On Agricultural Subsidies

A friend forwarded, and asked me to comment on, this article:
Don't End Agricultural Subsidies. Fix Them.
by Mark Bittman
In a previous e-mail discussion, we'd concluded (absent any data - who has the time to look this stuff up?) that farm subsidies are distorting the true productivity of "factory farms" and creating unnatural barriers to entry for smaller, localized, organic, family, etc. farms. This article, which is really more of a bloggy blend of story-telling and Mark Bittman's enviro-orthodox opinions (for which some concessions should be made) offers some amplification to that conclusion, but also preaches hellfire and brimstone to those among us who still insist on not eating the way we ought. I will take it one paragraph at a time:
Agricultural subsidies have helped bring us high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming, fast food, a two-soda-a-day habit and its accompanying obesity, the near-demise of family farms, monoculture and a host of other ills.
So, we're gonna hit the ground running.  Are we all on the same page, ideologically speaking?  No?  Keep reading and fall in line, then.
Yet — like so many government programs — what subsidies need is not the ax, but reform that moves them forward. Imagine support designed to encourage a resurgence of small- and medium-size farms producing not corn syrup and animal-feed but food we can touch, see, buy and eat — like apples and carrots — while diminishing handouts to agribusiness and its political cronies.
(Read:  "I realize that third-party interventions into two-party transactions often have unintended consequences, but I'm about to propose a solution that will be magically invulnerable to this phenomenon.")
Farm subsidies were created in an attempt to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression, which makes it ironic that in an era when more Americans are suffering financially than at any time since, these subsidies are mostly going to those who need them least.
(Redacted from original draft:  "And who's in a better position to determine who needs what than me - a writer for The [online opinion section of the] New York Times?")
That wasn't the plan, of course. In the 1930s, prices were fixed on a variety of commodities, and some farmers were paid to reduce their crop yields. The program was supported by a tax on processors of food — now there's a precedent! — and was intended to be temporary. It worked, sort of: prices rose and more farmers survived. But land became concentrated in the hands of fewer farmers, and agribusiness was born, and along with it the sad joke that the government paid farmers for not growing crops.
Am I the only one who's not surprised that a federal program intended to temporarily help some folks in need at the expense of the rest of the tax base has somehow lasted approximately eight decades?  It seems to me that the inexorable natural consequence of programs offering concentrated benefits with distributed costs is longevity.
The farm bill, up for renewal in 2012, includes an agricultural subsidy portion worth up to $30 billion, $5 billion of which is what you might call handouts, direct payments to farmers. 
The subsidy-suckers don't grow the fresh fruits and vegetables that should be dominating our diet. Indeed, if all Americans decided to actually eat the five servings a day of fruits and vegetables that are recommended, they would discover that American agriculture isn't set up to meet that need. They grow what they're paid to grow: corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice.
Should be dominating our diet.  If that isn't rich!  I guess it's a predictable opinion, given the opening paragraph of the article, but still.  I'm not an economist but I do know enough about market forces to understand that 1) "all Americans" aren't going to suddenly start eating a bushel of fresh fruit a day, but 2) if and when more and more Americans start eating what they "should" then the farmers, distributors, and grocers who manage to get us what we're hungry for every day of the year will still manage to do so - even if "all Americans" eventually do crave a lot of fresh fruit, the market will magically adjust to meet these new demands.
The first two of these are the pillars for the typical American diet — featuring an unnaturally large consumption of meat, never-before-seen junk food and a bizarre avoidance of plants — as well as the fortunes of Pepsi, Dunkin' Donuts, KFC and the others that have relied on cheap corn and soy to build their empires of unhealthful food. Over the years, prices of fresh produce have risen, while those of meat, poultry, sweets, fats and oils, and especially soda, have fallen. (Tom Philpott, writing in the environment and food Web site Grist and citing a Tufts University study, reckons that between 1997 and 2005 subsidies saved chicken, pork, beef and HFCS producers roughly $26.5 billion. In the short term, that saved consumers money too — prices for these foods are unjustifiably low — but at what cost to the environment, our food choices and our health?)
Again, I'm no economist, and I have no interest in tracking down data to support this statement, but:  when more and more people demand something (and in this case, that "something" is a commodity that can be produced in practically infinite quantity), and a relatively free market exists to supply the thing demanded, the tendency over time will be for more and more producers to rise up and supply that thing to those consumers.  And as that happens, producers will find increasingly efficient ways to produce the thing, so that they can sell it at a lower price than their competitors.  But maybe I'm missing something.
