A Farm Bill of Rights that’s full of wrongs

dairyDemocratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer seems like a good fellow — U.S. congressman from Oregon, former commissioner of public works in Portland, winner of the 2001 National Bicycling Award from the League of American Bicyclists, according to his bio. I’ve met more than a few of his kind writing about politics, earnest environmentalist lefties who always do their homework, and we’re lucky to have them.

Writing at the Democrat-friendly über-blog Talking Points Memo, (well, its offshoot, TPM Café), Blumenauer takes up the cause of agriculture-policy reform. With the next Farm Bill menu of subsidies on the table, he does an excellent job mapping the garden path down which the U.S. Congress has strolled with a succession of previous Farm Bill subsidy programs, distorting markets and transferring an awful lot of wealth to an awfully small number of people for awfully little public benefit:

Sixty percent of America’s farmers and ranchers get no support while a great bulk of subsidies and federal support go directly to big special-interest corporations. It’s even worse for people who grow most of our food: fruits, vegetables, and row crops are largely bypassed in favor of lavish subsidies for a few commodities… The United States sugar subsidy program is an archaic remnant of a Depression-era policy to artificially raise prices of sugar. Today, it harms American companies and consumers, while preventing developing nations from competing in the global market place.

… and so on. Blumenauer is promoting his Food and Farm Bill of Rights, essentially a statement of principles for the 2007 Farm Bill and those to follow. It starts well before going off the rails. These are the bullet points:

  • Americans have a right to a policy free of special interest giveaways: Current farm policy favors corporate special interests. Fully 70 percent of the payments go to the top 10 percent of farmers, and even more of that benefit is concentrated for the large processors. What’s more, aid is so concentrated in a few powerful states that the support received by most states is almost negligible. We deserve a food and farm policy that serves all Americans, not just the politically-connected.


  • American taxpayers have a right to a fiscally responsible policy: Today’s Farm Bill contains some of the federal government’s largest programs. We deserve a food and farm policy that ensures our tax dollars are invested in fiscally sound policies and programs that fit in with the priorities of the American farmer and taxpayer.


  • Americans have a right to a policy that serves all farmers: Our current farm policy ensures high profits for a few select commodities while neglecting the needs of many other valuable commodities and smaller producers. In fact, 60 percent of America ’s farmers and ranchers get no support whatsoever. We deserve a food and farm policy that supports producers and helps them access new local markets, thereby generating jobs by adding value to their products.
  • Americans have a right to a safe and healthful food supply: Recent crises in food supplies (Hurricanes Katrina and Rita) and food safety (fresh spinach and tainted pet foods) are painful reminders of the vulnerability of our food supplies and distribution systems. We deserve a food and farm policy that guarantees a safe and healthful food supply in this country, in good times and in bad.

If you’re going to have an official farm policy, I guess these are good ends to pursue.

  • American children have a right to good nutrition: Children who are hungry perform poorly in school and are at greater risk for long-term health problems. We deserve a food and farm policy that makes sure our children are well nourished by allowing more healthful choices and opening up access to fruits and vegetables.
  • Americans have a right to local supplies of fresh food: Too many Americans do not have the option of buying affordable, locally-grown fresh food. We deserve a food and farm policy that includes programs that deliver healthy food to all communities, regardless of location, class, or economic standing.

Oh, dear.

The first point is defensible as a goal, if you take it that the state has a role to play in protecting helpless kids from negligent parents who don’t feed them properly. School lunch programs, etc. I don’t see that the supply side of the food sector is the place to carry out this role, by generally subsidizing the production of fruits and veggies in the hope that some of that artificially cheaper produce will find its way onto the tables and into the lunchboxes of otherwise deprived children.

The second point is pure nonsense, and a complete reversal of the notion of rights as Americans are supposed to understand them — as freedoms, guarantees against government encroachment on individual liberties. Once governments start to pledge positive rights to material goods, they go mental.

First of all, define “healthy” for the purposes of this “right.” Then let’s talk about how isolated a community and small a “community” has to be before we decide it’s not worth airdropping sacks of fresh apples on it. A commune on a mesa in Arizona? A couple of old guys manning traplines in Alaska?

If a whole community is poor, there’s usually a reason, particularly if it’s also isolated from sources of good food — chances are, it’s a town that’s hanging on long after the local industry left, surviving on government money of one kind or another. The right thing for people to do is leave, for young people to seek their fortunes elsewhere and for parents to give their kids better opportunities than waiting for the shuttered mill to reopen. Guaranteeing them healthy food supplied by government is prolonging the inevitable at the expense of the poor suckers who have to pay the bills for it. It’s not right.

