by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Jun 14 2022

Do farm subsidies help alleviate poverty?

When it comes to analyses of agricultural policies, some of the most critical come from conservatives.

From the American Enterprise Institute: Farm Subsidies and the Poor (2022). The key points:

  • Despite claims to the contrary, farm subsidies do little to reduce food prices and almost nothing to alleviate rural poverty.
  • Payments of farm subsidies are roughly proportional to farm output; therefore, those who operate small farms receive minimal benefits from such programs.
  • Other US Department of Agriculture policies that provide low-income households with subsidies to buy food do increase food security and reduce poverty.

An earlier report from the American Enterprise Institute:  Agricultural subsidies aid the wealthy, not those in rural poverty (2017)

Taken together, these programs cost about $20 billion every year…Who gets all that federal money? About 70 percent of all crop insurance and other farm income safety net payments flow to 10 percent of the largest crop-producing farm businesses. This group comprises less than 100,000 farm operations, each of which on average receives more than $140,000 every year…In contrast, 10 percent of the smallest farms receive a mere pittance, on average no more than about $50 — from the federal crop insurance and safety net programs. And the bottom 80 percent, including midsize farms, receive less than 10 percent of all subsidy payments.

From the Cato Institute: Examining America’s Farm Subsidy Problem (2020)

U.S. agriculture is on track for one of the three most‐​profitable years in a half century. Adjusted for inflation since 1973, projected net farm income in 2020 will be surpassed only by 2011 and 2013 figures.  The chart and underlying data are available from the USDA here:

lincicome-15-img1.jpg
This year, farmers (on net) will derive almost 40 percent of their income directly from the U.S. government. Forty percent.
Comment: The main effect of agricultural subsidies is to encourage Big Ag to grow commodity crops in places where they should not be grown.  Clearly, ag policies need rethinking.  How about revising them to support production of real food, rather than feed for animals and fuel for cars?  How about redesigning ag policy to refocus it on health and sustainability?  These reports suggest that plenty of bipartisan support is available.  Let’s tap into it for the next farm bill.
May 25 2022

The US is soon to become a net food importer, says USDA

I was interested to see this graph in a recent report, USDA Agricultural Projections to 2031.

What this says is that agricultural imports are soon expected to be greater than agricultural exports.

Within the next year or so, the United States will be a net importer of agricultural products.

As the report puts it:

Agricultural exports are expected to grow at an annual rate averaging 0.8 percent per year from 2021 through 2031. The value of U.S. agricultural imports is projected to increase by an average annual rate of 6 percent over that same period as domestic consumer spending is expected to remain strong over the next decade combined with domestic preferences for an array of agricultural goods that continue
to exceed domestic production.

I think we need to ask what this means for long-term food security in this country.

The next Farm Bill is under discussion.  It ought to deal with the question of how US agriculture can produce more food for people rather than feed for animals and fuel to cars.

I keep remembering a meeting I went to in Washington DC years ago, where a USDA official said that he did not think Americans should waste land for growing food when it could be done so much more cheaply elsewhere.   I hope USDA thinks differently now.

Sep 22 2021

Agricultural subsidies do more harm than good?

I saw this headline in The Guardian.

I went immediately to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report:  A multi-billion-dollar opportunity – Repurposing agricultural support to transform food systems.

The trends emerging from the analysis are a clear call for action at country, regional and global levels to phase out the most distortive, environmentally and socially harmful support, such as price incentives and coupled subsidies, and redirecting it towards investments in public goods and services for agriculture, such as research and development and infrastructure, as well as decoupled fiscal subsidies.

The report detail the harmful effects of current agricultural subsidy practices in promoting crops that are harmful to human health and to the environment.

Most support worldwide, through price incentives, has been given to commodities with high GHG emissions such as beef, milk and rice, which have the largest carbon footprint.

