Thursday, February 9, 2012

"Specialty Crops" and the Farm Bill

In trying to understand how and why our government has allowed so much adulteration of my food supply, I finally had to start following the money. A lot of the money comes from Farm Bill subsidies...and the Farm Bill must be the recipient of the most expensive lobbying in our history, outside of maybe the presidential campaigns!

I bet you have never read any portion of the Farm Bill. It's not an easy task, reading through the Farm Bill. The last one, passed in 2008 (good for 5 years) weighed in at 1,770 pages. I wonder if even those that write it have a clear, full picture of all of it... too many fingers in the pie. I certainly don't understand much of it, yet it affects us all, daily. 

There are, however, some glaring facts and omissions, plus at least one or two really good programs. 

First, the good
Programs like SNAP (formerly called food stamps) are fully funded by the Farm Bill, and the National School Lunch Program and other school-based child nutrition programs get some funding from it,as I understand the inter-agency convolutions. Another small Farm Bill program gives farmer's market vouchers to low-income senior citizens like me. Although the vouchers are cumbersome to use (each voucher is for $5 and no vendor is allowed to give change), I made some use of the $40 I got in vouchers in 2011, probably getting around $20 total in produce for my vouchers. But it wasn't really very fair economically, because our tax dollars paid $40 for my $20 of produce. The vendors should be able to give change, even if if it's just another smaller-amount voucher to use later.

Did you know that the fruit and vegetable products that hit our grocery stores are only considered as "specialty crops" by the USDA, and that is how they are handled by the Farm Bill? Handled only as "bit players" on the sidelines in the Farm Bill.  Only 1% of the Farm Bill goes towards specialty crops.

I don't know about you, but I'd choose to use some of our tax dollars to support local, ethical family farmers who grow my apples, carrots, beans and broccoli. And more specifically, the organic farmers who do not infuse my fruits and vegetables with pesticides and herbicides.

The not-so-good
The products the Farm Bill mainly subsidizes are the five big commodity crops: corn, wheat, rice, soybeans and cotton. The dollar value of the commodity crops the US exported in 2010 was $108,662,000,000, and we subsidized them to grow it. The payments go out regardless of need. In fact, since 1995, a mere 10 percent of all subsidized farms – only the largest and wealthiest operations – have raked in 74 percent of all subsidy payments. The money kept on coming right through the five highest earnings years ever for farm income. (Source)

Commercial corn farmers made a killing in 2011, mainly because they were subsidized to provide corn for the failing ethanol program, feed corn for CAFO's, and of course, for the high fructose corn syrup used in far too many packaged items on the grocery shelves. 

Then there's soy...
Soy is a known obesogen (which leads to weight gain) as well as a known goitrogen (substances that suppress the function of the thyroid gland which also leads to weight gain; think: goiter) and in spite of the rising obesity levels and consequential health care costs in the US, the 2007-2012 Farm Bill allocated $42 billion of our tax money for industrial farmed GMO soy beans. Data from the USDA indicates 94% of all soybean crops in the US are GMO, and the FDA even pushes soy... “Diets that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease.” 

Did I miss somewhere that being overweight (thanks in part to chemicals in soy) reduces the risk of heart disease?

There are three problematic monocultures in industrial agriculture: corn, soy, and sugar. U.S. Farm Bill subsidies for these (as well as for other commodity crops) encourage cheap and unhealthy foods and food fillers, sick GMO-fed animals whose meat enters our food system, extreme pesticide use, and damage to soil and water sources. The Commodity Cropism project seeks to expose veiled information about these crops, and provide the public with data left out or obscured by loosely monitored food production and labeling systems.

Monsanto’s GMO Beet sugar seed is now used by 95% of beet farmers (usually under multi-year binding seed contracts they can't get out of), who supplied around 50% of the nation’s sugar in 2011... 64 pounds per person per year, up 28%.

I have read that US foreign aid policies are very often include a clause that requires the receiving nation to accept and use Monsanto GMO seed as a requisite for getting our aid. What's with that??

When was the first food and farm bill signed into law and why?
The first one was signed into law as a temporary measure in 1933 as a way to aid farmers suffering in the Great Depression. Since then it has come before Congress roughly every five years. Nutrition programs were added to the farm bill in the late 1970s to win the support of lawmakers from urban districts. The 2008 Farm Bill had a price tag of nearly $300 billion. It expires in 2012.

Since a lot of the money does go to nutrition programs like SNAP, it’s time to start calling it a "food and farm bill" and to increase investments in healthy food programs. A top priority is to protect food assistance programs for the neediest, especially in the lingering aftermath of the 2008 recession. ... work to improve and expand programs that increase access to healthy foods, strengthen local and regional food systems and provide new markets for diversified, local, sustainable and organic growers and ranchers. (Source)

I'd like to see subsidies (IF THEY ARE REALLY NECESARY) used properly, and not just be "gimmies" for BigAg... and I agree with the Environmental Working Group... I, too would like to see a chunk of the farm subsidy dollars shifted to conservation programs. This would help fund programs that protect soil, water and air quality, preserve wildlife habitat, and conserve energy and water. In my opinion, if we don't conserve what's left (pitiful as it may be) there won't be many future crops.

Update: I wrote this about mid-January 2012, and on Feb. 1 read an interesting article on this general subject by Sharon Astyk that you may wish to read. She does a great job of explaining the cost of a gallon of milk, although there's much more to the article. Click here.


  1. i did a blog post about this a while ago. it's damn frustrating to say the least.

  2. Some folks look at these programs as Welfare for the Rich. Given the nature of most of the "subsidies" as you so capably point out, I think that is an appropriate view.



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