Worth reading is a recent March 1 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Mark Bittman on the subject of Federal Agricultural Subsidies in our current era of budget cutting. Bittman is a regularly contributor to the food section of the Times with his column “The Minimalist” and he is rumored to be developing a series based on that column for the Cooking Channel.
In his article, Bittman puts forth the interesting idea that, in a time when everyone is looking for waste to cut from Federal government spending, farm subsidies to Agro-business corporations would be a good place to start. However, he goes one step further to propose that, instead of just doing away with these subsidies, why not fix then so that they direct much needed aid to small scale, sustainable, organic farmers who are growing crops that Bittman calls “things we can actually touch, see, buy and eat – like apples and carrots”?
The article begins with an overview of the history of Federal Farm Subsidies in the US from their beginnings in the Great Depression as a means of helping small farmers weather bad economic times. At that time, the subsidies were financed by fees on food processing corporations and in fact did have a positive effect in keeping farmers on the land. However, the story turns darker as Bittman traces the transformation of this New Deal idea into its current status as a handout to Agro-business that has given America artificially cheap corn and soy and a culture of cheap pop, low quality meat, a no vegetable diet and cheap ethanol for our gas guzzlers. And all this while handing out millions to huge factory growers, often for not growing crops or to offset droughts in years when there is no drought.
Bittman notes that, with both Republicans and Democrats speaking out against farm subsidies, there is hope that the elimination of these handouts to Agro-business may be in the future (you will excuse me if I am skeptical…the recent spectacle of legislators digging in to protect oil subsidies show that Congressman are perfectly willing hazard massive hypocrisy in order to keep their corporate sponsors happy). But he also envisions a rejuvenated Federal Farm Subsidy program that would redirect money “to the kind of agriculture we need, one that prioritizes caring for the land, the people who work it and the people who need the real food that is grown on it.” Makes sense to me. His further suggestion is also right on the money: how about if we pay for these subsidies by a return to the thinking of the ’30 by asking the food processing giants that have profited from cheap soy and corn for the last 50 years to pay for it? Sounds like a good subject for an email to my congressman.