Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Objections to the Farm Bill On All Sides of the Political Spectrum

Not news, exactly, and readers of this blog probably already know all of this stuff, but a fairly conservative friend of mine asked me my opinion of the analysis contained in Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times op-ed about the 2007 Farm Bill. I wrote the following in return, and it occurs to me that I haven’t seen all of these points laid out on one page like this. Here’s a little cut ‘n paste magic from the email:

I think Pollan is exactly right, and what fascinates me about the Farm Bill debate is how it seems to have aligned so many different and traditionally opposed interests. Let me see if I have it right:

1) Fiscal conservatives, libertarians and economic commentators on the one side object to the farm subsidy because it distorts the market by causing farmers to plant more of a particular commodity than consumers would demand at the natural price and is therefore inefficient.

2) Animal welfare people object to it because the grain subsidy makes it cheaper to raise food animals in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) than via free-range. The situations at CAFOs place a great deal of strain on the cattle, which means that they require a great deal more antibiotics than they do if they are raised naturally — indeed the U.S. meat industry is the largest user of antibiotic medicine.

3) Environmentalists object to it for a number of reasons — CAFOs are terrible for the environment, for starters, and the kind of monoculture that big factory farms are planting to grow the subsidised crops destroys the soil, requires the use of ever-increasing levels of non-selective herbicides such as Round-Up as weeds develop immunity to the herbicide — and in recent times is requiring the use of genetically modified crops which are able to tolerate being grown in fields heavily laced with herbicides.

4) People who are taking a hard look at the immigration situation in the U.S. have come to discover that one of the reasons the Mexican corn industry went belly-up last year is the farm subsidy — and now there are some 170,000 Mexican agricultural workers without jobs and a lot of jobs in U.S. agriculture. The farm subsidy creates a situation in which we have to spend more money to keep immigrants out than we would if the economies of other countries were not placed at such a disadvantage.

5) On a related note, the farm subsidy is TERRIBLE for the economies of many third-world countries, for just the same reason: they have to compete with subsidised grain from the U.S.

6) Nutritionists tend to think that the farm subsidy is terrible for the American waistline because it subsidizes hydrogenated oils and animal products and high fructose corn syrup. Eliminating the farm subsidy would drive up the prices of many foods, but 1) most of those foods would be foods which are overabundant in the U.S. diet and which consumers ought to cut back on, 2) these prices are unnaturally low to begin with, and 3) the money saved on the Farm subsidy could, and should, in part be used to ensure that the truly poor do not starve. Indeed, the farm subsidy encourages all of us to eat things that are bad for us, but this encouragement become more and more pernicious the more a consumer has to stretch his or her food dollar.

The thing is, these are all sound economic arguments, and they all point to the same thing: the public interest and general welfare are not served by the farm subsidy as it is currently written. There is no metric to measure which shows that the farm subsidy is a good idea, outside of the share prices of big agribusiness. This legislation is corporate welfare in its most blatant and worst form. I highly recommend the first two sections of an essay entitled “That Which Is Seen and That Which is Not Seen” by F. Bastiat, for some traditionally conservative, laissez-faire economic reasons why this kind of spending is a terrible idea.

I have also found an op-ed by Victor Davis Hanson about why the farm bill is a terrible idea from a straightforward economic standpoint. I have no desire to discuss national politics, but I should like to say that this may be the first time I have agreed with Professor Hanson about a topic unrelated to classical philology. Opposition to this farm bill comes from all sides of the political spectrum.


4 Comments so far
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Thanks for this wrap-up. I’m linking to you in my post on 11/12 on food and food issues. Have you read Gary Paul Nabhan’s books?

Comment by H.A.Page

Thanks for the link! I confess I haven’t even heard of Nabhan until just now but his oeuvre looks fascinating. I’ll have to check the libraries.


Law for Food

Comment by lawforfood

Great post! How disheartening it is that in spite of opposition from all ends of the political spectrum, the subsidy system seems mostly intact in the Bill’s current iteration. More fuel for cynicism, I suppose.

Comment by Kei

Sadly, yes. I have hope that this will change, however, because people are more and more interested in food and particularly in where food is coming from. I would like to see this made into a campaign issues in 2012, when the next Farm Bill will be in committee, and we’re looking at presidential candidates.

Thanks for reading, Kei! Regards,

Law for Food

Comment by lawforfood

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