By Will Herlands ’12
The United States Farm Bill is a federal appropriations bill that allocates hundreds of billions of dollars to scientific and educational programs on both the state and the federal level. Since the first incarnation of the bill was passed in 1973, these appropriations have been reauthorized approximately every four years, with increasingly devastating consequences. Though it is hard to believe, this deeply entrenched bill has stifled economic growth, hampered international development, and resulted in systemic damage to the environment. Since the bill is expected to be reauthorized in 2012, now is our chance to defeat it, and this fight ought to be lead by conservatives.
What does the farm bill do? While the Farm Bill supports a multitude of programs, up to $20 billion a year are given away as agricultural subsidies, which are used to guarantee stable and low prices and high profit margins for domestic agricultural produce, specifically corn, soybeans, and cotton. In order to retain this incongruity between high profit margins and low prices, the government has enacted subsidy programs such as counter-cyclical payments, marketing loans and disaster payments, which artificially lower the cost to produce these products and insulate farmers from negative fluctuations in consumer demand as well as from variations in crop cycles. Though subsidies are purported to assist all farmers, in reality the bill is systematically structured to benefit the largest farming corporations know as Big Agriculture, or Big Ag for short.
While Big Ag benefits tremendously from the Farm Bill, the consequences are rather bleak for the rest of the world. First and foremost, farm subsidies wreak havoc on domestic agricultural markets. Given the disproportionate benefits of subsidies to Big Ag, the Farm Bill stifles the development and growth of small and medium sized farms. While local and organic farms have recently been championed and patronized by environmental and food activists, tremendous market pressures on most small farms force farmers to consolidate or sell their operations to larger conglomerate organizations. The artificially accelerated compression of the domestic agricultural industry lacks the natural economic diversity required to sustain a competitive and innovative market sector. Additionally, since the federal subsidies are allocated towards specific crops, farmers are encouraged to produce based on outdated government evaluations and not based on consumer demand.
Agricultural subsides have also significantly damaged international agricultural and economic development. In an increasingly automated and globalized economy, it is difficult for developing nations in Africa and Asia to determine an economic niche in which they have a trade advantage vis-à-vis Western countries. Agriculture is the one market in which developing countries have a potential economic advantage, since the prices of labor and land – the overwhelming costs in the agricultural sector– are relatively low. Yet by artificially deflating the prices of domestically produced food, the US places a hidden tariff on imported agriculture, distorting international trade to the detriment of the world’s poorest. The importance of economic trade between the West and developing countries cannot be over-emphasized. As is often noted, the expansion of international trade has raised more people out of poverty, disease, and malnutrition than all the NGOs in the world, combined. Thus, it is ironic the that US farm subsidies systemically prevent international economic development, while at the same time the US allocates billions of dollars to development projects in Africa and other developing areas.
In addition to economic repercussions, agricultural subsidies also significantly lower environment and food quality. The overgrowth of cheap corn has accelerated the production of ethanol-based biofuels, which can have a larger carbon footprint than gasoline. Furthermore, corn and soybean surpluses have lead to the proliferation of chemically engineered food substitutes such as high fructose corn syrup that contribute to the obesity endemic and related chronic diseases. Finally, the decrease in economic diversity in agriculture has lead to a decrease in genetic diversity of the species of crops planted in the US. The lack of genetic diversity increases the chance of wide spread crop diseases and pestilence attacks which leave our food supply vulnerable to natural failure and attacks from hostile nations or terrorists.
Given the devastating consequences of the farm subsidies, it would seem that nearly every constituency and political ideology would oppose such subsidies on account of at least one of the arguments articulated above. However, two main factors have prevented Congress from seriously tackling Farm Bill reform. First, and foremost, Big Ag lobbyists are amongst the strongest in Washington, and have packaged farm subsidies in an omnibus bill with a number of other disparate programs and entitlements relating to agriculture and food. If a congressman were to vote against the agricultural subsidies he would have to vote against the entire Farm Bill which includes food stamps for disadvantaged Americans, critical grants for scientific agricultural research, and forestry conservation programs around the country. For most congressmen, voting against the Farm Bill is political suicide; thus, in 2008, Congress approved the bill over George W. Bush’s presidential veto.