In the US, the distribution of agricultural subsidies looks like this:

The main effect of subsidies is to cause farmers to plant more of whatever gets subsidized.  One result is that corn, a water-intensive crop, is grown in places where water is scarce.

Farm income reached record levels in 2020, but one-third of farm income came from government payments (nearly $46 billion in total), largely because of increases during the pandemic.

FAO’s Recommendations

  • Phase out the most distorting and environmentally and socially harmful policies, such as price incentives or coupled subsidies.
  • Repurpose support for high-emission or unhealthy products towards support that has environmental and health conditionalities and that promotes more sustainable food systems.
  • Repurpose fiscal support to protect consumers and ensure food security and nutrition, especially for the poorest.
  • Create fiscal space for agricultural support by tapping into new fiscal resources aimed at addressing climate change or stimulating the economy.

Good ideas, but good luck getting them implemented.  Lobbyists for corn, ethanol, soybeans, and the like prefer to keep those subsidies coming, and they have huge power over Congress.

Jan 19 2021

Q: How are US farmers doing? A: Depends on how big they are.

The USDA’s now-crippled Economic Research Service has published some reports on farm income.

This is Big Ag, of course.  As the Heritage Foundation enjoys pointing out:

Another reason why Big Ag is doing so well is the amount of money poured into it by the Trump administration.  Recall this Wall Street Journal chart from a previous post.

Oh for an agricultural policy that supports growing food for people, not feed for animals or fuel for cars.

Biden administration: get busy!

Nov 11 2020

One reason why we need a more rational food policy: farm payments

I am all for making sure that farmers make a decent living but most agricultural subsidies go to Big Ag—the producers of corn and soybeans fed mainly to animals or, in the case of corn, as ethanol for car fuel.

These taxpayer-funded payments are enormous and represent increasing percentages of the income of Big Ag.

For example, see this chart from the Wall Street Journal.

As part of the Trump administration’s effort to get votes from farmers and ranchers, it pledged $37.2 billion to them in the spring and summer with an addition $14 billion in September.

Why is this about the election?  The Washington Post says “Trump’s farmer bailout gave $21 billion to red counties and $2.1 billion to blue ones.”

At a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week, President Trump didn’t mince words about how much his administration had done to bolster the economic fortunes of farmers…I gave $28 billion to the farmers, many of them right here, $28 billion, $12 billion and $16 billion, two years”… That redistribution was facilitated through the Agriculture Department’s Market Facilitation Program. According to data obtained by the Environmental Working Group through a Freedom of Information Act request, that program disbursed more than $23 billion in the 2018 and 2019 program years.

From a report from Agricultural Economic Insights:  USDA’s direct payments to Big Ag will equal 36% of net farm income, up from 22% in 2018=2019.  These payments used to account for around 10% of net farm income.

Check out its map:

Finally, it’s good to review the big picture of what happened to food and farming under Trump.  Civil Eats has an excellent review by Lisa Held.

To offset the effects of the tariffs, in 2018, USDA began distributing cash payments through the Commodity Credit Corporation at unprecedented levels, with no appropriations or oversight from Congress. In 2020, as the pandemic hit the farm economy, it added another source of government payments via the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP). Overall, Trump’s USDA has handed out more government dollars to farmers than any administration prior. In both 2019 and 2020, more than 40 percent of farm incomes came from federal assistance—the only thing keeping farm incomes afloat.

Those payments have been controversial because they have almost exclusively benefited the largest farms and agriculture companies. Two-thirds of the trade aid payments went to agriculture producers in the top 10 percent, including corporations, such as the $67 million paid to JBS USA, a subsidiary of the Brazilian-owned meatpacking giant. Small farms, especially diversified operations and those run by socially disadvantaged Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) farmers, have largely been unable to access CFAP assistance.

All of this leaves plenty of room for improvement.

President-elect Biden: get to work!

Nov 10 2020

What should Biden do about food policy?

I have a few suggestions.  Maybe you can think of others?

