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It's Time To Upend The Farm Bill

As far as federal spending programs go, the farm bill enjoys a relatively benign reputation. For urban and suburban America, it's completely uninteresting- but largely irreproachable. What could be wrong with spending that protects our family farms AND keeps food prices low- and now nurtures a fledgling ethanol industry? A lot, it turns out, and all Americans should urge their representatives in congress to reform the farm bill, which is up for vote very soon. The health - economic, cultural, and physical- of our nation, but also of the whole world, depends on it.

First and foremost, there is a major flaw in the popular understanding of our farm subsidies. They do not benefit family farms, but harm them. Agricultural subsidies are tied to production- the more farms produce, the more they get. Thus, the system is rigged so that large industrial and corporate operations receive the lion's share of the subsidies, because they can achieve levels of production the subsidies reward. Small farms don't get as big a slice of the subsidy pie, and as their large competitors are benefited all the more by government welfare, this makes it harder for small farms to compete. To do so, small farms must over extend themselves, which drives many to bankruptcy- and the larger operations then buy them up.

As for the second touted benefit of farm subsidies, cheap food proves to be no benefit at all. Americans are dangerously over-nourished: levels of obesity, diabetes and hypertension are soaring. What need do we have for cheap food any longer? If you say the poor need it, well, they suffer some of the highest rates of the aforementioned afflictions. How can that be? It turns out that corn and soybean production are two of the major benefactors of our subsidies, and high fructose corn syrup and soybean oil are the building blocks of our high fat, high calorie processed and fast foods- our cheapest, most plentiful foods. Our government is effectively subsidizing an impending health crisis.

It is also argued that corn ought to receive substantial subsidies as the major ingredient of our incipient ethanol revolution. Energy independence beckons. This is a bill of goods. The scientific community has presented ample evidence that corn is hardly the most fruitful source of ethanol. New York State, for example, is pioneering ethanol production from willow trees, because willow produces the fuel more densely and reproduces biomass more quickly. Ethanol has become synonymous with corn in the American mind only because corn already has a generous support system in place. Take away its subsidies, and ethanol producers would- should- choose another source than corn. If this administration is serious about promoting ethanol production that is cost effective and truly efficient, it is obliged to omit corn- and its subsidies- from the process.

Perhaps the greatest argument against US farm subsidies concerns its international effects, which are little known here at home, but come back to haunt us. Simply put, our agricultural subsidies - and also those of Europe- are killing agricultural industries in the developing world. Anyone who has taken a cruise to the Caribbean sees this at work: you might have noticed the fallow fields on these islands- perhaps you accepted them as part of the docile scenery; you might have noticed the exclusively imported foods in their supermarkets and resorts. Why aren't they growing their own food? Though it is far, far cheaper to produce, say, sugar in those islands, US government subsidies are so overwhelmingly generous that American grown sugar can undersell Caribbean sugar- in the Caribbean no less- and put the latter producers out of business.

This story is told the world over. In Western Africa, where labor and materials are far cheaper than in America, the cotton industry has dried up because American subsidized cotton sells for cheaper in African markets. Just imagine. And in Mexico, where, again, labor and materials are relatively cheap, corn farmers are drowning in a flood of cheap US corn. In a recent documentary about the failing farming sector in Jamaica, it was reported that US milk imports to that island had been subsidized an astonishing 110%! Such marketing tactics- underwritten by our government no less- are designed to do nothing less than drive competition out of business. And when these tactics are directed at the developing world, they verge on criminal.

What do those West Africans do when US and European subsidies destroy their cotton industry? They migrate, often overseas, often to the industrial nations. The Mexicans and Jamaicans put out of business by US subsidies also migrate en masse, often to our shores. And then we have the gall to complain about their presence here, when our policies brought them to the US in the first place. Of course, you don't hear our farmers complaining- they now have a vast, continuous pool of cheap foreign labor.

The US farm bill, in its current incarnation, is wholly indefensible. It is economically unfair, and disastrous for our health. It destroys American traditional farming culture at home, and entire farming societies in the developing world. The farm bill must be struck down and wholly rebuilt, with justice, economic sense and human health foremost in mind.

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