July 15, 2012

THE UNITED STATES has the richest, most productive agricultural sector, and the best-fed population, in the world — perhaps in the history of the world.

Boosted by $136.3 billion in gross sales to other countries, U.S. net farm income hit a record $98.1 billion in 2011. A new Economist Intelligence Unit report, commissioned by DuPont, ranks the United States as the most “food-secure” nation on Earth, based on the affordability and quality of its food supply. The United States provides the equivalent of 3,748 calories per day for each of its roughly 314 million people. That is nearly 1,500 calories more than the minimum necessary for a healthy and active life.

To be sure, this abundance is not equally distributed, and some families struggle to pay their grocery bills, especially in today’s economy. But any notion that farming is a precarious, hardscrabble business, or that the American diet is vulnerable to supply disruptions, is absurd. Even the drought currently raging across much of the heartland augurs little more than a blip at the checkout counter months from now.

Yet those absurd notions still guide policy. Every five years, Congress drafts a farm bill as if U.S. agriculture were no more capable of surviving on its own than it was during the Great Depression — when most current farm programs began. The farm-state lawmakers, and the lobbyists who swarm around the farm bill like flies in a cow pasture, are at it again now.

The Senate has already passed a measure priced at $969 billion over the next decade. Senators congratulated themselves because this gargantuan figure reflects the elimination of some subsidies, which reduced projected spending by $23 billion. However, the bill includes a lush new subsidy, enhanced crop insurance, that could offset some of the promised savings — and leaves commodity producers hooked on taxpayer largess.

In the House, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is weighing the election-year political risks of proceeding with that chamber’s own near-trillion-dollar measure — and we can understand his hesi­ta­tion. The Agriculture Committee has approved a bill that would save $35 billion over the next 10 years but also continues an array of ugly subsidies, price controls and production regulations. Among them is a “price loss coverage” program that would pay farmers if prices drop from their recent highs. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says that could cost $3 billion per year; economist Vincent Smith of the American Enterprise Institute says that the cost could spike to $16.5 billion under less optimistic economic assumptions.

Of course, “farm bill” is something of a misnomer, since the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, accounts for about 80 percent of the measure’s annual cost. While the Senate measure trims food stamps by about $400 million per year, the House bill would cut four times as much, or roughly $1.65 billion per year; this accounts for much of its savings edge over the Senate bill.

No doubt food stamp eligibility needs modernization, as some Republican critics of the program suggest. But to slash a couple of million recipients from the rolls — the CBO’s estimate of the House bill’s impact — under current economic conditions strikes us as draconian. To do so while extending billions of dollars in taxpayer funding to rural businesses that should have been weaned off the federal teat long ago is grotesque.