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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

KC: And they don't grow the right things. Something like 92, 93 percent of the subsidy money goes to five crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton. That's because, first of all, they're crops that occupy most of the cropped acreage in the country. Fruits and vegetables and so forth are really a tiny fraction of the landscape. Corn last year was over 90 million acres. Soybeans and wheat likewise are way up there. Cotton is down to nine or 10 million acres, but that is almost as much as the acreage of all the fruits and vegetables we plant nationwide.

So you've got a lot of acreage, a lot of beneficiaries, hundreds of thousands of farmers who are engaged in growing those commodities, which are, by the way, major export crops. And there's an export imperative for them, or at least there was until ethanol came along to absorb some of the excess corn.

MJ: When you say export imperative…

KC: They grow way too much for the US market, so they go to get rid of this stuff somewhere, and for years the only option any of those crops had was to sell it overseas, until biofuels came along and became a way to absorb surplus production. That's what ethanol policy in this country is really all about. Getting rid of corn.

Ethanol pulls up corn prices. We'll be putting a third of our corn crop into ethanol this coming year and we would never have bothered to do that if the corn lobby hadn't insisted we do it, in order to boost their prices. Corn farmers are making a fortune in the marketplace, a record net income. Net income for agriculture is 50 percent above the average from the last 10 years.

MJ: And this is all tied to trade policy as well, right?

KC: We've been in favor of both maintaining our subsidies to our producers and opening markets abroad. We usually hear the argument in favor of subsidies for all these exported crops contorted so it sounds something like, "We don't want to become dependent on foreign countries for our food, in the way we are for our oil." And the irony here of course is that we are desperate to get other countries dependent on us for their food. Our approach at the World Trade Organization is to, the best we can, reduce barriers to trade and trying to get competitors in the world market to lower their subsidies in concert with us, as opposed to unilaterally disarming. But what you have is two countries and in both farm interests and the subsidy lobby basically get to make the call on whether we should lower subsidy levels. And of course their decision comes back a resounding no.

MJ: Apples and pears aren't being subsidized. What does the farm bill do in terms of Americans' health and diet?

KC: It doesn't really do very much. There is a lot of talk about nutrition from supporters of the bill because they are trying to make the suggestion that we're spending a lot more money on fruits and vegetables for schools and we're doing a lot more in general to promote farmers' markets and so on. But when you look at the numbers, the investments here are really very minimal compared to the money we are still going to be lavishing on the subsidy lobby.

Let me just give you one example. One of the good things about the bill is we've expanded a program to provide fruit and vegetable fresh snacks to kids in poor schools. We're going to be spending a billion dollars on that program. However, that's over 10 years. You'll hear from supporters, "$4 billion for conservation, $10.3 billion for nutrition, $1 billion for the school snack program." But they never say "over 10 years."

The school snack program spends money on kids who are in schools where 80 percent or more of the kids qualify for the federal school lunch program. Which is a very poor school. We're talking about probably under 3 million kids nationwide. That's a great thing. It's just not enough money. We should have spent 10 times as much on those snacks. Then the fruits and vegetables might go to schools where only 50 percent of the kids qualify for the school lunch program.

MJ: What are the environmental concerns about the bill?

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