I love the holiday season. Certain food specialties make their once-a-year appearance on our table. As we all sit down to bountiful meals this holiday season, it’s easy to forget the quiet battle raging over our nation’s food supply. For months on end, the House and Senate have been struggling to pass a farm bill, surrounded by conflict and debate. Although the part of the farm bill that has received the most publicity has been the proposed cuts to the food stamp program, the rest of the bill should be just as controversial. The legislation is of course full of “green” energy subsidies, which pour billions into everything from ethanol to wind and solar, and about which I have written extensively in the past. But it will also undoubtedly continue the outdated practice of subsidizing crops, from corn and wheat to cotton and tobacco.
Most modern farm subsidies trace their origin to the Great Depression. During the 1930s, severe drought and poor farming methods led to the Dust Bowl. This series of dust storms eroded much of America’s top soil and severely damaged agricultural production. In response, Congress authorized Federal crop insurance as a way to help offset the losses that threatened to bankrupt farmers.
Of course a lot has changed since then. The small family farm is largely a thing of the past, and a huge percentage of our country’s crops are produced or coordinated by large corporations. We have also learned various techniques to prevent topsoil erosion, including crop rotation and windbreak utilization. And as in any other business, farmers—both family and corporate—take steps to hedge against the various risks inherent in their industry.
Yet despite these advancements, federal farm subsidies have grown, not shrunk, and enjoy widespread support from both major political parties. The New York Times reported that millions of these federal dollars find their way into the pockets of billionaires. According to the Times, “The billionaires who got the subsidies [between 1995 and 2012] have a collective net worth of $316 billion, according to Forbes magazine.”
The absurdity of these outdated policies has been obvious for years. In fact, President H.W. Bush, President Clinton and President G.W. Bush all tried to cut or end farm subsidies, but failed to make a dent. Duke University economist Marc Bellemare and political scientist Nicholas Carnes are attempting pinpoint the reasons for the apparent immortality of agricultural subsidies. The short answer, as reported by the Washington Post, is that farm owners (both corporate and family) and their employees still exercise a great deal of political influence in key states.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.