Corporate Farming's Best Friend

By Elizabeth Becker
Monday, October 22, 2007

This was the year the antiquated and expensive farm subsidy program was to be reformed.

A growing chorus has turned against the $16 billion annual subsidy, which gives most of the money to corporate farms rather than the small farmers for whom the program was designed during the Depression.

Major business lobbies, including numerous Fortune 500 companies, attacked the program because it is blocking a multibillion-dollar global trade deal.

International charities opposed the program because it undermines poor foreign farmers, who can't compete against subsidized American crops, an argument that swayed the global trade court to rule against one of the subsidies.

Environmentalists want the program changed because it rewards farmers who are among the nation's biggest water polluters.

Parents worried about obese children, and the growing cult of foodies -- from celebrity chefs to urbanites newly addicted to full-flavored tomatoes -- made impassioned pleas for the money to go toward local and organic produce.

Longtime critics have made public the subsidy payments, showing that most of the money goes to 150,000 big corporate farmers, further hastening the death of small family farms.

Finally, surging prices for corn, milk and other commodities have raised farmers' incomes and undercut arguments about the need for this expensive income transfer.

Yet none of these arguments seems to matter. The 2007 farm bill is pretty much the same as previous versions. The legislation the Senate is due to take up this week won't give the farm lobby or agribusiness any headaches.

Why has the reform movement been such a flop? Because most members of Congress won't be thinking about farms when they vote for the farm bill. They'll be voting for the only part of the program that matters to them: food stamps -- one of the last safety nets for the millions of poor who are their constituents.

"Most members of Congress don't have a farm in their district," said Rep. Ron Kind (D), whose Wisconsin district is reputed to have more cows than people. Kind went against type by co-sponsoring an amendment to reduce subsidies and spread the money to conservation and rural development programs. He lost.

For most lawmakers, details about the farm program are irrelevant. It is the food stamp program that counts.

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