Farm Bill Fallacies

Published on: 07:36AM May 28, 2012

By Matt Bogard
In a recent Mother Jones article,  I found some pretty common misconceptions related to agricultural policy.  The concluding paragraph sums up much of the article:
"At a time when the public is increasingly demanding a more sustainable and healthy food production system, Congress is in the process of enshrining agribusiness as usual—pinching the pennies that go to sustainable food programs while propping up destructive agriculture tailored to the profit needs of agrichemical companies like Monsanto."
In this article, the concept of "Big Ag" is referenced at least 4 times.  When I hear the term ‘big ag’ I have to read on to see if they are confusing 'big ag', 'factory farming' or 'industrial agriculture' with the complex network of modern family farms, biotechnology companies, food processors, and retailers that cooperate to bring healthy and sustainable food to your table. It seems to be the case in this instance.
One of the major concerns with the farm bill, as presented in the article, is that budget cuts will lead to decreased funding for ‘progressive’  food and ag programs while continuing to promote more ‘regressive’ ‘Big-Ag’ friendly areas of agriculture:
"All of that, of course, is manna to the companies that supply inputs to industrial-scale farmers: seed and pesticide companies like Monsanto and Syngenta; and to the companies that buy corn and soy and transform them into a range of low-quality, profitable foods."
 So lets look at the inherent claims made here and above. 
Are we pinching pennies from sustainable food programs and propping up ‘destructive’  agriculture tailored to the needs of agrichemical companies and industrial-scale producers? 
You might claim that if there are cuts to funding for marketing foods to farmers markets or financing transitions to organic farming, that we are defunding sustainability in the farm bill. However, many of the green technologies (herbicide and pest resistant GMO crops, pharmaceuticals) used by modern farmers dwarf the impact of other consumer green technologies like hybrid cars.  These technologies certainly profit companies like Monsanto, but shouldn’t we expect companies to profit to the extent that they improve the lives of others? It should also be emphasized that these technologies are largely scale neutral, and aren’t used exclusively by the largest or ‘industrial-scale farms.’ In fact, globally, the single largest growing demographic of GMO adopters are small land holders in developing countries.  

When you actually follow the money, it may appear that it all goes to ‘Big Ag’ in terms of large producers that then in turn buy inputs from companies like Monsanto. In reality, subsidies make up a very small percent of the budget of the largest farms and likely don’t impact input or cropping decisions.  They actually make the largest difference in terms of budget to the smaller producers.  

Among those most lagging in green technology adoption are organic producers, which have zero tolerance for GMOs, (although fully embracing more volatile methods utilizing nuclear radiation to breed better plants). So, its not entirely clear cut that taking funds from local and organic programs would have a net negative impact on the environment, or that it promotes ‘destructive’ agriculture. 

Do subsidies largely favor the consumption of low quality foods as opposed to healthy fruits and vegetables? Are we propping up the companies that process corn and soy? 

Some people have the impression that healthy supplements in our diets, like fruits and vegetables, are more expensive than processed foods containing staples like corn and soybeans because corn and soybeans are subsidized more heavily than fruits and vegetables. This couldn't be further from the truth. The agronomics, labor, risk, economies of scale, and capital costs associated with fruit and vegetable production make those crops much more expensive than commodities, and have a much larger role on their prices than subsidies.  Eliminating commodity programs would have an insignificant impact at the retail level on staple food prices relative to fruits and vegetables. 

In fact, most of the research indicates that completely eliminating corn subsidies would reduce corn based food consumption by less than ½ of 1% .

Never mind  the fact that soy is one of the healthiest food products that you can eat, and a large amount of corn ultimately goes to producing healthy, sustainable, and nutritious meat products like lean beef!

The overall impact of completely eliminating U.S. commodity protection and subsidies at the commodity level in terms of total acres produced and commodity prices would also be minimal, as reported by researchers at UC Davis:

Eliminating or restructuring the farm bill is not an issue of sustainability or healthy food production. At best it is a size and scope of government debate.  Regardless, if we completely eliminate commodity related programs and subsidies, corn is still king and Monsanto will still continue to sell Roundup and GMO soy as long as the 98% of all U.S. farms that are family farms embrace the benefits of modern sustainable agriculture. At a time when the public is increasingly demanding a more sustainable and healthy food production system, ‘Big Ag’ is delivering.


See also -  subsidies. 
Farm Subsidies and Obesity in the United States
Julian M. Alston, Daniel A. Sumner, and Stephen A. Vosti
Agricultural Resource Economics Update
V. 11 no. Nov/Dec 007
U.C. Davis