Current policies disproportionately subsidize already-profitable agribusinesses that don't need the cash. Of $262 billion in taxpayer subsidies since 1995, almost three quarters of the dollars went to just 4 percent of (wealthy) farmers!!!
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Wasteful Farm Bill subsidies are hurting nation's health
11:00 PM, Jun. 10, 2012
With the U.S. Senate turning to debate the federal Farm Bill this week, you might think that only farmers should care. But in reality, the decisions they make impact all of us, because there's a real risk Congress will maintain a broken status quo that lavishes taxpayer dollars on the junk food ingredients that are helping to fuel the obesity epidemic.
Current food policy disproportionately subsidizes already-profitable agribusinesses that don't need the cash. Of $262 billion in taxpayer subsidies since 1995, almost three quarters of the dollars went to just 4 percent of farmers. Directing taxpayer dollars to these mature, profitable businesses enriches them at the expense of smaller, unsubsidized farmers, without any benefit to the taxpayers who are footing the bill. And the industry knows when they've got a good thing going: the last time the Farm Bill was up for reauthorization, in 2008, they spent $200 million on lobbying and campaign contributions to maintain and expand these giveaways.
But agricultural subsidies don't just waste taxpayer dollars — they also subsidize unhealthy additives that are fueling the obesity epidemic. Subsidized corn and soy are processed into junk food ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and soy-based vegetable oils and shortenings. Taxpayer support for just four such ingredients comes to more than $1 billion a year. This at a time when childhood obesity has reached epidemic proportions, with one out of three kids overweight or obese, and an increasing prevalence of Type II diabetes in young people meaning we no longer call it "adult-onset diabetes." Obesity adds $147 billion a year to our nation's health care costs — and we're spending taxpayer dollars to underwrite the epidemic.
The current Farm Bill expires this year, offering an opportunity for much-needed reform. Unfortunately, the Senate Agriculture Committee has recommended legislation that risks making the problem worse. Their approach tiptoes in the direction of reform by ending one of the worst subsidy programs, but it would create a new scheme that shares many of the same characteristics.
The proposed Agriculture Risk Coverage program would create a revenue guarantee that would most benefit the largest agribusinesses, and again the lion's share of the dollars would flow to the corn and soy that serve as raw materials for junk food. The program would also lock in the current, high price levels for corn and soy for years to come, with taxpayer dollars serving to needlessly insulate the already profitable agribusinesses from the laws of supply and demand, and could cost taxpayers $30 billion over the next decade.
The Senate committee's bill would also continue a flawed crop insurance program that shares the same flaws. Again, it's the biggest producers of commodity crops that reap the benefits — in 2011, a single corporation made more than $2 million through subsidies provided by the program, and 73 percent of the dollars go to just 4 percent of agribusinesses. Continuing crop insurance unchanged could cost taxpayers $39 billion over the next five years. Wisconsin's senators, Herb Kohl and Ron Johnson, should vote no on this bill unless amendments are passed to end these wasteful subsidies.
The 2012 Farm Bill can take us down the road to healthy foods or it can perpetuate the imbalance that has existed for too long. But at a time of high deficits and significant cuts to important public interest priorities, it is unjustifiable to continue spending billions of taxpayer dollars on subsidies that underwrite the production of junk food ingredients and make our children sick.
U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble is a member of the House Agriculture Committee and could be a leader in cutting these wasteful government subsidies that contribute to the obesity epidemic. As Congress works to reauthorize the Farm Bill, Ribble along with Wisconsin's senators and congressional delegation will have to decide whose side they're on: ours, or Big Ag's.
Bruce Speight is director of the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group, a statewide public interest advocacy organization.