Friday, September 02, 2005

Subsidize Me!

(NOTE: As promised, here's the second "review" of Diet for a Dead Planet. Again, all page citations come from this book. And yes, it's another long one. Fasten your safety belts.)

The vast majority of facts and ideas presented in Diet for a Dead Planet were familiar to me after reading books such as Fast Food Nation, Food Politics, So Shall We Reap, and Eat Here. All offer useful and often appalling information, of course, but after a certain point I read some of these things and think, "Yes, it's awful -- and why haven't things changed for the better?"

Then I read the chapter on farm subsidies, exports, and food aid.

Hey, wait a minute -- come back here! Look, I know the thought of dry economic and political talk is off-putting. Believe me, I thought I was going to yawn all the way through the chapter.

Instead, I ended up bookmarking nearly every page and taking copious notes because it was the most concise and cogent explanation of this area of public policy that I had ever read. I mean, I actually became so fascinated that I even wrote down some of the author's sources and hope to research additional Department of Agriculture documents to learn more. (Yes, I'm still a research geek at heart.)

And if you will indulge me, I'd like to try to distill this information so you can understand my excitement, because I think these policies are the key to why modern agriculture continues to head down a destructive path -- and how we can change that.

In theory, subsidies are monies allocated by the federal government in the annual budget to support farmers because in times of economic downturns, farmers must still receive a steady income in order to be able to produce the food that feeds the country. Sounds reasonable, right?

In reality, the economic effect of subsidies are not so reasonable. By setting price ceilings on crops, subsidies may guarantee a certain level of income for farmers, but they also ensure that food marketers and the processing industries have a ready supply of cheap food. These corporations then raise the prices of the end food products to cover the added inputs -- and they make the profits. When you pay more for your food at the supermarket, the bulk of your money is going to the corporations, and only a small percentage goes to the farmers.

And how many farmers actually see enough money from the government to help sustain their livelihoods? According to a June 2001 report from the then General Accounting Office, the wealthiest farmers take the lion's share of subsidies, while small farmers get a pittance:

The bottom 80 percent... took home a meager $1,680 each on average. At the pinnacle of farm subsidy privilege, the top 1 percent of all the nation's beneficiaries got payments averaging $175,651... (p.225)

Why does it work this way? It isn't a question of survival of the fittest -- it is built into the subsidy system.

Because farm payments are "generally based on volume of production," big growers rake in most of the cash -- money that enables them to buy up more land, purchase more equipment, and push smaller competitors out of business. (p.227)

So let's be absolutely clear here: subsidies are not about protecting all farmers equally. Subsidies protect the markets, which are dominated by the agribusinesses, and they specifically protect certain crop markets in order to maintain a constant surplus.

Well, what's wrong with that? you may ask. Isn't it a good thing to be prepared for times of emergency? After all, even the Baklava Queen has been stashing away the summer's surplus for the winter.

And to you I would say, preserving a surplus is a good idea -- but the agricultural surplus promoted by subsidies is not, by and large, intended for use here in our country. This surplus is produced specifically for export to foreign nations, especially the poor developing nations, flooding their markets with cheap grains (wheat and corn leading the way) in order to expand U. S. markets and, once again, enrich American corporations. The results?

If it is dumped abroad, either as food aid or as bargain-basement-price exports, excess food no longer threatens U. S. markets, but instead penetrates and destabilizes agriculture markets in other countries. There is rampant evidence suggesting highly destructive economic and social effects wrought by the spread of cheap surplus food, predominantly from the United States and Europe into developing countries whose agricultural sectors are both vital and precarious. (p.237)

This shouldn't be surprising when we see a similar problem here in our own country, where local farmers are pushed out of business because cheaper produce from large corporate farms half a continent away gluts the market. After all, if you're on a tight budget, you're probably going to look for the bargain prices, right? Only in developing countries, far more people make their livelihood from working the land -- between 50 and 80 percent (p.238) -- so far more people may be shoved into unemployment, poverty, and hunger.

The question of food aid -- which I hadn't really examined before reading an insightful BBC article as well as this book -- is closely tied to these exports. While helping other countries in times of famine is a generous gesture, food aid can also hurt those countries more than it helps them because it opens up a market for U. S. agricultural surplus and keeps those developing countries dependent on food aid and exports. (There's also the question of whether that food gets to the people who truly need it -- as well as the question of food surpluses exacerbating the steady increase of global population -- but I'm sure I'm taxing your patience as it is with this lengthy essay.)

It's not that subsidies and exports are harmful in themselves. In a different system, both could be very beneficial tools:

There is no reason that we can't have an entirely different subsidy system that promotes diversified, small-scale organic farming and that expands food security to make healthy and sustainable food economically viable. The only obstacle to such policies is the opposition of deeply entrenched financial and political interests. (p.242)

Meaning, the corporations who benefit from the current system -- and the politicians they support through campaign contributions and lobbying (i.e., almost all of them) -- won't let these changes happen without a fight.

So what do we do? The author offers three major suggestions (p.257):

1. Push for changes in the annual farm bill that doles out subsidies. Demand that the money go to "small, diversified agriculture, organics, and community food security projects" in order to provide American families with food that is "more healthy, environmentally responsible, local, and economically sustaining."

2. Push the government to break up these corporate monopolies. Related to that, balance your consumer habits between not supporting these corporations with your purchases AND writing to the corporations to explain why you won't buy their products and what you'd like them to change. (Convince your favorite political action groups to lead the way; after all, they launched a huge campaign against Exxon... why not one against the big food conglomerates?)

3. Push for federal and local policies that support a more sustainable, locally-based agriculture that provides food security to communities. This might include encouraging the growth of farmers' markets, community gardens, farm-to-school projects, and other policies.

Your personal choices count. But we also need to make the effort to push for community-wide changes, because the system isn't going to change until the policy makers and the profit-takers hear that we're not going to support this unsustainable way of living any more. Start small, if you need to -- but start raising your voice and your concerns.

And I'm telling myself this as much as I'm telling you.

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