  • Appoint committed experts to head federal agencies dealing with food issues (especially USDA, FDA, FTC, EPA, CDC).
  • Rehire the experts who quit or were fired during the Trump administration.
  • Bring the Economic Research Service back to Washington DC.
  • Rescind the public charge and work rules that have led to SNAP de-enrollment; restore SNAP outreach.
  • Refocus agricultural supports on food for people (rather than feed for animals or fuel for cars).
  • Promote small- and mid-size agricultural production.
  • Provide incentives for agricultural production that conserves and regenerates natural resources.
  • Insist on fair pay for farm, packing house, restaurant, and grocery workers, and on safe working conditions.
  • Use every means possible to promote diets that reduce the risk of overweight and the diseases for which it increases risk.
  • Create a food agency to coordinate existing policies to develop a food system healthier for people and the planet.

Hey, I can dream.

Anything in this direction will be a big step forward.

Aug 4 2020

Who is getting billions in farm payments?

This Tweet got me started on farm payments.

Good point.  It sent me to John Newton who is an agricultural economist and lobbyist for the Farm Bureau.

The red sector is payments to agricultural producers and processors.  The tiny little sliver goes to food and nutrition.

All of this got me thinking.  What’s the Big Picture here?

Fortunately, Politico has done the work.

And here are a few other comments on how this is playing out—with taxpayer dollars, recall.

If ever we needed accountability—and rational agricultural policy—the time is now.

Dec 4 2019

U.S. agriculture policies are a mess: trade, tariffs, payments

Food trade is a mess right now, but I keep trying to keep up with it.  Here are some recent items that caught my attention..

Trade deals dump U.S. junk foods in Central America.  The University of Buffalo sent out a press release about a study of the effects of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) on dietary practices in that country.

Our analysis demonstrates that low-income consumers face increasing household food expenditures in a context of overall food price inflation, in addition to relatively higher price increases for healthy versus ultraprocessed foods. Neoliberal policies not only contribute to restructuring the availability and pricing of healthy food for low-income consumers, but they also exacerbate social inequality in the food system through corporate-controlled supply chains and farmer displacement.

Current tariff policies threaten nearly 1.5 million jobs and raise prices.   This is the conclusion of a 75-page report conducted by economic consulting firm BST Associates .

A new study commissioned by the Port of Los Angeles finds that U.S. tariffs put nearly 1.5 million American jobs and more than $185 billion in economic activity at risk nationwide – based solely on the impact of tariffs on cargo handled in the San Pedro Bay port complex….China is the primary target of the Trump administration’s tariff policy, and Chinese producers account for about half of the imports passing through San Pedro Bay. Chinese retaliatory tariffs affect China-bound American exports, and Chinese buyers account for nearly a third of the American products headed overseas out of LA and Long Beach…“With 25 percent fewer ship calls, 12 consecutive months of declining exports and now decreasing imports, we’re beginning to feel the far-reaching effects of the U.S.-China trade war…With the holiday season upon us, less cargo means fewer jobs for American workers.”

The USDA has released the second collection of payments compensating agriculture for losses due to the trade war with China.  This comes to more than $14 billion on this round.  This is on top of the previous $9 billion already paid.  All of this is way beyond what the Farm Bill authorizes in agricultural support.  Supporting Big Ag this way sets an expensive precedent.  And guess where the payments are going.  To “a bundle of states that are essential to his re-election chances,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

As for why those payments are needed:  USDA’s complicated-to-read economic report explains how farm debt is increasing and income decreasing.  As the Des Moines Register reports, Iowa’s farm debt reached $18.9 billion in the second quarter of 2019—the highest level in the nation.  USDA’s farm income and wealth statistics are here.

In the meantime, what’s happening to small farms?  They face extinction, according to Time Magazine.

A mess indeed.  Fixable?  Only with political will.  It’s hard to be optimistic at this point.