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Congress in Your Kitchen

July 24, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

Every five years Congress is burdened with the task of extending the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that began as a way to support small farmers from collapsing prices during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Over time, the bill’s focus has moved away from its original intent and has become a subsidy for a select group of crops, passing savings along to the big agribusiness corporations who use them in manufacturing. This system has come under increased criticism for its negative impacts on such wide-ranging issues as the health of Americans (and all the personal and social harms caused by poor health), global poverty and immigration, and environmental degradation. The bill will hit the House floor on Thursday and unfortunately, it looks like the farm bill reform that Americans had been hoping for will have to wait another five years.

The bill was approved on Thursday by the House Agriculture Committee and has the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). It is an enormously long and complicated document that affects programs like food stamps, rural community development, school lunches, pest management for organic farmers, and wetland conservation. This is all well and good. The problem, however, is that the bill retains the massive subsidies for corn, soybeans, cotton, rice, and wheat that many believe are at the root of the problems that these other provisions are attempting to solve.

Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” ”"target="_blank">explains — using the Twinkie as an example — how our “agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives”:

>Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.
>That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

…And that’s how Congress helps stock your pantry.

The current proposal that is about to hit the House floor does little to level the playing field for growers of produce. It keeps subsidies for the select crops at the same level they were at when the bill was last extended in 2002. In a strange reversal of roles, President Bush had requested that an income cap of $200,000 be put on the subsidies, but the Democrat-authored bill, supported by Speaker Pelosi, would keep the cap at $1million. A scathing Washington Post editorial published today explained, from a fiscal perspective, why this cap should be lowered:

>Currently, half of the cash the country pours into farming goes to only about 20 congressional districts. According to the Agriculture Department, in 2004 a third of agricultural payouts went to “very large” operations that boasted average annual incomes above a quarter of a million dollars. These subsidies have helped push rural land prices up and small family farmers out of the market. Other farm payments have been even more misdirected: A Post investigation found that the government gave $1.3 billion between 2000 and 2006 to landowners who did not farm at all. The billions spent on subsidies could be used for any number of other priorities, agricultural or otherwise — food stamps, conservation programs or debt reduction, for example.

So, why would Democrats want to hold on to these subsidies for farmers making up to $1 million per year? It’s political:

>Pelosi’s prime motivation in supporting the current farm policy apparently is to preserve the re-election prospects of freshman Democrats in rural districts who toppled Republicans in November and helped secure Democrats their House majority and Pelosi the speakership. Nine of the freshmen sit on the House Agriculture Committee. Several said they feared any vote to reform farm programs would endanger their political prospects.

When the bill hits the floor, it will be open to amendments and the nine freshman Democrats from the Agriculture Committee will have less sway over how it comes out. We can expect an amendment to be offered by Ron Kind (D-WI) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) that would lower the subsidy cap to a level closer to that requested by the President. There could even be some political strategizing in holding out on lowering the cap until the bill hits the floor: that way the cap can be lowered without the freshman worried about disappointing their farmer constituents ever having to vote for it.

For more on the farm bill and all that it entails, check out Michael Pollan on the Brian Lehrer Show. He lays down the issues in clear, certain terms:

And once you’re done with that clip, check out the previous one from the same show. It features Micah Sifry of the Sunlight Foundation and previewing last night’s You Tube/CNN debate:

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