An action alert from Environmental Defense on the upcoming consideration of the 2007 Farm Bill in the U.S. House of Representatives prompted me to write this mash-up of my standard anti-subsidy, pro-shared commons protection diatribes to my representative, Mark Kirk. I had to send it through Mark’s Website, as I was 1747 characters too verbose for EDF’s lame on-line submission form. You wouldn’t think I’d have much to say on issues like this, but I couldn’t just rubber-stamp EDF’s verbiage supporting their favored amendment to the Farm Bill, as it appeared to me to have too many command & control/interventionist planks which, which while they promoted environmental protection and a playing field for small farmers, didn’t do enough to dismantle the entrenched subsidy system, even if it reformed it somewhat.

Set Subsidy Sunsets in the 2007 Farm Bill

I understand the House of Representatives will soon be considering the 2007 Farm Bill. As your constituent, I urge you to support changes to the U.S. farm policy that (1) phase out the massive subsidy programs which primarily serve to enrich corporate agribusiness producing a select handful of cash crops, (2) support a competitive playing field for independent, family-farm producers, (3) incentivize environmental protection.

Stop Self-Stoking Subsidies

As I understand it, our current farm policy pours nearly $25 billion in subsidies and price supports into the agriculture sector annually. However, as the Washington Post has revealed in their year-long “Harvesting Cash” series, since these payments are largely distributed on a per-acre basis, they largely amount to another form of “corporate welfare”, since the majority of the money goes to support the largest farm operations, not small-scale family farmers who may be struggling to remain competitive. Further, the overwhelming majority of these enormous sums are disproportionately distributed to wheat, cotton, corn, soybean, and rice growers, with 50% of the total dollars going to only 20 Congressional districts. These seems to me enormously wasteful unfair. With the price of corn doubling recently due to increased interest in ethanol and other non-food uses, it appears obvious that price supports are unneeded in this sector. Further, the majority of food in the U.S. is competitively and efficiently produced without subsidies, raising the question of the true need for these massive sums of taxpayer money to go to a minority of farmers. In addition, this unbalanced system has distorted the market, leading Michael Pollan to conclude in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma that such such subsidies end up contributing to personal and social ills such as obesity, rising health care costs, and early death by flooding the market with cheap corn and soy (from which certain unhealthful sugars and fats are derived), making them artificially more competitive than potentially healthier alternative foods.

As you know from previous correspondence, I oppose subsidies except in cases where vital public interests are at stake. As appears true with these agriculture subsidies, systems of subsidies are dangerous because that they are self-perpetuating and outlive their useful lives, even when they may arguably have done some good in the past. This danger is built in to the structure of the situation. Often, the self-interest of the group benefiting from the hand-out autopoietically generates a system of political lobbying and political campaign fundraising maneuvers to ensure that the group’s funding source continues. Subsidies are extraordinarily difficult to “turn off” once enacted, as they engender this powerful, self-perpetuating lobby and campaign contributorships to keep the money flowing. The self-generating, parasitic nature of subsidies is one reason for soaring deficits and “big government”. The Washington Post details the power of the agri-lobbies in securing these subsidies, clearly demonstrating these general principles in this particular case.

Given this analysis, I believe subsidies to be extraordinarily dangerous tools. While I admit that they may be necessary in emergency situations to protect vital state or local interests, subsidies must be enacted with extreme care and subject to tight restrictions when used. For all but these dire situations where the lack of subsidies would destroy the integrity of society, I think they should be avoided, given the government’s lack of requisite variety to pick winners and the pathological autopoiesis of subsidy programs. They should be dismantled so far as possible in any new farm legislation.

Family Farmers

Since most subsidies enrich large farms, enabling them to buy even more land to consolidate, they end up decreasing free market competition, hurting many small farmers as well as those in agricultural sectors unserved by subsidy programs. While I support small farmers, believing they, like small U.S. businesses in general, create the needed competitive dynamism & vibrancy for a healthy economy, I don’t believe small farmers are well-served by the current farm policy. As Brian M. Riedl points out in July 24, 2007 opinion article in the LA Times, the government could provide direct support to 185% of the poverty level to every farming family for less than 1/5 of current farm subsidy costs, a startling statistic. Surely, there must be a better way to incentivize the existence of independent food growers.

Environmental Protection

Food production ranks only behind energy & transportation as the human activity with the most environmental impact. Government must act to protect our shared environmental commons since private incentives often act counter to the public good in this arena and agriculture represents a high-impact area for environmental action. Please evaluate incentives to promote sustainable farming practices and protect the shared resources of the air, our waterways, and climate. The Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment to the 2007 Farm Bill, while still including too many interventionist initiatives for my taste, does at least restructure U.S. farm policy to better protect the environment by slowing resource-intensive sprawl, protecting rivers, lakes, & bays, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and incentivizing other conservation measures, making it worthy of close consideration.

Please support fiscal responsibility, the protection of environmental commons, and a strongly competitive agricultural market place with opportunities for small farm operators in considering the 2007 Farm Bill.