Farm bill politics

  • Article by: BONNIE BLODGETT
  • Updated: August 3, 2013 - 4:26 PM

To call this thing a bill is misleading. It’s a labyrinth. One with legs.

What is the 2013 farm bill? Sorry, trick question. I’ll give you a hint. It has to do with subsidies. And crop insurance. Oh, and food stamps. They’re on the table, too.

Still stumped? I feel your pain. Who has time to follow a piece of legislation so wide-ranging it boggles the minds even of our busiest Capitol Hill lobbyists?

To call this thing a bill is misleading. It’s a labyrinth. One with legs. Conceived during the Great Depression to protect farmers in the event of another collapse in crop prices, the farm bill grew and grew until it contained measures affecting everything from wetland preservation to energy policy.

Free food for poor people — a provision now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — was a cornerstone of the original farm bill. In 1938, the United States was awash in grain and lacked a hungry Third World to sell it to. The nutrition program helped struggling farmers and impoverished families at the same time. It was a no-brainer.

The bad rap on SNAP, which was stripped from the House version of the farm bill last month, is so skewed as to be almost comical. Its critics blame the recent spike in food-stamp spending (from $39 billion in 2008 to $81 billion this year) on Obama-era mismanagement, ignoring the mismanagement of the economy itself by previous administrations that put millions of Americans out of work.

But getting back to the future …

Every five years the farm bill gets a tuneup and a new name reflecting hot-button issues of the day. The 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Act’s save-the-wetlands agenda caused a stir when it was discovered that the biggest handouts were going to the richest farmers — farmers like former President Jimmy Carter and powerful members of Congress. Non-farmers, too: a Rockefeller heir was paid to keep his vast land holdings out of cultivation.

Those inequities set the stage for a fiery debate over the 2013 Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act, so named because jobs are high on the president’s to-do list, while reform reflects Republican priorities, such as crop insurance. Private insurers will take over from government the task of direct payment. How they’ll do that is problematic. Existing crop insurance subsidies cost taxpayers $9 billion a year and most of the benefits go to — you guessed it — the richest farmers and biggest players in the agribusiness industry.

So here’s what’s interesting: Congress’ unwillingness to take on serious issues related to the farm bill has created a rare meeting of minds on the far left and far right of the political spectrum. Progressives and libertarians who disagree on most things have one ideological bias in common: They are deeply wary of concentrated wealth and any form of centralized power that endangers individual liberties. Whether the threat comes from big government or big business matters less these days. To these groups the line between the two seems to be growing blurrier by the hour.

In an interview with the New York Times, the Club for Growth president, Chris Chocola, called the farm bill’s guarantee of “historically high prices” (U.S. farmers made record profits last year) unfair to small farmers here and abroad. “How can developing countries compete with our massive subsidies? You can talk about improving the plight of the poor in the Third World, but … there’s nothing free-market about it.”

“Only an evil genius could have dreamed this up,” is how Scott Faber of the Environmental Working Group summarized the bill, adding that Chocola is correct about small farmers. Most don’t get a nickel from the government. Instead they get the shaft.

Meanwhile, there’s a larger issue. By “small farmers,” Faber isn’t referring to the ones who sell organic fruits and vegetables through food co-ops and farmers markets. He means conventional grain farmers whose corn, wheat and soybeans can be grown and harvested in mass quantities with little labor, stored for long periods, delivered immense distances and efficiently turned into the nutritiously dubious processed foods that Americans eat and export. These commercially attractive traits distinguish commodities from garden-variety foodstuffs such as asparagus, crabapples, kale and cucumbers.

The farm bill isn’t about free-range chickens or grass-fed beef, either — though it does contain a tiny subsidy for those who grow and sell such esoteric things, as long as the farmers receiving the stipend pledge their willingness to transform the food system. Yup, that’s actually written into the bill … somewhere.

Transformation won’t happen any time soon if this hydra-headed monster passes. And it will pass. With or without SNAP. Its proponents call it a fair compromise, as if anything bipartisan is better than honest conversation about whether America really does have an obligation to feed the world — the strongest argument in favor of the status quo — or if the world’s long-term interests might better be served by a system composed of self-reliant communities able to feed themselves.

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Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul.

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