The Farm Bill and Global Hunger

The Farm Bill and Global Hunger


The current farm bill, officially the Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, comes with a strange cast of critics and supporters. George W. Bush and the New York Times editorial board both opposed the bill’s passage, while a combination of rural Republican senators and liberal activist groups, such as ACORN and MoveOn, supported it.

These odd alliances were no accident. The $289 billion farm bill was designed to create them. Since the 1960s, rural congressmen have demanded that each farm bill include generous food aid programs, in order to gain the support of urban representatives. While these kinds of political tricks have ensured that each successive farm bill passes, they have also made for an indefensible national agricultural policy. The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008—which will soon become law if, as expected, Congress overrides the president’s veto—is a case in point.

First and foremost among the farm bill’s liabilities is its perpetuation of the American farmer’s addiction to subsidies. The bill reauthorizes $25 billion to be paid on an annual basis to growers of staple crops such as corn, wheat, and cotton. Most of these benefits will not benefit small farmers. The farmer who specializes in fruits or vegetables will receive very little, if any, support. Big agribusiness will do best. To the agricultural lobby, the bill is essentially a quid pro quo. In exchange for their generosity to Congressional campaigns—according to the Center for Responsive Politics, agribusiness has already donated $31 million in the 2008 cycle—they receive direct cash payments. All this follows a year when, according to the Kansas City Federal Reserve’s quarterly journal, the farm industry flourished.

Yet the farm bill suffers from more than the whiff of corruption. In the context of a global food crisis that is at least partly owed to rising prices, it will be particularly deleterious. The bill’s encouragement of ethanol production is expected to cause meat and livestock prices to increase. Experts contend that America’s drive to depend on ethanol already accounts for between one third and one half of the current crisis. This bill, surely, will not help matters. Even the bill’s subsidization of the cotton industry is objectionable in the current environment. African farmers who grow cotton, who are in close proximity to among those worst hit, will be financially disadvantaged by the bill.

If the bill is so worrisome, why then did a consortium of more than a thousand groups mostly associated with liberal activism (think union locals and Catholic charities) from around the country sign a letter in late May supporting its passage? The answer is a simple two words: food stamps. Two thirds of the total money allocated, more than $289 billion, will go to fund the programs that have led the American effort against hunger since the New Deal (the food stamp program takes up the great majority of that effort). But from a global perspective, the problems associated with the farm bill outweigh the social good that will come from the domestic food aid programs it funds. At a time when hunger on a massive scale is sweeping the world, the bill does nothing to alleviate the problem. In fact, it will likely make the problem worse. That’s because the global food aid provisions of the bill require that all American food aid to citizens of other countries be made in the form of actual food and thus benefit American farmers.

For this requirement, the global hungry pay the price. What farmers overseas could most use right now is an injection of cold cash. The American policy of dumping food on starving continents, which the farm bill continues, only distorts markets and prevents the farm industries of other countries from becoming self-sustaining.

All this is a bad omen for the future. Between now and 2050, world population will boom and then, according to projections, plateau. The world middle class will swell, too—and with it, so will food demand. The 2008 farm bill represents a missed opportunity to start dealing with the impending crisis now.

Ethan Porter is associate editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. Photo: A corn field in York County, PA. (Skabat169 / Creative Commons).