As the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction continues to debate ways to find $1.2 trillion in savings, we are hearing plenty of rhetoric from committee members and other elected officials about the “difficult choices” we need to make as a country about what our priorities for the future will be. Advocates in both the farm and public health community are presenting us with a false choice: we can either fund subsidies that help commodity crop farmers (wheat, corn, soybeans and the like) or we can fund programs that help farmers markets and CSAs.
The “either/or” attitude that farm bill advocates have about the programs they support presents lawmakers with a choice, and it’s a false one that doesn’t serve either the farm or public health community well. After the addition of federal nutrition programs in 1973, the farm bill – all 1,100 complex pages of it — became a grand compromise, a win-win, for farmers and hunger and nutrition advocates. The 2008 Farm Bill made historic strides in bringing together disparate interests for one common goal; in fact, Congress overrode not one, but two presidential vetoes to pass the bill because of overwhelming support from the public. And now, just three years later, these interests are being pitted against each other in a battle for every last dollar.
What makes National Farmers Union unique among farm organizations is that we don’t buy into the “choice.” We believe that all family farmers ought to be able to make a decent living, whether they grow wheat or watercress, corn or carrots. We also believe that everyone should have an abundant supply of affordable and nutritious food to eat. However, farmers often feel threatened by healthy food advocates who call for the elimination of “farm subsidies,” painted with one broad, vague brush. It’s time that we move beyond the current divisive debate and talk about comprehensive policy reforms that support both a healthy rural economy and a healthy population.
As a recent study commissioned by Food and Water Watch and the Public Health Institute posits, subsidies are not the problem with our food system, and therefore eliminating subsidies will not be the solution. Commodity farmers are operating in a system in which they have very little control; as we like to say, farmers are price-takers, not price-makers, and they overproduce because it makes sense for them as individuals. In other words, as commodity prices drop and farmers receive less money per bushel or acre, they try and make up the difference by planting more acres and harvesting more bushels, which only drives prices down further.
So why wouldn’t the elimination of farm subsidies disincentivize commodity production and encourage farmers to plant more fruits and vegetables? Well, frankly, because we’ve tried it already. Farm subsidies were developed as a way to deal with overproduction problems, not the other way around.
Prior to 1996, federal commodity programs dealt with overproduction in a systemic way by managing commodity supplies available on the market and establishing a price floor that ensured farmers recouped at least their cost of production. These programs were, in fact, fairly successful in removing incentives for overproduction and ensuring a stable price for both farmers and consumers. However, these programs were dismantled by the 1996 farm bill in order to give farmers the “freedom to farm.” What actually resulted was that farmers now had the freedom to fail. Without the market stability provided by the farm safety net programs, commodities flooded the market, prices collapsed, and Congress authorized billions of dollars in emergency payments to farmers to prevent an entire nation of farmers from going out of business.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t ways to reform commodity programs so that they are more effective and cost taxpayers less money, and ways to incentivize fruit and vegetable production and the creation of necessary infrastructure. But just as it has taken us decades to construct our present food system and federal food policies, flawed as they may be, it is sure to take us considerable time to reform the system so that it works better for both family farmers and consumers. It is clear that there’s no magic bullet, and there may be things on which we can never agree. However, advocates in the farm and public health communities have an obligation to the constituencies we serve to work together to reject the false choices we are presented with and find real policy solutions that serve our mutual goals.