It’s done!

So I finally turned my thesis in!  Several all-nighters and an inappropriate amount of animal crackers and coffee later (getting the economy-sized animal crackers jar from BJ’s was a very unhealthy choice) I turned in 55 pages of food policy glory.


I’m proud and relieved- now all I have to do is wait to see if they call me in for an oral presentation.  I’m not going to stop blogging though- if anything, now I have more time for it!  The past couple weeks have been insanely hectic, but I’m glad to finally have this turned in and finished with.  Thanks to all of you who have been reading and following me through this journey- the thesis may be done with, but the food policy wonking is far from over!


Where do we go from here?

I’ve been posting a lot of these really political chapter outlines, talking about what the farm bill is and how it’s come to be.  But all of that information has amounted to one thing- a food system that isn’t serving our needs.  So, what do we do with this wealth of knowledge?  What can we learn from all of this?

By not taking an active role in how their food is legislated and produced, Americans are allowing business interests to dictate their diets in a way that’s more beneficial to the bottom line than to the waistline.  By allowing business interests to legislate our food system through lobbying and subsequent subsidization, we’re wreaking havoc on our environment, our economy, and our health.

The 2012 bill will eliminate direct payments for farmers (money paid regardless of whether or not crops are planted), replacing them with a subsidized crop insurance program.[1]  Many farmer groups have spoken out against direct payments, alleging that in times of austerity they do more harm than good by rewarding landowners per acre whether or not they produce crops.  Both the National Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Farm Bureau, two powerful agriculture organizations, have come out against direct farm subsidies, which amount to about $10 billion annually; moreover, direct payments disproportionately benefit large corporations, as they’re paid per acre.[2]  In other words direct payments give the most money to the largest landholders, who tend to be agribusiness corporations and banks.

The Mercatus Center, a George Mason University research center, argues that farm subsidies are cronyism that benefits large-scale producers.[3]  They’re fraught with questionable payments—massive companies (both from the US and overseas) receive a huge amount of agricultural payments.  Wells Fargo, for example, received $1.72b in crop insurance coverage from 2007 to 2011, ACE Ltd. of Switzerland received $1.5 billion, and QBE Insurance Group of Australia received $1 billion in direct payment subsidies.[4] Agricultural subsidies in America in 2012 are harmful to the environment, the economy, and our health.  By subsidizing big growers, largely ignoring conservation, and expecting agriculture to fit into a capitalist model through things like specialization and consolidation, we’re doing irreparable damage to our environment, our health, and our economy.  These subsidies have been feeding the coffers of banks and agribusiness corporations at the expense of farmers and taxpayer dollars.  We need to start subsidizing better food choices and encouraging smarter food production if we want to effect positive change in this system.

[1] “US Agricultural Subsidies Equated to Cronyism,” The Epoch Times, August 22nd, 2012.  Accessed 8 October 2012.

[2] “Corn lobby outgrows US farm subsidies,” Al Jazeera, 31 August 2012.  Accessed 8 October 2012.

[3] The Epoch Times, August 22nd, 2012.

[4] Ibid.

2008: changes in the farm bill?

The 2008 farm bill saw a step towards more diversified crops and local food systems, but without removing money from existing commodity crop subsidies.  This creates the false sense that funding for diversified crops and other non-industrial food items is something that is an ‘extra’- a luxury for when we have the money to afford it.  This establishes the conventional system of commodity subsidies as the norm- which is patently untrue.  The agriculture that is seen in America today- with its fencerow-to-fencerow Roundup-Ready corn- is very much an invention of the last 50 years, and to consider it a necessity of modern life is a dangerous proposition indeed.

Rather, it’s a product of a system where industry has undue power over government, where farming is a dying profession and people’s food becomes something alien.  Who controls the food controls the power, and to allow ourselves to be disenfranchised from our food source- to allow our government to become the soapbox of agribusiness, and to voluntarily surrender our agricultural (and nutritional) agency- is a foolish choice indeed.

In 2008 though, changes are starting to be made- superfluous-seeming as they are.  The Eggplant Caucus has faded into obscurity but people are beginning to demand change in their food system, and the farm bill reflects that.


