the flood of cheap commodities leads to the industrial-scale production of diabetes-inducing foodstuffs such as high fructose corn syrup, sweetened cereal and corn-fed beef.
All those years of subsidies did little to help small-scale, organic or just locally produced food, and nothing to help the growers, or consumers, of healthier fruits and vegetables.
But the Senate bill, according to those worried about the quality of our food, is a big bait and switch. The bill would turn the $5 billion a year that had been spent on subsidies to growers into $9 billion a year in different kinds of supports, mostly to subsidize premiums for insurance policies that would pay off if a farmer's crop were destroyed by weather or infestation, or if market forces caused the price of a commodity to fall below what it cost a farmer to produce.
Moving farmers from dependence on government to an insurance-based safety net is an idea that has been around for a long time. And it could be a good one, if the taxpayers weren't going to be paying for insurance policies to protect agribusiness from its own bad practices practices that include glutting markets and creating monocultures of plants that are particularly susceptible to pests and disease.
The new bill even ends the practice of requiring that farm operations meet minimal environmental standards in return for government support. And it cuts food aid to the poor so that it can claim to meet budget-trimming goals.
This bill is clearly not the improvement its authors claim that it is. Congress should start over on this one.