When it comes to the new Farm Bill, food stamps seem to get all the attention.
In the Senate, $4.1 billion in cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is where the Farm Bill sees the bulk of its savings. Disputes over deeper cuts prompted the House to drop the food stamp portion of the bill entirely.
With SNAP out of the way, Congress was free to focus on farming, and presented with an opportunity to save billions more. But when the same budget-minded lawmakers are confronted with farm subsidies, the call for reform remains largely ignored.
Since 1995, the government has spent more than $292 billion on farm subsidies, and proponents insist that federal dollars still go to protect the family farm. Subsidy critics say that while the Depression-era program was designed to help struggling farmers, today the money benefits just a few of the nation’s most lucrative farming operations. According to the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), 75 percent of subsidies go to 3.8 percent of farmers.
Several amendments have emerged to tackle the issue. The Kind-Petri AFFIRM Act, for example, was designed to save taxpayers $11 billion over the next decade by setting limits on how much the largest agribusinesses could collect. The measure was narrowly defeated in June, 208 to 217.
In July, further attempts to change the House bill were made even more difficult because the legislation was presented under a closed rule, meaning no amendments were allowed. The Farm Bill had become, according to Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a “pork-laden giveaway to agribusiness.”
“I appreciate the relentless focus on the nutrition programs at risk, but remember this is going to be the costliest Farm Bill in history. It contains no reform. It concentrates federal cash on the largest most profitable agribusiness. It short changes conservation, guts protection of wetlands, prairies, and forests. It rewards government dependency, not innovation,” Blumenauer said on the House floor on July 11.
Several subsidy amendments enjoyed wide bipartisan support, but not enough to change policy. According to California PIRG Field Director Austin Price, the influence of agribusiness lobbies has been hard for lawmakers to resist. Price said last time Congress passed a Farm Bill, in 2008, these groups spent $200 million on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. Last year, they spent $132 million.
“The agriculture lobbies buy billboards in the D.C. metro area where the legislators go every day saying that these subsidies go to family farms. What they mean is, in these big agribusinesses the majority of the shares are owned by one family. It’s not necessarily what you or I would think of family farms,” said Price.
While the House has made minimal changes to subsidies, the Senate has introduced some reform. Its version of the bill eliminates the direct payment system, which pays farmers whether or not they grow crops.
“It’s a positive step but we really don’t think that it goes far enough when we’re having discussions about how we fund education and how we fund our crumbling infrastructure,” said Price.
According to Price, subsidies are not only a great place to trim the budget, they can also be used to address the nation’s obesity epidemic. PIRG’s recent report on agriculture subsidies, “Apples to Twinkies,” reveals how federal tax dollars benefit just a few key crops, resulting in a system that incentivizes empty calories.
While much of the nation’s most subsidized crops—corn and soy—are used to feed livestock, a significant portion become food additives such as high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, and hydrogenated oil. The result is cheaper junk food, courtesy of the taxpayer.
Compare this to fresh produce, which receives very few federal dollars. Out of all fruits and vegetables, apples receive the most money, but support is nowhere near that of commodity crops.
To get a picture for how subsidy allocation relates to real food, PIRG said that over the past 20 years each taxpayer has purchased 20 Twinkies, but only half an apple.
“This is especially incredible in that we’re really paying for these ingredients three times. We pay for them once through subsidies, we pay for them a second time at the grocery store, and we pay for them a third time when it increases health care costs,” said Price.