Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Writer wonders why we need a Farm Bill

House and Senate conferees say they will soon agree on a five-year Farm Bill to replace the one that expired Sept. 30, 2012. But why do we need a farm bill, when we have plenty of relatively inexpensive food, are too fat, and farmers are doing well? Charles Lane asks in The Washington Post. "Is there something about farming, as opposed to other businesses, that makes market economics uniquely inapplicable?"

The chief aim seems to be food security, ensuring that affordable commodities are available to cities and suburbs where most of the population lives. Maybe that was necessary during the Great Depression, but it's ridiculous now, Lane argues: "This obesity-plagued nation is ankle-deep in cheap food." The Agriculture Department says the average U.S. household spent only 6.4 percent of its income on food eaten at home, and the average American ate 474 more calories each day in 2010 than in 1970.

The department predicts net farm income for 2013 will be $131 billion, and the proceeds are divided among many fewer farmers than in the 1930s, when the first Farm Bill was enacted. Now farms can produce 262 percent more food than they did in 1950 with basically the same amount of labor, seeds and fertilizer, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. "U.S. agriculture is so productive that even natural disaster doesn't threaten food supply as much as it once did," Lane writes.

Food-supply panicking can actually be a part of farm-lobby propaganda, Lane writes. The lack of a new farm law and reversion to an old one could raise milk prices to $8 per gallon, but Lane says that threat has been exaggerated, mainly because the agriculture secretary can delay the effect, but also because transportation and other relevant costs won't be affected. "For the ag lobby, though, the point is to keep people worrying about a price hike instead of questioning the absurd legal quirk that makes it possible in the first place," he contends.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would get rid of the "egregious subsidy of direct payments that automatically award growers of certain favored commodities $ billion per year," which is real reform, Lane acknowledges. He says one argument for a Farm Bill is that around 80 percent of its money funds for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. "Sooner or later, though, Congress will have to find a balanced alternative to the old log-rolling link between help for the poor and corporate welfare for agribusiness," he writes.

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