Monday, November 15, 2010

Farm Subsidies and Sustainable Agriculture

I  ran across a piece by the EWG titled 'Government's Continued Bailout of Corporate Agriculture' which, in addition to the title, made some pretty bold and possibly misleading statements. I'm not saying this is intentional on the part of EWG, but these statements could easily be misinterpreted.

From 1995-2009 the largest and wealthiest top 10 percent of farm program recipients received 74 percent of all farm subsidies

This is true, but it could give the false perception that farm subsidies benefit large farms perhaps at the expense of smaller farms, but I addressed this before in another post Do Farm Subsidies Benefit the Largest Farms the Most?

It's true that many subsidies are tied to commodity production. As a result, those that grow more commodities (i.e. larger farms) will get more money from the government. As a result larger producers take in a larger share of all subsidies (especially those related to commodities). However, subsidies account for a much smaller percentage of income for large producers, and make up a much larger percentage of total income for medium or small producers.  

EWG  does admit that they favor subsidies going to smaller and midsize farms, where they have the biggest impact on operating budgets.  Another quote:

The vast majority of farm subsidies go to raw material for our industrialized food system, not the foods we actually eat. Even less money goes to support the production of the fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a healthy diet.

This couldn't be further from the truth. It is true, as I discussed above, that most of the subsidies go to commodities, but it isn't true that they don't contribute to the production of foods that we actually eat. In fact, as Michael Pollan has brilliantly stated:

"What I keep finding in case after case, if you follow the food back to the farm — if you follow the nutrients, if you follow the carbon — you end up in a corn field in Iowa, over and over and over again." -Michael  Pollan
It is a miracle that modern sustainable agriculture can feed so many people in so many ways, with just a few common staple crops, and do it sustainably!

The EWG quote also could give some people the perception that healthy supplements in our diets, like fruits and vegetables, are more expensive than processed foods containing corn and soybeans because corn and soybeans are subsidized more heavily than fruits and vegetables. Again, this couldn't be further than the truth. The agronomics, labor, risk, economies of scale, and capital costs associated with fruit and vegetable production make those crops much more expensive than commodities, and have a much larger role on their prices than subsidies.  Eliminating commodity programs would have an insignificant impact at the retail level, and the subsides required to make fruits and vegetables more affordable would dwarf what we are currently spending on commodities. 

Finally, while this corporate giveaway has gone on unabated, conservation continues to be shortchanged.

While this may be true, in terms of the allocation of funds, conservation and sustainability in terms of on the farm practices isn't shortchanged in the least. Market forces have overcome subsidy related distortions and led producers and agribusinesses to focus heavily on green technologies including herbicide and pest resistance, water use efficiency, fuel efficiency etc.  Again, all the practices that make modern agriculture, sustainable agriculture.