Coalition Report

by Kathleen Logan Smith
Executive Director; Missouri Coalition For The Environment

Your Taxes and Your Plate Meet in the Food Bill

We have been exploring the intricacies of American Food policy in this column in order to prepare for the conversations about the 2012 “Farm Bill” which is our nation’s largest package of food legislation. Even if your relationship to food is limited to the plate, the Food Bill (a much better title for the “Farm Bill”) determines in large part what food is on your plate, what you pay for it, and how it impacts our land and water.

As Americans concerned about food security, it makes sense to help reduce some of a farmer’s risk so that hazards of drought, flood, and pestilence do not deter farmers from growing food. We do need farmers. In response to this need America’s Food Bill contains a provision for crop insurance. In fact, it contains an entire “title” or package of legislation dedicated to crop insurance.
In our crop insurance system we taxpayers subsidize 16 insurance companies to offer the policies to farmers. We taxpayers also subsidize the premiums for these policies at an average of 60% of their cost – sometimes more. The policies cover the main commodity crops (which also are the ones eligible for price supports) – corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and cotton. While other crops are also eligible for insurance policies, the system is designed to best serve industrialized farming. A producer whose thousand-acre fields grow corn one year and soybeans the next, may find that insuring their annual crop will be a worthwhile investment (especially when the expense of the investment is subsidized). But a producer with a viable but diversified operation who is growing potentially dozens of different vegetables and fruits for consumers to actually eat may not find it economical to purchase multiple insurance policies on dozens of individual and comparatively small-quantity crops.

Also missing from our crop insurance system are policies insuring the value of organic soybeans, organic corn, organic cotton, and organic wheat. Farmers who plant these crops will typically only receive the value of a non-organic crop if they experience a loss, despite the fact that these organic crops typically have higher market values.

With tornadoes, floods, and drought here in our part of the country, it’s no wonder that farmers’ markets in the Midwest struggle to find farmers. It takes courage to submit one’s economic security to nature’s and the market’s whims. Sadly, limiting crop insurance practicality to a narrow range of crops produced at the industrial scale is one of the factors that hinders the growth of sustainable, diversified farms that use less fossil fuels and fewer chemicals. As more risk-taking farmers build business histories with vegetable and fruit production, insurance vehicles may be structured to offer practical protection for their diversified systems. Presently, however, efforts to level the taxpayer-subsidized playing field have not succeeded for farms growing food for local consumption.

As we examine elements of our nation’s Food Bill, it makes sense to consider where it is appropriate to minimize farmer’s risks – and how. As you consider what you will tell your Congressperson about the upcoming 2012 Food Bill, keep in mind what you’d like to see on your plate and where you’d like your tax dollars to go. Make sure you are at the table in 2012.