If you've ever driven through the southern end of California's Central Valley in September, you're familiar with the grids of lint-strewn cotton fields that blur by your windows. You might even have pondered the wisdom of planting such a thirsty crop as cotton on as many as a million acres -- an area larger than Yosemite National Park -- in a state facing a water crisis. (This year, cotton is losing ground to more profitable crops like livestock feed, corn, almonds, and pistachios.) Then again, you might ask a similar question about the half a million acres of rice, a grain adapted to the monsoons of Asia, on the valley's northern end.
Historically, cheap irrigation water has been part of the equation, but there is another common denominator. It's a massive federal legislation package passed every five years known as the farm bill, which House and Senate members are scrambling to reauthorize by an April 25 deadline. Over the last decade, the farm bill has allowed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to shower tens of billions of dollars in subsidies on the nation's cotton and rice farmers (along with corn, soybean, wheat, sugar and milk producers). These subsidies flow whether growers need them or not. They flow even as they damage the environment and our nutritional well-being. They flow, all the while enabling the biggest farms to consolidate into mega-farms.
It wasn't always this way. The farm bill emerged during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression as a temporary financial safety net for family farmers. It included programs to promote soil conservation and distribute food surpluses to the needy. In the seven decades since that genie was let out of the bottle, however, the farm bill has become a high-stakes game of political horse-trading that has changed how we farm and what we eat. Today, more than a third of the budget goes to an elite group of commodity farms that grow grains and oilseed crops, mainly for feeding livestock and making processed foods (and now, fuels).
When current farm bill negotiations started in 2006, a proverbial food fight erupted. An array of nonprofit organizations, including Oxfam, Bread for the World and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, pushed for a bill that would emphasize farming livelihoods, more effective environmental protection and better nutrition. Prices on nearly all commodities, except cotton, have been soaring. Average 2008 farm household income is anticipated to reach $90,000 -- nearly 20% above the national average. Meantime, commodity farmers were set to receive $13 billion in direct and indirect payments, disaster bailouts, crop insurance and (some worthy) conservation incentives in 2008 alone. Surely, reformers argued, this was the right time to stop throwing money at giant farming operations already making hay in current markets.
They lobbied for a $250,000-per-farm subsidy cap, but that got struck down by a status-quo Senate. They pushed for more locally grown produce in public school cafeterias, a noble effort but minimally successful. The efforts to cut cotton farming subsidies -- which distort global trade -- fell short. They fought for full funding for the Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers for good land stewardship -- reducing use of chemicals, diversifying crops, saving water, etc. Here, reformers won a large increase, but the fund remains vulnerable; year-to-year, it often gets robbed to fund commodity programs.
A few worthy new programs also were added: much needed boosts to nutrition spending and conservation incentives; funds for organic farming research and to help pay organic certification fees; an expansion of local farmers markets; assistance for beginning farmers; and support for "specialty crop" producers, who for decades have been locked out of the subsidy game. (Specialty crops is farm bill-speak for crops that are actually edible, such as fruits, nuts and vegetables, which many California farmers supply to the nation.)
But, by and large, the farm bill song remains the same: commodity agribusiness gets the lion's share; reformers get table scraps. Absent a more vocal public outcry, the agribusiness lobby, which spent $80 million in 2007, again holds the winning hand.
What can we citizens expect if the proposed $300-billion farm bill is signed into law? Federally subsidized feed -- corn, soybeans and cottonseed -- for animal factory farms that spread disease, greenhouse gases and dangerous working conditions wherever they set up shop. (Farm bill "environmental quality" programs will even pay up to $450,000 for the construction of lined "lagoons" to be filled with lethal concentrations of manure.) The continuation of America's obesity campaign, which ensures the cheapest and most widely available foods are made up of such high-calorie ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, refined flours, saturated fats and unhealthy meat and dairy products. And more federally backed exports of California's water -- in the form of cotton and rice, much of it sold overseas.
But here's the one that's really hard to stomach. More than $4 billion in permanent disaster assistance to growers in the Northern Plains. The brainchild of Montana Democrat and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, this is essentially a trust fund to guarantee income to farmers plowing up prairies and grasslands -- lands prone to drought and erosion -- to plant corn and wheat. Many observers fear a second Dust Bowl.
No final bill has been passed, and President Bush, who signed the extravagant 2002 farm bill, has threatened a veto if considerable reforms aren't made to commodity programs. There is still time to let everyone in Congress know that they should vote on the farm bill as if the nation's very health, future and security is at stake. Because it is. And we deserve better.
Note: This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times, April 10, 2008.