The second factor preventing serious Farm Bill reform is concern for food security. Many lawmakers are convinced that the US should ensure a basic level of access to domestically produced food for all Americans. This resource would enable America to withstand terrifying natural disasters as well as international violent conflicts that could hamper international trade and leave America vulnerable to devastating starvation.
While these issues speak to a diverse range of constituencies and political ideologies, I believe that conservatives should take the lead fighting to end the Farm Bill’s grip on America. One of the pillars of conservative politics is a mistrust of sprawling government economic control. Indeed, the very idea of federal subsidies is difficult to justify from a conservative perspective, since they tend to stifle innovation and competition. In order for conservatives to support a subsidy there must be compelling reason, which the Farm Bill simply does not have. Additionally, when confronting the bureaucratic wrangling that has protected agricultural subsidies, conservatism warns us to eschew the inefficiency of government procedural formalism and to address the issues with which we are dealing openly and honestly. The effects of farm subsidies are a great example of how, instead of promoting greater democracy, government intervention enables special interest groups to distort markets and stifle innovation.
The most cogent argument for continuing agricultural subsidies is the need for food security. In a world where a single tsunami can cripple a thriving nation such as Japan and, an oppressed populace can ignite revolution in the Middle East, it is naive to believe ourselves insulated from the fickle nature of international politics and the awesome power of nature. Yet the subsidy programs in the Farm Bill do little to ensure American security; in fact, they cause systemic harm. As noted above, agricultural subsidies vastly diminish the genetic diversity of our crops. The lack of ecological diversity leaves large quantities of our food supply vulnerable to being decimated by a single virus, toxin, or pestilence. In addition, there is little evidence that domestic food supplies would dwindle below critical levels without subsidies. Currently, the US produces such enormous excesses of crops, such as corn, such that we can process them into syrup to replace sugar, ethanol to replace oil, and cattle feed to replace grass and still have excess quantities. Removing subsidies will certainly lead to slightly higher food prices and a dip in domestic corn, cotton, and soybean produce, but not extensive food shortages or the destruction of the American way of life.
Given its devastating economic impact, as well as the political and national security concerns it raises, conservatives ought to be particularly outraged by the agricultural subsidies in the US Farm Bill. However, would it be appropriate to call the Farm Bill a “conservative issue?” Certainly, the Farm Bill is not an exclusively conservative issue. Left-leaning political and social groups who are concerned about the deleterious environmental and health fallout of the Farm Bill, as well as the organic food movement, all oppose current US policy on agricultural subsidies.
Indeed, the overwhelmingly liberal domination of agricultural activism today might induce conservative skepticism as to the relevance and importance of addressing these issues. Yet political conservatism is not an ideology based in opposition to the Left, but rather a mode of thinking critically, coherently, and compassionately to address contemporary issues. Our defining factor as advocates of freedom, creativity, and principled living should not necessarily be what divides us from other Americans. It stands to reason that conservatism’s most important values are shared across political party lines, and we should not renege on those ideals simply because they do not give us justification to differ. Conservatism is strongest not when its ideological proponents clash with others, but when conservative ideas stand distinguished, unabashed, and forthright to unify and propel our country to greatness. Thus, inasmuch as the Farm Bill stifles creativity, endangers American interests, and prevents the developing world from reaching beyond the captivity of poverty, this is a conservative issue, and we must fight.
William Herlands is a junior majoring in electrical engineering from New York, NY. He is the co-founder of Big Ag Bill Reform, a national movement to defeat the agricultural subsidies in the Farm Bill (BigAgBill.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.