Our global food system is skewed and distorted by one big type of government programs: farm subsidies.
Worldwide, perverse subsidies total a whopping $2 trillion a year. They are especially prominent in six leading sectors: agriculture, fossil fuels, road transportation, water, forests, and fisheries—all of which pertain to the global food system. Farm subsidies worlwide are estimated at $350 billion a year. They typically support industrial agriculture. In doing so, they promote the erosion of topsoil, pollution from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the release of greenhouse gases. More often than not, they lead to overproduction of certain commodities which then are “dumped” on international markets at such low prices that they wreak havoc in local economies. Simultaneously, subsidies for water encourage misuse and overuse of supplies that are increasingly scarce in many areas; subsidies for ocean fisheries foster the overharvesting of fish stocks; while forestry subsidies encourage overlogging and other forms of deforestation, aggravating climate change.
Perverse subsidies “serve, by definition, to foster unsustainable development,” in the words of British environmentalist Norman Myers.
In the U.S., these subsidies are allocated by the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is debated and voted by Congress every five years. Its latest installment, in 2008, allocated $60 billion to farmers who grow commodities—corn, soybeans, cotton, rice and wheat. These mostly provide cheap feed for livestock and biofuel processing, as well as raw material (high-fructose corn syrup, soy oil and various corn- and soy-based food additives) for highly processed, nutrient-empty foods. No fresh-produce grower benefits from such government generosity. This system “makes unhealthy foods cheap, and healthy foods expensive”, as Andrew Weil, the celebrity integrative medicine guru, puts it. It also contributes to wreaking economic and social havoc abroad, as cheap U.S. commodities like corn and soy overwhelm foreign markets and drive local growers out of business (see Food Sovereignty).
Furthermore, subsidies reward scale and monocrops. As such, they provide industrial agriculture with a huge and unfair advantage.
As Congressional conversations have already gone under way ahead of the vote on the 2012 Bill, health and nutrition advocates have started mobilizing, joined by sustainable farming activists and local foodsheds supporters, with a view of shifting the priorities enacted in the next Bill.
“Power, money, bad traditions and bad attitudes have been ruling the Farm Bill”, said Ken Cook recently in San Francisco. Ken Cook is the president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group. He showed two maps to demonstrate how broken the system is. On the first one, the San Francisco Bay Area disappeared under a thick blanket of pins designating farm-subsidy recipients even though the region’s farms were notoriously displaced long ago by urban development: it is landowners, not tenant farmers or farm workers, who benefit from subsidies. One does not even have to be the owner of farmland to receive subsidies: since 2000, the USDA has paid $1.3 billion in farm subsidies to people who own land that is no longer used for farming.
On the second map, the middle of the country was colored in red, indicating the location of the 22 districts that received half of all subsidies between 1995 and 2004, out of a total of 435.
￼The 2012 electoral climate is going to provide a most challenging context for the proponents of a Farm Bill built on new priorities. The American Farm Bureau, a powerful lobby in Washington, DC that represents mostly the interests of the big farms, is a staunch supporter of the subsidies. It is not about to let go of its grip over the current system. Interestingly enough, 23 Congress members are so entrenched in that system as to have collected, either directly or through their family, over $5.8 million of farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009 (91.6 percent of it went to seventeen Republicans; six Democrats shared the rest).
This being said, there are reasons to be optimistic. The worrisome possibility that the 2012 Farm Bill may eschew a public debate, and be folded instead in the deficit reduction package put together by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, disappeared when the latter declared its failure to reach an agreement last November 21st.
Now, the budget deficit presents us with the perfect opportunity to cut spending on perverse subsidies, starting with putting an end to direct payments to big industrial farms. In fact, the recommendations drafted by Debbie Stabenow, Senator of Michigan and chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, as she collaborated with the other three leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees on the Farm Bill behind close doors in the weeks leading up to November 21st, proposed just that [account by the National Sustainable Agriculture.
Secondly, the time is ripe to push for a reduced government-aid program that would support the transition to sustainable farming practices (see Petition, requests #1 and #2) with the long-term view of reducing spending across the board. Indeed, sustainable agriculture does not carry the huge externalities (damages whose costs are not reflected in the final price of the product) that are currently associated with industrial agriculture. In fact, sustainable farming practices would eventually lower the burden of degraded public health, environmental damage and social disruptions that are passed on to taxpayers by Big Ag.
Last but not least, let’s bear in mind that mobilizing just 5 percent of the public opinion is what it took for the European Union to impose a moratorium on genetically-modified crops in 1998. Think of what is actually possible and available to us if we, citizens of this big nation, put our collective mind to it.
[download here the recommendations drafted by Debbie Stabenow, Senator of Michigan and chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, as she collaborated with the other three leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees on the legislation behind close doors.