Congress needs to overhaul farm bill to cut out Big Ag’s pork

September 20, 2012 

One of the biggest items Congress has on its to-do list is the farm bill, which expires at the end of September. The farm bill sets our nation’s agricultural and food policy, part of which authorizes a set of misguided agricultural subsidy programs that lavish billions of taxpayer dollars on large, profitable agribusinesses.

Most Washington farmers see little of these subsidies, yet Washington taxpayers are still forced to contribute to these handouts regardless of our troublesome state budget deficit.

These subsidy programs were created during the Great Depression to provide a financial safety net for small, rural farmers. In the decades since, the farm sector has changed and these subsidies have been expanded and altered to the point that they serve a very different role.

Six million rural farms have dwindled to just over 2 million, with a marked shift from small family farms to giant corporate agribusinesses. These highly profitable agribusinesses no longer need taxpayer assistance. Last year, the agricultural sector saw record profits of $98 billion. This year, even in the face of a drought, they are expected to shatter last year’s records with profits of $122 billion.

Big Ag has not been shy about leveraging its profits into increased political influence. In 2008, the last time the farm bill was up for reauthorization, it spent $178 million on lobbying and campaign contributions.

As a result, the bill disproportionately subsidizes large, mature agribusinesses. Of the $277 billion spent on agricultural subsidies since 1995, 75 percent of the total went to just 3.8 percent of U.S. farmers. The spending was skewed towards the largest farms, not small family farms.

Of the $4.28 billion in agricultural subsidies, Washington has received since 1995, 66 percent went to just 10 percent of farmers, and 82 percent didn’t receive a dime.

In Pierce County, rates were almost identical, with the top 10 percent of recipients collecting an average of $7,211 a year, or more than 30 times the average of the bottom 80 percent of recipients. The disparity was even higher in Thurston County.

Not only are these handouts going to companies that don’t need them, but frequently these funds subsidize the production of additives that put public health at risk.

Our research has found that over $18 billion has gone to subsidize junk food ingredients such as high-fructose corn syrup and soy-derived vegetable fats since 1995. The subsidies for corn and soy production vastly outweigh those for fresh produce. For example, U.S. apple growers have received only $637 million since 1995.

To put these numbers in perspective, the subsidies to junk food ingredients could buy each taxpayer 21 Twinkies per year. In comparison, the yearly subsidies for apples could buy each taxpayer just half of one Red Delicious apple.

This waste of taxpayer dollars is particularly outrageous given the gravity of the childhood obesity epidemic. Childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have more than tripled in the past 30 years. In 2007, 29.5 percent of children in Washington were overweight or obese, a 4.5 percent increase from 2005.

Public health experts, small farmers and conservative taxpayer groups want a farm bill with real reform, not one that wastes taxpayer dollars and underwrites junk food ingredients.

Under pressure, both the Senate and House have proposed removing one of the worst subsidies, the direct payment program, thereby saving $45 billion over 10 years. Unfortunately, they would then plow that savings into new subsidy programs benefiting the same large, profitable agribusinesses. While the Senate has passed its flawed bill, bipartisan opposition has so far held up a vote in the House.

With only a few working days in September left before lawmakers head home to campaign, Congress will need to grapple with the calendar in order to act before the current farm bill expires. It is crucial for Congress to reform the outdated system of agricultural subsidies and end these corporate handouts.

Members on both sides of the aisle will campaign on cutting wasteful spending and deficit reduction – how they handle the farm bill vote will be an important test of their commitment to making sure taxpayer dollars aren’t wasted on giveaways to special interests.

MacKenzie Fuentes is a program associate with the Washington Public Interest Research Group. She graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in comparative sociology. Email her at mfuentes@ washpirg.org.

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