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Detailing the Big Handout to Big Ag

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A timely new book explores how America’s food, farm and energy policies got derailed by greedy lobbyists and government subsidies.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better time to release a book that dissects how federal farm subsidies sent America’s food and farm policies wildly off track. “The Big Handout” hits the stores today (Oct. 25) just as the Congressional Super Committee tasked with reining in the ballooning US deficit is said to be eyeballing farm subsidies as a place to find potential savings. (Of course, we don’t know for sure, because only certain well-connected lobbyists for industrial agriculture get to be in the loop.)

The full title is “The Big Handout: How Government Subsidies and Corporate Welfare Corrupt the World We Live In and Wreak Havoc on Our Food Bills,” published by Rodale Books. Author Thomas M. Kostigen was a co-author of the 2007 New York Times bestseller “The Green Book.” A former editor at Bloomberg News, he also writes the “Ethics Monitor” column for Dow Jones Market Watch.

Happily for those who see the urgency of reforming America’s food and farm policies, “The Big Handout” is the second excellent food policy book released this fall, following on Alan Bjerga’s “Endless Appetites: How the Commodities Casino Creates Hunger and Unrest.”

Books on government policies can be dense, ponderous affairs. “The Big Handout,” thankfully, makes a lively read as it examines the two sectors of the American economy most dependent on government subsidies – agriculture and energy. Kostigen writes with a humorous and engaging style that balances on-the-ground reporting with independent research and expert interviews.

His tale takes readers from the grocery store to the gas station, from farms to oceans, demystifying what goes on behind the scenes as powerful interest groups prosper at consumers’ expense. Kostigen goes into depth on a variety of food policy issues: the lack of transparency on where farm subsidy money goes; the absurdities of fishing subsidies; the twisted rationale for paying US subsidies to Brazilian cotton growers; and how subsidies encourage environmental devastation. Even seasoned food policy pros will find fresh territory, such as Kostigen’s exploration of how subsidies compromise food safety, a particularly timely angle as the country reels from of one deadly food recall after another.

Kostigen also exposes how politicians beholden to industrial agriculture and its cash-rich lobbyists have spent decades shaping a cheap food policy that leaves taxpayers financing big profits for agribusiness. A highlight is his blow-by-blow account of how agriculture interests and their Congressional patrons thwarted reform in the 2008 farm bill.

Kostigen had his book to the printer well before the Occupy Wall Street movement (and its food component) arose, but he touches on activism and food and farm policy in a prescient manner:

The food writer Michael Pollan and the slow food chef Alice Waters are creating a type of food revolution that could be a powerful voice in how food is grown – sans subsidies that go to corporate farmers. But until that revolution takes hold, powerful people with a lot of followers have to be fought by other powerful people with a lot of followers. “The silver bullet to all this is really Rush Limbaugh,” [2008 farm bill reform bill organizer Rick] Swartz says. “We need him or someone like him to call out conservatives for their financial hypocrisy. The angle then becomes just pure shameless hypocrisy.” That would get attention and spawn a form of activism the likes of which Washington hasn’t seen.

Mincing no words, Kostigen adds:

I see traces of that type of activist revolutionary tendency in America, even with the Tea Party. No matter what you think of the Tea Party’s policies, speaking up and out should be saluted. Sure, many Tea Party activists are dimwits, crackpots, and radicals. But the general thesis of what they stand for – if you could get one of them to articulate it properly, which is a challenge – holds true.

Kostigen ends this worthy read with a look at world without subsidies, a world that in his view would make Americans “healthier, wealthier, and smarter consumers. Moreover, there would be more jobs, presenting new possibilities and innovation. Our nation as a whole would be more secure. And, arguably, the planet would be a much cleaner place.”

If only we could get our elected officials to pay attention.

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