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Web Letter

Matthew Blake writes a good article about some of the overlooked aspects of the Farm Bill. However, the real story is that the so-called "reform" bill pushed for by the likes of Oxfam, Bread for the World and Environmental Working Group, was nothing less than a privatization of farm programs by gutting subsidies and shifting the money elsewhere. True progressive family farmers, such as those belonging to the National Family Farm Coalition, agree with EWG that subsidies should be cut. But our farmers want a fair price in the marketplace, to force ADM, Smithfield and Cargill to pay a fair price to farmers. Ken Cook's group demonizes farmers as the main beneficiaries of our subsidy programs. They are not--the real beneficiares are ADM, Cargill, Smithfield, who buy and process the cheap commodities, and letting taxpayers pick up the tab to make up for the lost income to farmers. Due to below-cost feed and cheap corn, factory farm corporations like Smithfield benefited by the billions for the past few years, until the relatively higher corn prices of late (thus why Tyson and ADM are now bitching). So who are the real welfare queens?

Ken Cook also fails to mention in his letter how such so-called "reforms" backed by Representatives Kind and Flake were also backed by the Business Roundtable, Club for Growth and Cato Institute. Those groups hate subsidies, and want ConAgra and Tyson to still have access to cheap corn. They also want corporate globalization and free trade talks to continue, instead of continually being stymied by agriculture.

Nation readers should take heed John Nichols's piece in this week's issue and endorse the efforts of true progressive reformers, including the National Family Farm Coalition and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, who are fighting to replace our subsidy system with a fair price floor for farmers, combined with a strategic grain reserve.

Irene Lin

Washington DC, DC

Aug 10 2007 - 2:43pm

Web Letter

Matthew Blake finds "a problem with the 'politics as usual' narrative" on the farm bill and concludes "it is not altogether true" because he gets the narrative wrong.

Reform-oriented progressive groups like Oxfam, Bread for the World, and my organization hardly missed the fact that the farm bill deals with food assistance and nutrition programs. Expanding and improving those programs were among our top priorities, as they were for Representatives Ron Kind and Jeff Flake and others in Congress who pressed a reform agenda.

Mr. Blake seems to feel he has discovered a new progressive angle that we overlooked when he notes that two-thirds of the farm bill's five-year, $286 billion price tag deals with food assistance and nutrition programs, not crop subsidies. But he's really just parroting a talking point straight out of the subsidy lobby's play book. Like Blake, in citing how the farm bill pie is divided the subsidy lobby invariably neglects to mention that the food stamp program, at $28 billion annually the top spending item in the farm bill, serves over 26 million people a month (a third of them kids).

The school lunch program ($8 billion per year) serves 30 million kids during the school year. Everyone participating in those programs receives roughly the same, very limited benefit, but the overall cost is high because so many participate. Reforms that EWG, Oxfam and Bread for the World championed would have invested significantly more money in those programs, and in the international hunger relief program he mentions, than the House farm bill will provide.

Crop subsidies, by contrast, are collected by about 1.6 million beneficiaries each year, and 10 percent--the largest, generally wealthiest farming businesses--collect about two-thirds of the money. The top one percent of recipients got about $126,000 per year recently, the bottom 80 percent about $1,500. Then again, two-thirds of all farmers collect no farm bill subsidies.

As for the House bill's contributions to healthy eating, an added $2 billion for "specialty crops" only sounds like a big deal if, like Mr. Blake, you fail to note that this is the projected spending over ten years. The House farm bill will spend that much in automatic payments to corn farmers every year, even if prices remain high as CBO projects. And is the House bill really "significantly expanding" fruit and vegetable snacks in schools, now provided under a $9 million per year pilot program in eight states, by upping expenditures to $70 million annually for the entire nation, which will focus aid on 35 schools per state? How far will, say, California's share of that significant expansion go, across the state's 9,500 schools and student population of 6 million?

Progressive reformers like EWG, Oxfam and Bread for the World didn't miss this topic, either; we supported reforms to significantly boost spending for healthy school lunches above the House bill's levels. Of course, we ought to be trying to hook every school kid in America on healthy foods instead of junk foods.

USDA estimated the annual cost of doing that a few years ago: $4.5 billion.

Ken Cook

Washington, DC

Aug 8 2007 - 12:30pm