A Farm Bill Boondoggle

By Nasima Hossain
Public Health Advocate

The U.S. Senate is on the verge of doubling down on the principle that billions of taxpayer dollars should go to making the largest, most profitable agribusinesses even more profitable.  And despite knowing that many of these subsidies underwrite junk food ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, some Senators are proposing not only to maintain, but actually to expand this wasteful spending. How could this be happening?

The short answer is that special interests representing Big Ag have turned the U.S. Farm Bill into one of the biggest boondoggles around.  $260 billion in subsidies have been paid out since 1995, with three quarters of the subsidy payments going to fewer than 4% of U.S. farmers.   Directing taxpayer dollars to these mature, profitable businesses enriches them at the expense of smaller, unsubsidized farmers, without any benefit to taxpayers.

Most other business plan for bad years or low sales, rather than waiting for government hand-outs, but the subsidies have kept on going right through the five highest years ever for farm profits. In fact agribusiness has not seen a dent in profits since the 2008 recession; last year they made over $98 billion in net income. And perversely, the subsidies are often highest when crop prices – and profits – reach their peak.

Further, the subsidies mostly go to corn and soy, which are often processed into the junk food ingredients that are fueling the obesity epidemic – about a billion dollars a year goes to just four food additives like high fructose corn syrup and soy-based vegetable oils, enough to pay for 2.8 billion Twinkies annually.  This at a time when childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions, with one out of three kids overweight or obese.  Obesity adds $147 billion a year to our nation’s health care bill – and we’re spending taxpayer dollars to overwrite it.

So why are we still paying for these outrageously wasteful programs?  One reason is that Big Ag knows how to keep a good thing going – when the Farm Bill was last up for reauthorization, in 2008, they spent $200 million on lobbying and campaign contributions to keep the gravy train flowing.   And this year, they’re trying to do it again.

The subsidies are set to expire in September, and the Senate is currently debating legislation that would reauthorize the Farm Bill that contains them.  Bowing to public outrage at this wasteful spending, the current proposal would end one of the most egregious of the programs – but it would also create an entirely new subsidy scheme that would guarantee that corn and soy farmers continue to see record profits, with taxpayers footing the bill if prices fall.  And because the Senate Bill proposes to keeps crop insurance programs without any limits or caps, taxpayers will continue to send billions to large agribusinesses that don’t need the help.

Fortunately, some Senators are pushing back against these outrageous subsidies, and have proposed amendments that would make sure subsidies don’t go to the biggest players and save taxpayer dollars.  But the Ag Lobby is using all its influence to fight meaningful reform.

Our Senators should fight back by taking a stand and voting no on the Farm Bill, unless strong amendments are passed to end these wasteful subsidies.

The 2012 farm bill can take us down the road to healthy foods, or it can perpetuate the imbalance that has existed for too long. But at a time of high deficits and significant cuts to important public interest priorities, it is unjustifiable to continue spending billions of taxpayer dollars on subsidies that underwrite the production of junk food ingredients and make our children sick. As Congress works to reauthorize the farm bill, they will have to decide whose side they’re on: ours, or Big Ag’s.








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