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Farm Subsidies May Make America Less Safe

Monday, November 22, 2010

The cut-spending, small government posse that rode the Tea Party wave into Congress -- but just happens to cash in on federal farm subsidies -- is now using national defense as a shield for  its contradictory stance. Vicky Hartzler, recently elected to Congress from Missouri and recipient of $774,000 in farm subsidies since 1995, played the national defense card when confronted over her haul of taxpayer dollars:

"Everything should be on the table," she says. While she says some agriculture programs represent a "national defense issue" because they help guarantee that "we have a safety net to make sure we have food security in our country."

The line to debunk Hartzler's assertion formed immediately. The Kansas City news site, The Pitch wrote "she's hinting that fields of corn are tantamount to military bases," despite the fact that only 20 percent of the highly subsidized corn grown in America is processed into industrial food products. In the St. Paul Minnesota Pioneer Press, columnist Edward Lotterman went even further in condemning her stance:

Hartzler's argument seems to be that without subsidies, U.S. farmers would cut back production and the U.S. would have to import food, making it vulnerable to enemies. Since subsidies no longer are tied to production, as they once were, and since we are large net exporters of most major crops and some livestock products, this is far from credible. No respected agricultural economist endorses this view.

Farm subsidies pose a knotty and immediate dilemma for Republicans, especially those aligned with the tea party. If you campaign on a platform of lower taxes, smaller government, no budget deficits and ending government redistribution of income to small interest groups, how on Earth can you vote for continued spending on federal commodity programs?

Sallie James, a respected trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute, wrote in a post titled Republican Hypocrisy Watch:

Also, can we please abandon once and for all this nonsense idea that we need farm subsidies to have food security? Appeals to "national defense" are disingenuous and cynical. They are also belied (rather obviously) by the fact that we see abundant supplies of fruit, vegetables and other horticultural goods even though those products attract no subsidies directly. The best way to ensure a food security is to ensure open markets, so food can flow from where it is abundant to where it is scarce. Self-sufficiency is a misguided policy, as the experience of North Korea can attest.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that farm subsidies, far from being critical to national defense, may actually make America less safe by making us overly dependent on just a few grain crops.

Craig Cox, Environmental Working Group senior vice-president who directs EWG’s agriculture programs from our Ames, Iowa, office, was asked to set out his thoughts on farm subsidies as a defense issue  in The New York Times' "Room For Debate" feature that ran this morning (Nov 22).

It is absurd to claim that billions in tax dollars should continue to flow yearly to the largest and wealthiest growers of corn, rice and other commodity crops in the name of preserving the security of the nation’s food supply — especially considering that 60 percent of farmers, including most fruit and vegetable growers, receive no subsidies at all.

For sure, there is a need for a true safety net that equitably provides a measure of support for farmers faced with unpredictable hardships. Instead, however, our current maze of farm and risk management subsidies facilitates a highly risky business model that makes our industrial food system overly dependent on a few grain crops subject to wild swings in a global commodity market.

In the end, these subsidies are not about producing food at all. They are about taking the financial risk out of a system that encourages fencerow-to-fencerow cultivation of raw material for highly processed food — with deleterious effects on the environment and health. America’s obesity epidemic and the severe water pollution from intensive grain farming in the Mississippi River basin are far greater threats to national security than giving big farms a subsidy haircut.

The reality is that farm income and prices for commodity crops are soaring. In 2008, $210,000 was the average household income of farms that received at least $30,000 in government payments that year. If we can’t reform farm programs in the face of a massive budget deficit and a white-hot agricultural economy, when can we?

The bulk of subsidy payments go to the largest farm operations and put smaller family farms at a serious disadvantage. This inequity works against a more diverse and resilient food production system that would guard against wild swings in weather or global markets. American food and farm policy needs to shift toward paying farmers to protect water and soil, providing incentives for crop diversity and creating a level playing field for all farmers.

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