Nope, we can't blame the farm bill for making us fat

By Kathleen Masterson (Harvest Public Media)

Politicians aren't the only ones taking aim at farm subsidies these days. Some public health groups and foodies say subsidies drive overproduction of corn and soybeans.  And that, they say, enables the production of cheap fast food.   

But a new report by Food and Water Watch says getting rid of subsidies won't change what farmers grow — or what we eat. (And we reported earlier the farm bill's not to blame for obesity).

"A lot of the debate has really gotten oversimplified that if we just end government payments to any kind of commodity crop, that will somehow fix a lot of the problems we have in the food supply that are driving obesity," said Food and Water Watch assistant director Patty Lovera.  "There's plenty to criticize in the commodity programs, but fixing it is not that simple."

In reviewing multiple studies, the environmental organization found removing farm subsidies would not drastically change how much corn, soybean and other commodity crops farmers grow. 

Subsidies don’t cause overproduction, the report concludes. Overproduction is inherent in commodity markets, where each farmer's income depends on growing a large yield. 

"(Farmers) are going to overproduce, and the subsidies are a band aid to stop the bleeding a bit, but they're not driving overproduction," Lovera said.

Even if the farm bill's not to blame, overproduction is a problem, said Lovera, because it often leads to lower prices. This means the food processors and meat companies can pay farmers less for their raw materials, the report said.

"Farmers are a really easy target for people to say, 'Oh they get checks from the government, and they're subsidized,' " Lovera said.  "Well, agribusiness is kind of laundering that money through farmers, because in many years, they don't pay farmers full price for cost of production for the crops they buy from them and the government makes up the difference."

Yet even though Lovera views the subsidy system as flawed, she said simply getting rid of subsidies isn't the answer. Removing those supports would mostly hurt smaller farmers.

"What we're afraid would happen is if you end the subsidies, those farmers fold the first time we have another bad year," Lovera said.

"(Then) those farmers leave and a bigger neighbor or an actual corporation buys that farm continues to grow corn and soybeans on it, so it's not that that land has shifted to vegetables."

Lovera said 82 percent of full-time small to mid-sized farmers receive some government subsidies.  (Texas receives the most subsidies, followed by Iowa, then Illinois.  Nebraska is 5th, Kansas is 6th and Missouri is 12th). Though just recently, the Senate voted to deny farm payment subsidies to millionaires.  (To see more of our farm bill coverage, check out our series.)

Instead of ending subsidies, the Food and Water Watch report argues that the government should help farmers get fair prices by regulating grain supply.  While farmers want to be rewarded fairly for their product, the idea of returning to a grain management system would likely be hugely controversial.