FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Farm Bill Lost in Never-Never Land

As financial stress rises, suicide hotlines are spreading across farm country. Four straight years of low income, rising debt, and now fights with major trading partners are taking their toll on farmers and rural communities.

Worse, Congress seems to be pretending these hardships don’t exist.

The Farm Bill, passed every five years, is the nation’s most important policy governing agriculture and food. But instead of a serious assessment of past failures, this year’s Farm Bill doubles down on a low price, export-dependent system that’s afflicting the farm economy.

This unhealthy dependence on volatile global markets, with China considered the Holy Grail, is a policy choice that benefits global agribusiness firms operating in multiple countries, but has pushed hundreds of thousands of U.S. farmers off the land.

In a number of ways, the Farm Bill incentivizes the over-production of a handful of crops like corn, wheat, and cotton. In most years, those crops average financial losses, according to economists at the University of Tennessee.

While ordinary farmers suffer or rely on government payments to survive these low prices, big companies that sell food abroad or benefit from cheap feed for factory-style animal farms make out big.

A series of free trade deals, starting with NAFTA, combined with past Farm Bills to deepen U.S. agriculture’s reliance on exports to sop up excess production — whether corn or dairy or pork. So when President Trump picks fights with major trading partners like China or Mexico, markets drop and farmers pay the price.

Worse, mega-mergers have left a handful of global companies controlling most segments of agriculture, further tilting the playing field against ordinary farmers. The Trump administration approved three major seed industry mergers in the past year.

The House Farm Bill entrenches this low-price system in a number of ways. For one thing, it wipes out subsidy limits for corporate-owned farms and installs loopholes to ensure that the largest farms benefit most from subsidy programs.

For another, it eliminates the nation’s most popular conservation program, which helps family farmers protect the water, air, and soil — and better withstand increasing climate-related weather events. It also guts important rural development programs that finance renewable energy and local food systems.

The House bill also targets those facing hunger.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, is the country’s most effective anti-hunger program, serving mostly children, the elderly, and the disabled. SNAP participation rose during the recession and since has been steadily falling since, with costs well below past projections.

Yet even with the cost already falling, the House bill would restrict or eliminate the participation of an estimated 1 million households, while adding unproven — and potentially very costly — work-related programs to be administered by state governments. Just a few months after a major tax cut primarily benefiting the wealthy and large corporations, the SNAP proposals could further widen the income divide.

Finally, the House Farm Bill turns a blind eye toward a few positive signs in the farm economy.

Organic, grass-fed beef and locally produced food are fast-growing markets that pay farmers a premium price and spur rural development. Yet these markets are relatively small and can be challenging for farmers to enter — organic certification alone can take three years. There are programs that could help farmers better take advantage of these higher-value markets, but the House Farm Bill massively underfunds them.

We can’t afford a new Farm Bill lost in never-never land, where what’s good for global agribusiness is automatically good for the rest of us. What’s needed are real-world strategies to support ordinary farmers and the rural communities they live in.

Ben Lilliston is a senior policy analyst for the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

More articles by:

Weekend Edition
November 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jonah Raskin
A California Jew in a Time of Anti-Semitism
Andrew Levine
Whither the Melting Pot?
Joshua Frank
Climate Change and Wildfires: The New Western Travesty
Nick Pemberton
The Revolution’s Here, Please Excuse Me While I Laugh
T.J. Coles
Israel Cannot Use Violent Self-Defense While Occupying Gaza
Rob Urie
Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America
Paul Street
Barack von Obamenburg, Herr Donald, and Big Capitalist Hypocrisy: On How Fascism Happens
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fire is Sweeping Our Very Streets Today
Aidan O'Brien
Ireland’s New President, Other European Fools and the Abyss 
Pete Dolack
“Winners” in Amazon Sweepstakes Sure to be the Losers
Richard Eskow
Amazon, Go Home! Billions for Working People, But Not One Cent For Tribute
Ramzy Baroud
In Breach of Human Rights, Netanyahu Supports the Death Penalty against Palestinians
Brian Terrell
Ending the War in Yemen- Congressional Resolution is Not Enough!
John Laforge
Woolsey Fire Burns Toxic Santa Susana Reactor Site
Ralph Nader
The War Over Words: Republicans Easily Defeat the Democrats
M. G. Piety
Reading Plato in the Time of the Oligarchs
Rafael Correa
Ecuador’s Soft Coup and Political Persecution
Brian Cloughley
Aid Projects Can Work, But Not “Head-Smacking Stupid Ones”
David Swanson
A Tale of Two Marines
Robert Fantina
Democrats and the Mid-Term Elections
Joseph Flatley
The Fascist Creep: How Conspiracy Theories and an Unhinged President Created an Anti-Semitic Terrorist
Joseph Nevins
Twitter: Fast Track to the Id
William Hawes
Baselines for Activism: Brecht’s Stance, the New Science, and Planting Seeds
Bob Wing
Toward Racial Justice and a Third Reconstruction
Ron Jacobs
Hunter S. Thompson: Chronicling the Republic’s Fall
Oscar Gonzalez
Stan Lee and a Barrio Kid
Jack Rasmus
Election 2018 and the Unraveling of America
Sam Pizzigati
The Democrats Won Big, But Will They Go Bold?
Yves Engler
Canada and Saudi Arabia: Friends or Enemies?
Cesar Chelala
Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?
Mike Ferner
The Tragically Misnamed Paris Peace Conference
Barry Lando
Trump’s Enablers: Appalling Parallels
Jasmine Aguilera
Beto’s Lasting Legacy
Ariel Dorfman
The Boy Who Taught Me About War and Peace
Yves Engler
Ottawa, Yemen and Guardian
Michael Winship
This Was No Vote Accident
Binoy Kampmark
The Disgruntled Former Prime Minister
Tracey L. Rogers
Dear White Women, There May be Hope for You After All
Faisal Khan
Is Dubai Really a Destination of Choice?
Arnold August
The Importance of Néstor García Iturbe, Cuban Intellectual
James Munson
An Indecisive War To End All Wars, I Mean the Midterm Elections
Nyla Ali Khan
Women as Repositories of Communal Values and Cultural Traditions
Thomas Knapp
Scott Gottlieb’s Nicotine Nazism Will Kill Kids, Not Save Them
Dan Bacher
Judge Orders Moratorium on Offshore Fracking in Federal Waters off California
Christopher Brauchli
When Depravity Wins
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail