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The Big Farm Scam

The President of the Environmental Working Group explains why the farm bill that just passed Congress represents a monumental opportunity lost.

| Fri May 16, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

It's something environmental activists and almost everyone in DC can attest to: the farm bill is a boondoggle. A pork-laden behemoth that is sold to the public as family farmers' only hope for survival in a modernizing world, the bill is written by lawmakers from agricultural states to protect the interests of large, cash-flush agricultural operators who spread around hundreds of millions in lobbying funds and donations. The end result? A bill that doesn't do enough for the environment, subsidizes all the crops needed to prolong America's obesity epidemic, and takes money out of the pockets of third-world farmers.

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With urban lawmakers signed on because of huge food stamp provisions, the farm bill passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. President Bush has threatened a veto, arguing that the legislation is bloated and that rich farmers — who are seeing their highest incomes in a decade — get too much in subsidies. Ken Cook is the president of the Environmental Working Group and a critic of the farm bill's subsidy system. The billions distributed every year, he argues, ought to actually go to the dirt-streaked men in overalls who are invoked in the farm lobby's PR campaigns. Moreover, with food prices skyrocketing, the opportunity was ripe to shift the bill's priorities away from subsidizing rich growers of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton, and toward conservation and nutrition.

The legislation's backers in both parties would argue that it does just that. Cook says the farm bill remains yet another policy instrument by which the rich get richer and the poor get the pitchfork.

Mother Jones: There's an impression that the farm bill is all that keeps farmers in overalls riding tractors from falling over the precipice. How accurate is that?

Ken Cook: The farm bill does definitely provide help to a lot of family farmers of exactly the type we conjure up in American Gothic style. That's not the problem with the bill. The problem is that so much of the money that goes out through these farm programs goes to very large, commercial operations that are getting bigger all the time and basically buying up those family farms with the mom and pop in overalls working dawn to dusk. Ten percent of the beneficiaries over the last ten years have gotten over 70 percent of the subsidy money. And so the concern, which, interestingly enough, we shared most with the White House this time around, was that too much money is being funneled to large, profitable farming operations.

MJ: Why is the 10 percent that is receiving the majority of the subsidies in such a great position? Is it because they earn more and are thus eligible for more? Or because they live in certain areas and raise certain crops?

KC: The first thing to keep in mind is that two-thirds of the farmers counted by the census of agriculture do not get farm bill subsidies. So most farmers don't get anything. They're small, they grow fruits and vegetables, raise cattle or horses, they live in rural areas and maybe raise a little hay and sell it. They're often not full-time operators — most farms are not — and they get no money. And even within the third that does get money from farm bill subsidy programs, the very large ones dominate. And it's getting more and more concentrated all the time.

I'm not exactly a free trader here, but I am sympathetic to the argument that at some point these big operators ought to be on their own. They're so big and so efficient and so effective at their work. We ought to reserve some of the money that we're saying we're giving to family farmers that are smaller and struggling and actually give it to them. And let the big guys roll the dice on the world market if they want to.

The whole question on this farm bill, as it was with the last one, is shouldn't we put more reasonable limits on the maximum amount of money that someone can get through these programs? And further — this is what the President is talking about — if you're wealthy enough, maybe you shouldn't get any money. If you have an adjusted gross income, the President said, of $200,000 or more, you ought to be out of these farm programs.

MJ: So the president is threatening to veto the bill because it does too much to help the wealthy?

KC: Honest to god, he is. I've been describing it as a parallel universe.

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