Chapter 5:  Farm Policy in the 21st Century

            The 2008 farm bill—or the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008—ostensibly focused more on conservation and diversified crops, but it didn’t do much in the way of reducing commodity subsidies.  Regulations were tightened in theory, but there remained a number of ways in which large farms, for example, could continue to receive double payments by filing for direct payments under different legal identities.[1]  On the whole though, the 2002 subsidy levels were largely maintained, despite record farm profits—proposed cuts were only $40 million per year, when direct payments amounted to $5.2 billion per year.[2]

Small steps were made away from the massive-scale, industrial food system as Butz and Hardin imagined it in the 1970s—money was allocated towards small-scale farmer’s market development, agricultural policy was changed to allow for more access to fruits and vegetables grown for local consumption, and a pilot program that would ‘untie’ US food aid (i.e., using aid money to buy food within the country receiving aid rather than shipping pre-packaged and processed US grain abroad) was slightly expanded.  However these efforts remained chronically underfunded, especially when compared with commodity subsidies.[3]

The amount of money that goes into lobbying for the farm bill–$173.5 million for the 2008 bill alone, more than the amount of money spent lobbying for Obamacare[4] –attests to its power.  Every day that the 110th Congress was in session (in 2007 and 2008), an average of $539,000 was spent on lobbying for issues covered in the farm bill.  Despite growing calls from an increasingly health-conscious public, Congresspeople were still inclined to vote with their wallets.

[1] “Overview of the 2008 Farm Bill.”  The Center for Rural Affairs, May 2008.  Accessed 14 October 2012.

[2] “Tentative Deal Reached in Congress on Farm Bill.”  The New York Times.  April 26, 2008.  Accessed 14 October 2012.

[3] “Success in the 2008 Farm Bill:  A New Direction for Farm and Food Policy.”  The American Farmland Trust, 2008.  Brochure.

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

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.

from farms to businesses: the 70s

The 1970s is where the real, tangible foundations of today’s food system can be seen- consolidation of farms, concentration on profit rather than subsistence, and the increased voice of industry in politics.  Earl Butz, Nixon’s colorful agriculture secretary (who, interestingly, was one of the first politicians dismissed as a result of political incorrectness in the press- look it up), encouraged agriculture to become a profit-driven enterprise through increased planting of commodity crops.  It didn’t hurt that that surplus of grain could be sold to the USSR- he who controls the food controls the power, after all.

Chapter 3:  The 70s, and Earl Butz’s “historic turning point”

In the wake of the boom years of American agriculture in the mid-70s, farm policy became definitively more market- than subsistence-focused.  Rather than attempting to ensure sufficient food stores while preventing the overproduction that had doomed American farmers in the past, increasingly global commodity markets enabled legislators to focus on making money off of surplus crops.  A steady rise of exports throughout the 60s took care of surplus grain, and Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture wanted to ensure that that would continue.  The 1973 Agriculture and Consume Protection Act was preceded by a doubling in grain exports between 1972 and 73 as a result of the Soviet grain sale of 1972, and Nixon’s administration emphasized a market-focused agriculture policy.

Nixon’s first agriculture secretary, Clifford Hardin, encouraged this market focus through further expansion of exports, a reduction of government payouts, and allowing for more flexibility in acreage conservation.  The government also worked to scale back payments to farmers, which had peaked at $3.8 billion in 1969.[1]  The 1973 Farm Bill was called “an historical turning point in the philosophy of farm programs in the Unted States” by Nixon’s second Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz.  And indeed, the 1973 bill was geared towards producing large amounts of surplus for export.

The mid-70s were a prosperous time for farmers, but exports couldn’t ensure success forever.  Producing surplus for sale on global markets exposed US farmers to volatile fluctuations in the global commodities market, and the need for ever larger farms to supply this grain required the consolidation and commodification of farms and US agriculture.  Nonetheless, the early success of Butz’s go-big or go-home mentality played a crucial role in cementing big farms as the mainstay of American agricultural policy.

Politics and industry become increasingly intertwined in the 1970s, especially in the realm of farm policy.  Nixon’s first Secretary of Agriculture, Hardin, switched places with his second Secretary of Agriculture in 1971, Butz—they quite literally traded jobs as Butz left his post at Ralston Purina to become the Agriculture Secretary while Hardin left his post as Agriculture Secretary to work for Ralston Purina.[2]  New constituencies— namely, large food processing companies— in the 1970s began to demand a say in farm policy, and the government, industry’s once and future leaders, accommodated them.

[1] Ibid.

[2] Marion Nestle, Food Politics:  How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2002, revised 2007), 100.

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.