When Some Farm Subsidies Go Away, Will Our Food System Be Healthy?

Every good foodie knows that farm subsidies are the root of all evil and a big reason why obesity rates continue to rise, right? This thinking has become so commonplace among the good food movement that we've stopped questioning this assumption and pretty much take it as gospel.

But now is a critical time to start asking questions about what the consequences would be -- intended or otherwise -- if subsidies go away. This week, Congressional agriculture committees proposed cutting $23 billion out of Farm Bill programs over the next 10 years, and by most reports, one type of farm subsidies called direct payments are the first thing on the chopping block. Even the corn and soybean lobbies seem resigned to the end of direct payments to growers of commodity crops.

So if the most often-cited example of farm subsidies is about to end, does that mean we're on our way to a food system that makes broccoli more affordable than fast food burgers? It's not quite that simple. As we describe in a new report, released this week with the Public Health Institute, subsidies are not making junk food cheaper and more abundant than healthy food -- the real culprit is the deregulation of agriculture markets, the failure to enforce anti-trust law and the millions spent on marketing junk food.

In a market controlled by just a few buyers of crops like corn, wheat and soybeans, and no mechanisms to manage overproduction that causes prices to collapse, subsidies have served as the bandage that partially stops the bleeding of farmers who often cannot stay in business any other way. Pulling the subsidy rug out from under the small and midsized farmers who depend on this support to keep farming in lean years could result in even fewer independent family farmers and even larger mono-cropping behemoths who buy up that land and keep using it to produce crops like corn and soybeans.

Commodity crop overproduction has been around long before the current subsidy program existed. During the New Deal, farm policies encouraged farmers to idle some of their land so they wouldn't overproduce and established a national grain reserve, much like the Strategic Petroleum Reserve we have today. It prevented crop prices from skyrocketing during times of drought or falling too low during times of surplus. Overproduction was kept in check, and the stable commodity prices functioned like a minimum wage for farmers.

Beginning in 1985, food processors, grain traders, meat companies and marketers mounted a strong and successful lobbying effort against these policies. In 1996, crop prices were high and budgets were tight -- much like they are today -- and the agribusiness lobby called for policies that would, as they put it, give farmers "the freedom to farm." That Farm Bill eliminated land-idling programs, letting farmers plant as much as they wanted, and production increased over the next few years. That, along with the elimination of grain reserves earlier, resulted in farmers overproducing themselves into bankruptcy, and the subsidy system we know today was born.

While simply doing away with payments to commodity farmers may help deficit hawks reduce the federal budget for the short term, the longer-term impacts may land us with a food system that's even more consolidated and gives even more control to the cabal of agribusinesses we're fighting to diffuse.

What, then, would effective food and farm policy reforms look like if we want to promote healthy foods and reduce obesity? Rather than just ending subsidy programs, we should develop responsible federal supply management programs that reduce overproduction and stabilize price and supply, undoing the damaging deregulation that took place in the 1980s and '90s.

While the idea of simply moving the dollars used to subsidize corn and soybeans over to apples and spinach is obviously appealing, it won't solve the problem. A rural farmer with a few thousand acres of wheat can't suddenly switch to growing tomatoes to sell directly to consumers at the farmers market. The demand and infrastructure needed to sustain this type of transition away from intensive commodity crop production no longer exist. Ending subsidies won't change this. Doing the hard work of reforming the commodity policies in the Farm Bill could, along with enforcing anti-trust law and regulating the marketing to children of junk food.

This blog also ran on Food & Water Watch's blog and Civil Eats