Corporate Farming's Best Friend
How the Poor Protect Agribusiness's Subsidies

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.

That is the strategic beauty of the farm bill. While it is written in the Agriculture Committees -- where the 30 farm districts that receive two-thirds of the subsidies are well represented -- the bill wins support from the overwhelmingly urban and suburban Congress by virtue of its nutrition section, which authorizes the food stamp program.

With growing housing costs and stagnant wages, the ranks of the needy are expanding. The Agriculture Department says that more than 35 million people struggle to feed themselves. And current benefits are meager. Hunger activists have been championing improvements in the food stamp program since the last farm bill passed, in 2002. Lawmakers have taken up the cause in the Congressional Food Stamp Challenge, in which they make a spectacle of attempting to survive for a week on the standard allotment: $3 a day. So when the House Agriculture Committee needed to broaden support for its farm bill this year, it sought to improve the food stamp program. Lawmakers added $4 billion for food stamps, and the House approved the measure in July.

Who would vote against a bill that helps 25 million people with emergency food aid every year and the 4 million who rely on food pantries and soup kitchens every week?

That is the quandary. There will be no deep reforms of farm policy as long as the welfare of the poor is tied to the welfare of corporate farmers. But hunger activists fear that the food stamp entitlement might disappear outside of the farm bill.

The Republicans tried something like that in the 1990s with their "Contract With America," proposing that food stamps be made part of state-run nutrition grants. But Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, then in the House and representing all of those wheat and corn farmers, convinced his fellow, mostly nonrural, Republicans to keep the food stamp program in the farm bill, which he called the "ultimate" safety net for the poor -- and, it turned out, for the farm program itself.

The prime example of this balance between the rural rich and the urban poor is this year's savior of the food stamp program: Rep. Charles Rangel. The New York Democrat came up with the extra $4 billion for food stamps not by cutting into farmers' subsidies but by proposing a new tax provision on foreign corporations.

With its warehouse emptying quickly, the Food Bank of New York thanked Rangel and, along with food banks nationwide, urged anyone who cares about the poor to lobby for passage of the 2007 farm bill -- a case of the poor helping the rich.

Elizabeth Becker, a journalist, is a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a member of the board of Oxfam America, both of which support farm reform. She is writing a book on American farming.

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