In the San Jose Mercury News, Daniel Weintraub writes:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi could have listened to Berkeley chef Alice Waters, or to the University of California-Berkeley's Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma." Instead, she went with the Farmers Rice Co-op, King Ranch and Buttonwillow Land and Cattle Co.
Waters and Pollan were among those urging Pelosi and the House of Representatives she leads to overhaul the nation's farm policy, shifting billions of dollars from subsidies for corporate agribusiness to a means-tested safety net for real family farmers, plus policies to promote healthier foods and sound stewardship of the land.
But Pelosi last week turned back their pleas and sided with big agriculture - and her political instincts. She is supporting a farm bill that would preserve the worst parts of U.S. policy and, perhaps, help farm-state Democratic incumbents maintain their tenuous hold on districts they captured in the 2006 elections.
Pelosi says that the bill she supports includes the "first steps" toward reform. But at best those steps are tiny. And since the United States sets farm policy only once every five years, this was a rare opportunity for Democrats to show that their newly ascendant leadership in Congress will fight for real change. They've failed that test.
U.S. farm policy is a remnant from the Great Depression, when more than a quarter of Americans made their living from the land and were vulnerable to changes in the weather and market conditions.
Today, farming is a big business increasingly dominated by large corporations. But the subsidies originally adopted for the family farmer continue and have been warped to favor the largest companies at the expense of the little guy.
According to Environmental Defense, 10 percent of farming operations now collect more than 60 percent of direct subsidies paid under the farm bill. And according to OxFam America, a non-profit organization working to end world hunger, 92 percent of the subsidies go to the growers of just five commodities: corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and rice.
California ranked 10th in the nation in payments received from 1995-2005, but 91 percent of California farmers and ranchers do not get any payments at all, according to the Environmental Working Group, which tracks the subsidies and publishes a database of the recipients. The Rice Co-op was the biggest California recipient last year, with payments of more than $5 million spread among its members. Texas-based King Ranch, with operations in California, and the Buttonwillow Land and Cattle Co. were not far behind.
The subsidies encourage farmers to grow big-volume crops, flooding world markets at the expense of small farmers in other countries and drawing complaints against U.S. policy at the World Trade Organization. The current subsidies also lower the cost of raw materials for the processed food companies that rely on corn syrup and soy, while doing almost nothing for the growers of fresh fruits and vegetables and the consumers who want to buy them.
While it would be better to phase out all subsidies, that isn't feasible in today's political climate. The next best thing might be the idea pushed by the movement Waters and Pollan helped lead. Their coalition is pushing for a third way - not ending the subsidies but overhauling them to put them in the service of a different set of policy goals.
Those goals were reflected in an amendment offered by Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. Their proposal would have replaced price guarantees and direct payments with a safety net to protect farmers from declines in prices and crop yields. It would have denied subsidies to farms making more than $500,000 a year (or $250,000 per person), and it would have shifted some of that money into programs to preserve fragile land and promote specialty crops, organic foods and farmers' markets.
But with the House Agriculture committee dominated by farm-state Democrats, including nine freshmen looking to strengthen their holds on their seats, it would have taken strong leadership from Pelosi to steer the debate toward reform. Kind's proposal failed, and the bill that resulted protects the status quo. While it purports to limit payments to $1 million per person or $2 million per farm, critics say that it opens new loopholes that will actually let some operations collect more than ever.
The irony is that the reform proposal would have distributed more money than current policy to the vast majority of congressional districts. That's because the farmers in just 20 districts now collect more than half the subsidies. According to Environmental Defense, 36 of 55 freshmen would have seen their farmers do better under the Kind amendment, with only seven doing worse. For the others it would have been a wash.
But in each district, large and powerful farm operations would have suffered at the expense of smaller, less influential growers. Thus the vote in favor of Big Ag.
Fortunately, the House won't have the last word on this matter. The Senate has yet to act, and House Democrats might have overreached when they included a last-minute tax increase to help pay for programs they added to their bill to buy off the opposition. This is one food fight that is likely to continue all summer.