I’m going to propose a rallying cry for fixing our food system. As rallying cries go, it’s terrible. It’s technical and wonky, with no panache at all. But “I have a dream” was already taken, so I had to settle for this: Crop-neutrality.
I know, I know! Not sexy at all. And it gets worse. It’s crop-neutral insurance. But, dull as it sounds, it might be the key to getting our agriculture policy more in line with public health priorities.
That goal is getting some attention. There’s broad-based discontent with the idea that we disproportionately subsidize corn and soy, which are the backbone of meat and processed foods, which health authorities tell us to eat less of. A particularly emphatic and talked-about call was a Nov. 7, 2014, op-ed in this newspaper in which Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter called for a national food policy “designed to support our public health and environmental objectives” that would “lay the foundation for a food system in which healthful choices are accessible to all and in which it becomes possible to nourish ourselves without exploiting other people or nature.” It would apply to all regulations that touch our food supply.
That is the kind of clarion call of which rallying cries ought to be made. It’s broad and appealing, about as sexy as policy goals get. I also think it has right on its side. Yes, food policy should be in line with public and environmental health goals. The issue is whether such a broad-based plan is feasible. Even the first step — agreeing on what our public and environmental goals are — is a tall order. It’s a tough sell.
Let’s tackle the problem from another angle. Instead of trying to accomplish the goal by doing more, perhaps we can try to do less. Instead of layering on new regulations and bureaucracy, let’s chip away at the old ones — the ones that put our agriculture out of sync with our public health in the first place.
That requires that we dig into the arcane details of ag policy — hence the milquetoast rallying cry — but it’s the details that so famously house the devil, and sexy doesn’t go there. In this case, the single most relevant detail is that we have a long history of subsidizing a handful of commodity crops — corn, soy, wheat, cotton and a few others — more than other crops, thereby making those commodities less risky for farmers to grow. In the case of crop losses or price drops, the growers are compensated by the government.
Why, in a modern agricultural system, do we still single out commodities for special treatment? I asked a lot of people, and the reason seems to be that we’ve been doing it for so long that it’s hard to change. The public doesn’t have a stake in large supplies of commodity crops.
The public does have a stake in protecting farmers from the potentially devastating risks of crop losses and price drops; I’ve never talked with anyone in academic, policy or agricultural circles who thought farmers should be on their own. We need to support them, but without incentives for any particular crops.
Funny thing. That’s exactly what the USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) does. Operating in a panache-free zone, it administers the federal crop insurance program, a crop-neutral subsidy program that is separate from the commodity programs, which are run by a different USDA agency. Corn, soy, wheat, cotton and a few other crops are covered by both crop insurance and commodity programs; other crops get just crop insurance. Brandon Willis, the administrator of the RMA, explained the federal crop insurance program as a public-private partnership in which private insurers write policies for crops across the spectrum — both commodity and specialty crops — and the government subsidizes the farmers’ premiums and the insurers’ costs.
“We treat all crops equally,” says Willis, although the insurance policies are based on yield data in the farmer’s county, and very unusual crops (for the area) can’t be insured that way. For those farmers, the RMA has whole-farm revenue insurance, which is exactly what it sounds like: The farm’s income is insured, regardless of crop.
The RMA has been steadily broadening its options, both for policies that insure crops (including organics) and those that insure revenue. If the crop insurance options — the same for every farmer — were robust enough so farmers could adequately protect themselves without the special commodity programs, perhaps we could do away with those programs altogether. Phase them out over 10 years or so, while the RMA continues to expand its crop-neutral offerings.
The RMA estimates that crop insurance will cost $7.5 billion in 2014 ($1.4 billion for insurance company expenses, $6.1 billion for premium subsidies). Commodity program payouts aren’t in yet, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates them at $3.9 billion. If we were to phase out the commodity programs and use some of the money saved to develop more, better revenue-based policies, the taxpayer bill could be lowered (we’d eliminate the administrative costs of the commodity programs), and we’d have a comprehensive, crop-neutral system, administered by one agency.
For that to work, it has to work for farmers, so I asked a few for their thoughts. Dave Walton, a sixth-generation Iowa farmer with 500 acres of corn, soybeans, hay, pasture, cattle and sheep, said he has never understood why the commodity approach is better than subsidized revenue insurance. The former favors “the continued planting of corn if you were a farmer that grew a lot of corn in the past, and does nothing to encourage diversification of acres,” he says. “If I were to have revenue insurance that extended to grazing, I’d probably turn the 15 to 20 percent of my acres that are difficult-to-turn-a-profit-on corn or beans into temporary grazing.”
Other farmers emphasized that they’d need robust revenue insurance policies as a replacement for commodity programs, so they’d be protected against both losses and price drops. That’s critical: designing revenue policies that work for farmers is difficult, and we have to make sure the safety net is effective before we take away other protection.
Walton brings up another important point about subsidizing just a few crops: It’s a policy that doesn’t encourage crop diversity, which is often cited as important to both human and environmental health. The federal crop insurance program, though, actually offers a discount for crop diversity, on the theory that a multi-crop farm is less susceptible to devastating loss. One crop might fail, but another might thrive.
What that doesn’t do is actively subsidize those foods that we’re supposed to eat more of — fruits and vegetables, primarily — but the system we have now illustrates why it might be better not to. Who knew, 50 years ago, that corn would play out as animal feed, biofuel and high-fructose corn syrup? If we start shaping our policy to encourage a different set of crops, how will that play out 50 years from now? What diabolically delicious, calorie-dense, nutrition-free foods will future food scientists engineer from an oversupply of kale? Weaving crop-specific incentives into the fabric of our agriculture is something that perhaps we’ve learned not to do.
I’m not making the case that rejiggering subsidies will dramatically change the way Americans eat; it’s a complicated matter, and I don’t think anyone can predict with certainty what the effect will be. But crop-neutrality aligns public dollars more closely with public interest. It lets farmers decide what they want to grow, and it encourages the age-old risk-mitigation strategy of diversity. It continues to ensure that a bad year isn’t crippling, and a decent living is possible for the men and women who feed us. And, although it’s not a national food policy, I asked Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and one of the co-authors of the op-ed calling for it, whether crop-neutral insurance is consistent with a national food policy’s goals. It is, he said: “It would be highly pragmatic to take steps like this.”
Maybe it’s a step we can all get behind. So repeat after me: What do we want? Crop-neutrality! When do we want it? Phased in slowly over 10 years!
Haspel farms oysters on Cape Cod and writes about food and science. On Twitter: @TamarHaspel.