Food security = national security?

In examining the 2002 farm bill, you really get an interesting perspective on how American agriculture legislation has changed since FDR- whereas the AAA was trying to tamp down on overproduction, Earl Butz’s legacy is one of commodity surpluses and fencerow-to-fencerow grain designed to ensure overproduction for profit.  In the wake of 9/11, food security (via subsidies) was seen as a matter of national security (as indeed it still is today- Mitt Romney, as well as politicians from across the political spectrum, have called crop subsidies “a national-security issue”), and the federal government practically poured money into commodity subsidies.  Interesting that so many people equate food security with increased subsidies- what about EBT and WIC?  What about ensuring a safe supply of good food instead of ensuring a steady supply of income for big business?

However, 2002 is also the first time that representatives from outside the traditional “farm states” of the Midwest and the South asserted their voices in the modern farm bill:  the Eggplant caucus, named after a popular vegetable grown in New Jersey, was a coalition of senators from around the country (including Vermont’s own Pat Leahy!) who argued for more support of diversified crops and small farmers.  The bulk of the money, however, still goes to commodity crops.

Chapter 4:  Subsidies, Subsidies, Subsidies!

Thirty years later, the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 directed $16.5 billion towards agricultural subsidies in the wake of 9/11.  Although Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman opposed the bill, saying that the money would be better spent on conservation instead of commodity subsidies, an amendment to shift $19 billion to conservation efforts failed. However, the Eggplant Caucus—a coalition of senators advocating specialty crop subsidies from states with less powerful farm interests—added $21.3 billion in conservation money to the bill.

After unsuccessful attempts in the late 90s to dismantle farm subsidy programs through legislation like the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act (which would have gradually dismantled most agricultural subsidies), the 2002 bill reintroduced massive amounts of subsidies–$2.8 billion to feed grains alone.[1]  Political players from Bush’s Agriculture Secretary to members of Congress from both parties and both houses spoke out against the new subsidies, arguing that they would wreak havoc by encouraging overproduction, but the subsidies were passed nonetheless.

The subsidies enacted by the 2002 bill would run afoul of the WTO (which argued that they were a non-tariff trade barrier) as well as a variety of organizations from all corners of the domestic political spectrum (the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Responsible Politics, the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies) that argued that the subsidization of domestic grains was harmful to farmers as well as the economy.  However the attention and deep pockets of a number of special interest lobbies, from corn to sugar beets to peanuts, ensured that subsidies were left in place.

The “revolving door” seen previously with Butz and Hardin can be seen here too, most notably in a former top-ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, Charles Stenholm (D-TX), became a lobbyist soon after his reelection defeat in 2004.  The influence of agricultural lobbies was everywhere to be seen, but the biggest beneficiaries were the leaders of the House and Senate Agricultural Committees:  Representative Bonilla (R-TX) raised $300,000 in donations from the agricultural sector, while Senator Chamliss (R-GA) collected $287,000 in donations.[2]  Opponents of industrial agribusiness are simply outmoneyed:  to skip forward several years in an example that is nonetheless still applicable to the 2002 bill, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a group advocating for healthier (non-commodity crop) food subsidies, spent about $70,000 in lobbying in 2011, which is roughly what opponents of stricter guidelines spend every 13 hours, according to a Reuters analysis.[3]

Money talks, and with such persuasive manners it’s no wonder that voices warier of commodity subsidies were drowned out in the 2002 bill.

[1] FY2006 Budget Summary and Annual Performance, United States Department of Agriculture, 31.

[2] “Farm Lobby’s Power Has Deep Roots.”  Chicago Tribune, June 4th 2006.  Accessed 15 October 2012.

[3] “This Is Why You’re Fat:  The 2012 Farm Bill and the Real Obesity Lobby.” Huffington Post, May 16, 2012.  Accessed 8 October 2012.


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