How not to reform farm subsidies (American style)

On the other side of the Atlantic the five-yearly federal farm bill debate is reaching its climax. A bill approved unanimously by the powerful House agriculture committee has been roundly attacked by reformers who wanted to see less in the way of multi-million dollar payouts to large agribusinesses and more resources for conservation programmes and economic development assistance for rural areas.

Ever since the subject of farm subsidy fat cats hit the headlines in the US, the issue of payment limits has been at the forefront of the debate. Ken Cook, whose courageous work on transparency in farm subsidy payments has blazed a path where the European network has followed, says that the House bill’s rules on payment limits are riddled with loopholes and is fuming that Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is backing the House bill:

It is unimaginable that in other realms of policy she would think of such a “reform” as anything other than pandering to the rich, via subterfuge and loopholes, at the expense of the nation’s other needs and priorities. This payment limit proposal is the kind of monumentally unfair proposition that Nancy Pelosi has stood against, second to no one in Congress that I could name, her entire career.

Meanwhile Dan Owens as the Center for Rural Affairs dismisses Speaker Pelosi’s commitment to reform as a sham. He says that House Democrats are wrong to fear an electoral backlash from rural America if they pass a Bill that tackles the inequality in the current farm subsidy system. Scott Faber at Environmental Defense says that the House bill would perpetuate the failures and injustices of the past:

More than half of all farm spending will continue to flow to just 20 congressional districts. Millions of hungry kids will continue to go to bed without knowing the source of their next meal. Thousands of family farmers offering to share the cost of a healthy environment will continue to be turned away. Thousands more family farmers will be driven off the land by larger neighbors now able to collect unlimited farm subsidies. Subsistence farmers in the developing world will be pushed closer to ruin by subsidies that drive down global cotton prices. Black and Latino farmers will continue to lack adequate access to farm programs from which they have long been excluded. Fruit and vegetable farmers will receive a small slice — but not nearly a fair share — of federal farm spending pie.

Sarah Cohen of the Washington Post adds fuel to the fire by revealing that dead farmers are among those to have collected six figure subsidy payments made as a result of systematic errors at the US Department of Agriculture. Cohen’s Post colleague Dan Morgan, now at the German Marshall Fund and soon to be a guest blogger at CAP Health Check, argues with a dose of optimism that there are still some big hurdles to jump before the current House bill becomes law. According to Dan, the current bill is even less WTO compliant than the 2002 Farm Bill and is likely to ring alarm bells with budget hawks in the US Senate.

Europeans are so expert at getting comfort from the misfortunes of others that we even have a word for it. But there is no schadenfreude here, only the sober observation that it’s not just in Europe where good people who want to see a farm policy that is less about enriching big businesses and wealthy individuals and more about improving the food we eat, the quality of life in rural areas and the protection of our countryside landscapes have a hard time overcoming narrow, powerful and politically ruthless farming lobbies.

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