Eliminating the $5 billion in direct agricultural payments would level the playing field for farmers who grow non-subsidized crops, but just a bit — perhaps not even noticeably. There would probably be a decrease in the amount of HFCS in the market, in the 10 billion animals we "process" annually, in the ethanol used to fill gas-guzzlers and in the soy from which we chemically extract oil for frying potatoes and chicken. Those are all benefits, which we could compound by taking those billions and using them for things like high-speed rail, fulfilling our promises to public workers, maintaining Pell grants for low-income college students or any other number of worthy, forward-thinking causes.
When I see a word like "probably" in the paragraph above, I feel so liberated to keep bloviating without any data.  I mean, if this guy can do it for the NYTimes, then why can't I do it for some backwater blog with three readers?  Also, is it me or did he just radically alter the path of this article?  Now we're talking about high-speed railways and Pell grants?
But let's not kid ourselves. Although the rage for across-the-board spending cuts doesn't extend to the public — according to a recent Pew poll, most people want no cuts or even increased spending in major areas — once the $5 billion is gone, it's not coming back.
That the current system is a joke is barely arguable: wealthy growers are paid even in good years, and may receive drought aid when there's no drought. It's become so bizarre that some homeowners lucky enough to have bought land that once grew rice now have subsidized lawns. Fortunes have been paid to Fortune 500 companies and even gentlemen farmers like David Rockefeller.
Two words:  Unintended Consequences.
Thus even House Speaker Boehner calls the bill a "slush fund"; the powerful Iowa Farm Bureau suggests that direct payments end; and Glenn Beck is on the bandwagon. (This last should make you suspicious.) Not surprisingly, many Tea Partiers happily accept subsidies, including Vicky Hartzler (R-MO, $775,000), Stephen Fincher (R-TN, $2.5 million) and Michele Bachmann (R-MN $250,000). No hypocrisy there.
I think the Tea Party comment is intended to arouse suspicion of hypocrisy, but it's hard for me to see it that way.  You may not like the Social Security system, but you're not a hypocrite if you deposit those checks once they start coming in.  That these Tea Partiers apply for and cash their farm subsidy checks seems at least defensible, if not downright prudent.
Left and right can perhaps agree that these are payments we don't need to make. But suppose we use this money to steer our agriculture — and our health — in the right direction. A Gallup poll indicates that most Americans oppose cutting aid to farmers, and presumably they're not including David Rockefeller or Michele Bachmann in that protected group; we still think of farmers as stewards of the land, and the closer that sentiment is to reality the better off we'll be.
I don't know if I'm "left" or "right" here, but:  Agreed.
By making the program more sensible the money could benefit us all. For example, it could:

• Fund research and innovation in sustainable agriculture, so that in the long run we can get the system on track.
A definition of terms here would be really helpful.  "Sustainable" just seems so vague, and ripe for the same sort of abuse or end-arounds that brought us Rockefeller Farms.
• Provide necessary incentives to attract the 100,000 new farmers Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack claims we need.
If you say so.
• Save more farmland from development.
How?  Buy buying it and putting it into a trust of some sort?  Great.  By seizing through eminent domain or some other dirty trick?  Less Great.
• Provide support for farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits, vegetables and beans, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods.
But beware:  this could lead to Unintended Consequences.
• Level the playing field so that medium-sized farms — big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow — can become more competitive with agribusiness.
Sounds good.  But beware:  this could...oh, nevermind.
The point is that this money, which is already in the budget, could encourage the development of the kind of agriculture we need, one that prioritizes caring for the land, the people who work it and the people who need the real food that's grown on it.
I can't see how this could possibly go wrong.  And I'm pretty smart, so just trust me when I tell you that I've really, really thought it through.
We could, of course, finance or even augment the program with new monies, by taking a clue from the '30s, when the farm subsidy program began: Let the food giants that have profited so mightily and long from cheap corn and soy — that have not so far been asked to share the pain — pay for it.
So, let's turn the Factory Farmers into the Oil Companies of the 21st Century?  And are they not already taxed on their "mighty" profits?  If not, then THAT'S a big problem.  If only we had an elaborate, inscrutably complicated system of extracting money from corporations and individuals and transferring it to the public weal for redistribution.  Even better, maybe such a system could operate according to some graduated scale that actually punishes these individuals and corporations more as they find ways to make mightier profits.  Maybe - maybe then, we'd live in the kind of world that Mark Bittman dreams of.  I just hope he's thought this through really, really well.