The United States has the richest, most productive agricultural sector, and the best-fed population, in the world – perhaps in the history of the world.
A new Economist Intelligence Unit report, commissioned by DuPont, ranks the United States as the most food-secure nation on Earth, based on the affordability and quality of its food supply.
To be sure, this abundance is not equally distributed, and some families struggle to pay their grocery bills, especially in todays economy. But any notion that farming is a precarious, hardscrabble business, or that the American diet is vulnerable to supply disruptions, is absurd. Even the drought augurs little more than a blip at the checkout counter months from now.
Yet those absurd notions still guide policy. Every five years, Congress drafts a farm bill as if U.S. agriculture were no more capable of surviving on its own than it was during the Great Depression – when most current farm programs began. The farm-state lawmakers and lobbyists are at it again now.
The Senate has already passed a measure priced at $969 billion over the next decade. Senators congratulated themselves because this gargantuan figure reflects the elimination of some subsidies, which reduced projected spending by $23 billion. However, the bill includes a lush new subsidy, enhanced crop insurance, that could offset some of the promised savings – and leaves commodity producers hooked on taxpayer largess.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is weighing the election-year political risks of proceeding with that chambers own near-trillion-dollar measure. The Agriculture Committee has approved a bill that would save $35 billion over the next 10 years but also continues an array of ugly subsidies, price controls and production regulations. Among them is a price loss coverage program that would pay farmers if prices drop from their recent highs. The Congressional Budget Office says that could cost $3 billion per year; economist Vincent Smith says that the cost could spike to $16.5 billion.
Of course, farm bill is something of a misnomer, since the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, accounts for about 80 percent of the measures annual cost. While the Senate measure trims food stamps by about $400 million per year, the House bill would cut four times as much.
No doubt food stamp eligibility needs modernization, as some Republican critics of the program suggest. But to slash a couple of million recipients from the rolls – the CBOs estimate of the House bills impact – under current economic conditions strikes us as draconian. To do so while extending billions in taxpayer funding to rural businesses that should have been weaned off the federal teat long ago is grotesque.