Do You Have ANY Idea How Absurd U.S. Farm Subsidies Are?
If you're like many Americans, when you think of farm subsidies you think of rolling green pastures, fields of golden wheat and corn, and a hillside full of cattle peacefully meandering through the grass.
The farmer, a "salt of the earth" type with weathered skin, depends on his farm subsidy to keep food on his table and, more importantly, to keep his farm afloat, allowing for the rest of the population to put food on their tables too.
This is how it should be -- but this is not reality.
Millionaires Receive the Majority of Farm Subsidies
A more accurate picture, as summarized concisely in the Organic Consumers Association video above, is this: those "real" farmers, the ones who truly need it, receive only a few thousand dollars a year, maybe less, while the rest serves to line the pockets of the millionaire "farmers" who own massive factory farms and who have probably rarely spent a day with their hands in the dirt.
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG),i between 1995 and 2010:
- 10 percent of farmers collected 74 percent of all subsidies, amounting to nearly $166 billion over 16 years
- 62 percent of U.S. farmers did not collect subsidy payments
- The bottom 80 percent of recipients averaged just $587 a year
Now, if you look at the leading recipients of commodity subsidies, you'll see the highest earners received payments numbering in the hundreds of millions from 1995-2010 for the top three! Unfortunately, the USDA is far from transparent with their subsidy data, and EWG was not able to track down who is actually receiving this money, as recipients of payments made through most cooperatives, and the amounts, have not been made public.
However, as EWG explained, it is clear that many of the recipients are not exactly losing their shirts over a dip in market prices for grain:ii As critics have put it, this is essentially giving "welfare to millionaires."
" … despite lawmakers' boasts of enacting major reforms in the 2008 farm bill, the new data clearly show that wealthy absentee land owners and mega farms awash in record income are once again the main beneficiaries of federal farm programs – while struggling family farmers go begging.
And once again, the database shows that many farm subsidy recipients get those fat government checks at addresses in New York City, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles – not exactly farm country, and a far cry from the programs' original intent. … The database revealed, for example, that Florida real estate developer Maurice Wilder, reportedly worth $500 million, was pulling in almost $1 million a year in farm subsidies for corn farms he owns in several states."
And Then There are the Recipients Who are Not Even Farmers at All …
The absurdity of federal farm subsidies gets worse still, as even non-farmers who moved into residential areas that once were farmland have received farm subsidy payments from the government, as have wealthy farmers who have received annual payments even when they are no longer growing the subsidized crop.
In 2008, the "actively engaged" rule was put forth specifically to nip this type of fraud in the bud. As its name implies, only those who are "actively engaged" in farming are supposed to be receiving the subsidies. But, alas, when EWG released its updated database in 2011, they found no changes to the status quo:iii
"Despite this rule, subsidies still line the pockets of absentee land owners and investors living in every major American city. In 2010, 7,767 residents of just five Texas cities – Lubbock, Amarillo, Austin, San Angelo and Corpus Christi – collected $61,748,945 in taxpayer-funded subsidies. Residents of Lubbock booked $24,839,154 in payments, putting it at the top of cities with 100,000+ populations that are home to farm subsidy recipients. The phenomenon of urban residents receiving federal farm payments remains widespread and coast-to-coast."
Mega-Farms Receive Fixed Annual Cash Payments, Whether They Need Them or Not
You may also be surprised to learn that while farm subsidies initially were created to protect staple crops during times of war, reduce crop surpluses and provide monetary support to farmers when crop prices fell, today mega-farms receive subsidies whether they need them or not.
The transition away from a needs-based system came in 1996, when lawmakers developed a "market transition" payment system for farmers. The idea was to phase out the subsidies over a seven-year transition period, during which farmers would receive an annual fixed cash payment based upon the number of acres on the farm (these direct payments were given as long as the land was not developed -- even if nothing was planted).
Of course, this ensures that the largest farms also receive the largest payments, and contrary to its original intent, the payments have not declined annually nor has the program gone away. It still exists today. EWG reported:iv
"Farm programs turned into a cash crop for big agribusinesses, which co-opted federal policy and turned it into a perennial giveaway that disproportionately benefits large landowners and wealthy farm operations. And that remains the reality today.
The industrial agriculture lobby has been defending the controversial "direct payment" form of taxpayer-funded subsidies ever since they were first authorized. These fixed, automatic checks go out every year to the largest growers of commodity crops, such as corn and cotton, whether farmers need them or not and despite the fact that farm household income has eclipsed average U.S. household income. Farm income for the largest operations, in particular, has soared sky high."
Subsidies Support Junk Food Diets, Chronic Disease and Environmentally Devastating CAFOs
The farm subsidy program is upside down not only in which farmers it chooses to support, but also in which foods it funds. Have you ever noticed that it's often cheaper to buy a loaf of bread than a pound of broccoli or even a pound of ground beef than a similar amount of green peppers? Or have you wondered how you can get a value meal at numerous fast-food restaurants for far less money than it takes to purchase foods to make a healthy meal, such as organic chicken and fresh veggies, for your family at home?
Perhaps this disparity has struck you as odd. After all, what makes vegetables more expensive than bread or meat? It's clearly nothing inherent to their growing requirements. Instead, it's the direct result of government farm subsidies, which favor the very foods you should eat less of if you want to stay healthy.
The top four most heavily subsidized foods? Corn, wheat, soybeans and rice.
By subsidizing these, particularly corn and soy, the U.S. government is actively supporting a diet that consists of these grains in their processed form, namely high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, and grain-fed cattle – all of which are now well-known contributors to obesity and chronic diseases.
Many of these subsidized grain crops are also used for animal feed, animals raised on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). As it stands, 2 percent of U.S. livestock facilities produce 40 percent of farm animals,v and these large, corporate-owned CAFOs have been highly promoted as the best way to produce food for the masses (beef is also the seventh most heavily subsidized food). In reality, it has lead to an abundance of cheap food, but not without serious consequences:
- Loss of water quality through nitrogen and phosphorus contamination in rivers, streams and ground water (which contributes to "dramatic shifts in aquatic ecosystems and hypoxic zones")
- Agricultural pesticide contamination to streams, ground water and wells, and safety concerns to agricultural workers who use them
- A decline in nutrient density of 43 garden crops (primarily vegetables, which suggests "possible tradeoffs between yield and nutrient content)
- Large emission of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide
- Negative impact on soil quality through such factors as erosion, compaction, pesticide application and excessive fertilization
A classic video on the U.S. government's fatally flawed agricultural subsidy programs, and how they affect your nutritional choices and health, is "How to Get Fat Without Really Trying" with Peter Jennings. Although it's several years old and Peter has passed away, the video still speaks the truth because virtually nothing has changed. If anything, the situation has actually worsened.
Help Prompt Change by Supporting Small Organic Farmers
It may be tempting to buy the cheap foods that the government is "paying you" to eat … but this choice will come back to haunt you in the form of health problems and increased medical bills later on. Try as they may, industry lobbyists still cannot force you to buy subsidized junk foods and foods raised in unhealthy "agribusiness" conditions. The choice is entirely yours, and consumer demand will always win eventually, so the more you demand healthy, unadulterated foods, the more they must produce, one way or another.
I strongly encourage you to support small family farms in your area, especially those that are embracing organic and traditional farming practices. These are the real farmers who need your support, and who are growing food that will nurture your health instead of harm it.
- i Environmental Working Group 2011 Farm Subsidy Database
- ii Environmental Working Group June 23, 2011
- iii Environmental Working Group June 23, 2011
- iv Environmental Working Group October 2011
- v Time Magazine April 23, 2010