  • Americans have a right to a policy that promotes energy independence: The pursuit of heavily subsidized corn-based ethanol is a fool’s game fueled only by massive government subsidies and regulations not justified by the science or economics. We deserve a food and farm policy that enables our farmers and ranchers to produce vast quantities of renewable energy: wind, solar, in some cases small-scale hydro, geothermal and biomass.

Again, an OK goal, but I’m not sure how a massive government subsidy bill is going to help in any way except the obvious. Does a complex set of energy-production subsidies belong in the Farm Bill?

  • Americans have a right to a policy that protects the environment: Virtually every urban area is surrounded by productive farmland that also provides important environmental services – wildlife habitat, carbon sinks, clean water – as well as landscapes and vistas that define our sense of place. We deserve a food and farm policy that promotes good stewardship of the environment and our natural resources.

Fine, I guess. Certainly better than the alternative, which is government policy encouraging farmers to denude the land.

  • Americans have a right to preserve farmland from sprawl: In many areas of the country the pressures of sprawl are forcing farmers off of their land. We deserve a food and farm policy that gives farmers the tools they need to protect their land – and our heritage – from development pressures.

This is hard, and Blumenauer makes it sound easy by glossing over the actual problem he’s describing: a farmer doesn’t sell land to a developer unless he or she has been made an offer that’s too good to refuse. Shopping-mall companies don’t creep up behind them and rip the land away from owners who are unable to “protect” it. To make farmland worth more as farmland than it is as subdivision (particularly when some dimwitted sprawl-friendly municipality has already granted the zoning) would take massive subsidies pretty much forever.

  • Americans have a right to a policy that fosters sustainable farming practices: The current farm policy offers conflicting messages about good farming practices, sometimes promoting sustainable practices while other times offering incentives that undermine the long-term health of our soil and water resources. We deserve a food and farm policy that enables farmers to be responsible with their land so that they can pass it on to the next generation.

Fair enough.

The basic problem seems to be that Blumenauer hasn’t come up with principles for future Farm Bills that acknowledge that the problems with the old Farm Bills arose with the best of intentions. The sugar subsidy Blumenauer criticizes off the top made a kind of sense during the Depression — it’s just loopy that America is stuck with it 70 years later. It happens that subsidizing wind power is in vogue just now, but Blumenauer’s bill of rights is a recipe for continuing to subsidize it in 2077.

(Photo credit: “Silhouetted,” Flickr/Nicholas_T)

2 responses to “A Farm Bill of Rights that’s full of wrongs

  1. hello david

    nice piece. I recently came across an article in Food Arts magazine discussing this new bill due out in September. The author spoke about how this new bill will have an impact on the food industry and who will end up paying. I am not nearly educated enough to start voicing my opinion but I do know how important this is to the future of our country and the business I am in.

    Have you read the book: “Diet For a Dead Planet”?

    Hope to hear back from you
    John Stevenson

  2. I haven’t had a chance to read Diet for a Dead Planet, I’m afraid. Not enough hours in the day or weeks in the year. What’s the best thing to know about it?

    You asked me in another comment what the up side is of farm subsidies. Honestly, I can’t think of much. I’m not a loopy enough libertarian to think the government has no role in helping farmers who are coping with truly extraordinary circumstances, but once you start supporting farmers — or anybody — in the routine course of their business, you’re heading down a bad road.

    The justification is usually that it’s necessary to have a domestic supply of commodity X. The trouble is, the subsidies tend to last a lot longer than the need for commodity X does. People stay in the X business way longer than they naturally would — often thanks to ever-increasing subsidies making up for an ongoing decline in the regular market price — until eventually they’re totally dependent on government money and if you cancel the subsidy, thousands of family businesses go up in smoke. No politician wants to be responsible for that, so it never happens. The 70-year-old sugar subsidy’s a good example.

    (It’s also not fair, incidentally, for a rich country to subsidize domestic production of something that might be produced more cheaply in the Third World somewhere. First World food subsidies have suppressed Third World agriculture profoundly, and our insistence on preserving them is what has the latest round of global trade talks comatose on life-support. Better yet, when we send food aid to desperate places, we often send the very surplus food we’ve caused to be grown through subsidies, dumping it on a fragile market and putting even more developing-world growers out of business.)

    What’s the one thing we need to do about how we feed ourselves, and the world? I’m going to cheat and say two things. One is scrapping subsidies and other trade barriers. The second is finding a way to include the costs of pollution into our food, which might make up for a lot of the changes caused by the loss of the government protection for some industries. It’d certainly be a lot fairer.

    In the short term, I’d settle for finding ways to teach consumers, particularly suburban and urban ones, that food doesn’t come out of thin air. What comes to the table has a long trail behind it back to a figurative waste pile somewhere, and that waste pile is the consumer’s responsibility.

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