more wonking: WWI, AAA, FDR, etc.

Here’s chapter 2, which looks at the foundations of modern agricultural policy.  FDR did a lot to modernize a lot of things in the country during the depression, and agriculture was no exception.  His Agricultural Adjustment Act (abbreviated to AAA) marked a definitive shift in agricultural policy- from the incentive- and development-based policies of homesteading and land grant universities to a modern encouragement of large-scale farming.  The US was moving rapidly towards an industrialized food system, and the AAA attempted to further that vision by providing government solutions to the overwhelming problems of food production at the time.

Chapter 2:  The Agricultural Adjustment Act: FDR’s Agricultural Legacy

Until the end of World War I, US farm policy was directed overwhelmingly towards development—i.e, incentivizing farming through legislation like the Homestead Act and aiding agricultural development through the creation of land-grant universities around the country.  Post World War I, farmers were suffering decreasing prices as a result of overproduction, which lead the government to institute an early form of price controls in the twenties.  A number of plans were proposed that would give government the responsibility of legislating farm prices,[1] and although none ended up becoming law the notion of greater government involvement in agriculture became accepted and widespread among both farmers and members of the general population.

However, the true foundations of today’s commodity supply-based, comprehensive agricultural legislation were laid with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933.  The advent of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression simultaneously caused widespread starvation and foreclosure; a new farm policy was desperately needed.  Overproduction had reached dire levels resulting not only in plummeting farm income and waste, but in soil depletion that helped to cause the Dust Bowl, further worsening the plight of farmers.  Accordingly, the Agricultural Adjustment Act focused on stemming overproduction, implementing direct payments for the first time to keep farmers from using their entire acreage.

The primary aim of the AAA was to ensure ‘parity’ – a restoration of farm purchasing power back to the prosperous levels of 1909-1914; this was accomplished through acreage reduction programs, processor licensing to cut down questionable business practices, and allocation of tax dollars towards price adjustments, market expansion, and surplus removal.[2]  Plow up campaigns, government purchase of surplus livestock for hunger relief, and price supports yielded immediate support for struggling farmers:  farm income in 1935 was 50% higher than it had been in 1932.[3]  Provisions of the act were later declared unconstitutional, but the stage was set for greater government involvement in agriculture.

[1] History of Agricultural Price-Support and Adjustment Programs 1933-84, United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research service #485.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

policy wonking ahead

So what am I writing this thesis about, anyway?  Well, now that I’ve pulled my first sleepless night writing an outline, I can definitively inform you (not in small part because I myself was forced to figure it out)!

In short I’m looking at how agribusiness lobbies influence farm policy.  They have a huge amount of say in what and how we eat in America, and you can bet that they’re taking advantage of that.  The government is pouring taxpayer money into special interests and legislating policies that are detrimental to our health, our economy, and our environment- and Americans by and large are standing by and letting it happen.  Why is that?  How can we change that?  And so, without further ado, I’ll be posting some chapter outlines here, one at a time.  Let me know what you think!

Chapter 1:  Introduction

The great majority of American agriculture policy is legislated as part of the Farm Bill, an omnibus piece of legislation that comes out roughly every 5 years.  Various interests (i.e., agribusiness, food processors, relatively small constituent interests) have influenced the Farm Bill to the detriment of the food system; because of questionably sound agricultural policies the health (both corporal and economical) of the country has suffered.  This thesis will examine the extent to which these interests have had an effect on agricultural policies by examining three significant farm bills:  the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, and the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008.

The Farm Bill sets commodity prices, and allocates money for domestic food aid (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), conservation, rural development, nutrition education, and research.  Economically speaking, it’s a massive bill—not only does it allocate massive sums of money (the 2008 bill cost $604 billion over ten years[1]), but massive sums are spent on lobbying for it–$173.5 million for the same bill, more than was spent lobbying on Obama’s health care bill[2] —and yet it’s a largely ignored bill, except among farming communities and lobby groups.

Hundreds of billions of dollars are going to subsidize cheap commodity crops whose processing and sale generates revenue for the same deep-pocketed lobbyists who are funding the bill in the first place; it’s a cycle that’s damaging our health, our environment, and our economy.  Action needs to be taken, but that won’t happen unless the history and policy of the Farm Bill is better understood by the general American public.  This thesis will examine in depth the power politics surrounding farm bills, charting the increasing sway of industry over government through an examination of the nascent years of modern farm policy in the great depression; the increasing market- and export-focus of the 1973 farm bill (and its aftermath); the increasing disillusionment with subsidies that were nonetheless passed successfully in the 2002 farm bill; attempts at encouraging a more localized food system in 2008; and questioning the role of farm subsidies and agricultural lobbies in 2012.

[1] U.S. Congressional Research Service.  Actual Farm Bill Spending and Cost Estimates (R41195; December 13, 2010), by Jim Monke and Renée Johnson.  Accessed September 18, 2012.

[2] “Farm bill tops health care law in lobbying dollars,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 17,  2012.  Accessed 10 October 2012.

“These subsidies are not about producing food.”

I’m reading a Grist article right now (aptly named Corn subsidies make unhealthy choices the rational ones) that’s chock full of excellent points, but this one’s my favorite:

In the end, these subsidies are not about producing food at all. They are about taking the financial risk out of a system that encourages fencerow-to-fencerow production of raw material for highly processed food — with deleterious effects on the environment and human health.

If you want to know why I’m so passionate about these issues (or if you’ve ever had the misfortune of having to listen to one of my commodity-crop subsidy rants) you should read this article.  Even if you don’t, it will give you pause.  $15.4 billion a year towards commodity crops while organics and vegetable growers get $825 million for promotion, nutritional programs, and then subsidies?  Billions of dollars in direct payments towards companies who aren’t even in the United States?

The system isn’t working.  Mitt Romney said that crop subsidies are a matter of national security, and I have to say that that’s one thing that I agree with him on (although I think we may mean different things when we say that).  We need to stop throwing money at unhealthy food that’s wrecking our bodies, our economy, and our environment.  We need to rethink the food system, and taking a good hard look at what (and who) we’re subsidizing is the perfect place to start.

This is why you’re fat.


This article is jam packed with useful information about farm subsidies, and it has a plethora of links to other studies and articles!  Lobbyists working for healthier food spend the same amount in a year as lobbyists working against it spend in 13 hours?  Insanity.  Where is public accountability?


What do you think?  Are farm subsidies the definitive reason why 50% of Americans are projected to be obese by 2030?  Is it possible to have a crisis of laziness on this scale?  It seems to me as though we can’t just point fingers at peoples’ personal choices.  We have to look at what goes into those choices; what choices are people being given?