Eat the Rich! How the Food Stamp Cuts Reflect an Emerging Front in the Climate War

Austerity, it seems, is being allowed to become our official policy with regard to hunger, which unfortunately makes it a de facto climate adaptation policy as well.
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There are any number of reasons to celebrate Friday's defeat of the 2013 Farm Bill in the House. Notably, the House version of the Farm Bill would have made a whopping $20.5 billion cut to food stamps over the course of the next ten years, a move that many have rightly called inhumane. But we should remember that the Senate version, which passed a few weeks ago, also contained a $4 billion cut. Furthermore, there's been plenty of indications that it was ultimately the last minute addition of the Southerland amendment that tanked the bill in the House, not an aversion to the cuts themselves. Whatever cuts to Food Stamps become law may ultimately skew closer to the House's proposed $20.5 billion than the Senate's $4 billion.

These cuts will most deeply affect low-wage workers and the unemployed. Could it be that these benefits are being slashed because these groups are doing better, and don't need benefits quite so badly in 2013? Is this the recovery we've all heard so much about? In a word... no. A recent times article on the issue contains this awesomely revealing last sentence, describing the expansion that critics describe as responsible for making the program untenable: "The rolls rose rapidly because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under the 2009 economic stimulus law." In other words, it's the exact opposite. Benefits are being cut precisely because so many people need them.

Obviously this is an ugly move by itself, but it's also a frightening sign for those of us watching humanity adapt to climate change. Think of it this way: thanks to climate change, there is no way we're going to avoid price hikes and price instability in our food system over the course of the next decade and beyond. Any effective program for adapting to climate change will have to address the basic task of mitigating or alleviating this instability. And while we can't predict the future, we can base certain assumptions about how we will adapt by observing how we respond to comparable situations in the present. If this is how America, global superpower, center of the world economy, etc. etc., reacts to a spike in the price of food--by selling out its neediest population--then that doesn't bode well for a climate changed future.

After all, this is what climate change is most likely going to look like for the world's poor--a series of periodic catastrophes, ranging from price hikes in the food sector to hurricanes and natural disasters. As of this writing, the United States grows 40% of the world's corn, and nearly 40% of the world's soybeans, both staple crops for huge numbers of people. These staple crops could face rapidly dwindling yields past certain thresholds, placing us in a far more precarious situation than previously imagined, as pointed out in a February paper by Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth A. Stanton. Combine this with the other inexorable tendency of the next few decades--a population boom that is concentrated mostly in the poorer populations of urban centers--and you have a recipe for a market in which the food supply is subject to increasing disruption against a background of ever-looming demand. That means price hikes, hikes that will disproportionately affect poor people the world over.

Which brings us back to the food stamp cuts. In New York State, where I live, it is estimated that over three million people would be affected by the cuts. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities puts it, "Given a growing awareness that the current SNAP benefit allotments are inadequate, we can reasonably assume that a reduction in SNAP benefit levels of this size will significantly increase the number of poor households that have difficulty affording adequate food this fall." Even if Southerland's amendment is rejected, we still cannot allow these cuts to become law. If austerity is allowed to become our official policy with regard to hunger, it will become our de facto climate adaptation policy as well. This will mean restricted food access not only for citizens of developing nations, but for huge numbers of United States citizens as well. Somebody should remind congress that, historically, this tends to be a bad sign for whoever happens to be in power.

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