Coalition Report: GAME ON! FOOD FIGHT!

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

Our nation’s food fate is now in the hands of the U.S. Senate as that body shapes the 2012 Farm Bill, the law that impacts our food, soil, water and pocketbooks.

The Senate Agriculture Committee has proposed keeping costly subsidies that overwhelmingly go to the most profitable farmers, and cutting programs for the hungry and the environment to help finance a new entitlement program for farm businesses and provide them with unlimited insurance subsidies. It makes no sense.

The committee has proposed replacing one discredited subsidy – “direct payments” – with a potentially more expensive entitlement that would guarantee producers of commodities like corn nearly 90 percent of their annual revenue. In addition to creating an unprecedented $33 billion business revenue guarantee, the committee did nothing about crop insurance subsidies that are expected to cost $90 billion over the next 10 years – including $15 billion for insurance companies and their agents. Iowa State University economist Dr. Bruce Babcock has calculated that insurance companies and agents harvest one dollar for every dollar that goes to a farmer.

The money goes to commodity farmers- grain farmers primarily- while growers of fruits and vegetables are not part of the payout system. The Government Accountability Office recently found that one farm business enjoyed $1.3 million in premium subsidies in 2011 to insure crops grown across eight counties, and the companies and agents that sold the insurance got $490,000 from taxpayers to service the policies. To finance these handouts to highly profitable and financially secure farm operations and insurers, the committee wants to cut more than $10 billion from programs to help the hungry and the environment. And they want to call it reform. Ha!

How about real reforms instead? Modest reforms such as reducing the share of insurance premiums that taxpayers pick up, capping premium subsidies, and cutting payments to crop insurance companies and agents could generate significant savings and more than eliminate the need to slash anti-hunger or environmental programs.

The committee also ignored the extraordinary pressure that agriculture is placing on the nation’s soil and water resources. In response to record prices, farmers have plowed up 10.2 million acres of wetlands and grassland to grow crops, increasing the use of farm chemicals and eliminating buffers that filter pollutants from farm runoff. Many of the environmental gains made by farmers in recent decades are being lost. The Senate bill would cut funding for soil and water conservation programs by $6.5 billion and seriously weaken long-standing provisions that require farmers to protect wetlands and soil health as a condition of receiving subsidies. The committee did agree to reduce insurance subsidies to farmers who plow up prairie to grow crops, but only for four years.

A farm bill that cuts programs for the hungry and the environment to finance a new entitlement program and unlimited subsidies for the largest and most profitable farms should not be called a “reform” bill. Real reform would end direct payments, reject new entitlements, make important reforms to crop insurance programs, invest in new farmers and organic agriculture, reinvest in anti-hunger and conservation programs and do much more to promote healthy diets.
Some have picked up on the need for real reform:

“What makes this new benefit so troubling is that it might even be more expensive than the fixed payments. It certainly can’t be justified based on the health of the farm economy. Farm net income last year reached a record $98 billion, mostly because prices for commodity crops such as corn and soybeans were near record highs.”

Senate Definition of Reform? Give Rich Farmers More Aid, Bloomberg

“Who loses in this scenario? Small and beginning farmers, American taxpayers and rural communities, in part because the federal subsidies are paid regardless of income. The nation’s farmland would also suffer because the senators aren’t requiring qualitative land stewardship practices as a condition for payment.”

Congress Should Rein In Crop Insurance, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Perhaps you can help convince your senators that real reforms are better for the health of our bodies, our environment, and our budgets. Hurry! The game is on.

For more information visit www.moenviron.org or call 314-727-0600.