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Trump’s Farmer Bailout and America’s Broken Food System

The president's $12 billion plan to help those hurt by his trade war highlights the deep-rooted dysfunction of the U.S. agriculture industry.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

American farmers are furious, and President Donald Trump is trying to calm them in the only way he knows how: throw money at them.

Ever since he started his trade war, overseas sales of agricultural products have suffered, cutting deep into farmers’ already-slim profit margins. To make up for these losses, Trump on Tuesday announced $12 billion in emergency aid—a bailout that, according to The Washington Post, will include “direct payments to farmers, efforts to promote U.S. goods abroad and an expansion of a program that purchases surplus farm output and distributes it to food banks and other anti-hunger programs.”

Some farmers aren’t thrilled by Trump’s move. “I mean, I understand they’re trying to help us. I get that. But it’s not a long-term fix. It’s a pacifier, so to speak,” Dave Kestel, a soybean farmer in Illinois, told CBS News. “I’d rather not have it.” And Trump has been widely criticized in Washington, even by members of his own party:

Trump’s trade war may be new, but welfare for farmers is not. Indeed, the fact that $12 billion in aid is widely seen as a meager, temporary solution only highlights the broader problem: The American food system is broken, and has been for a long time.

There’s little doubt that Trump’s tariffs are punishing farmers. After the United States taxed imports of more than 800 Chinese products this month, Beijing responded by taxing 545 American items, including soybeans, rice, beef, nuts, pork, dairy, and produce. Much of the agricultural industry relies on exports to survive. Pork producers, for example, send about 26 percent of all production overseas, and one-third of U.S. soybeans are sent to China each year. As a result, the average hog farmer is now losing $20 to $25 per pig, Iowa Pork Producers Association President Gregg Hora told NPR, and soybeans have fallen to their lowest prices in a decade.

But the farm industry relies so much on exports partly because the government highly subsidizes the production of food sources that Americans don’t eat or need. Since the Great Depression, Congress has been authorizing programs to prop up the industry when weather problems or market fluctuations cause prices to fall. As CNN noted on Wednesday, these programs were originally implemented to guarantee the nation had adequate food and feed supply, which was crucial to growing the economy ... Now, however, the United States has a booming agriculture export business, which has made trade even more important to farmers.”

Thus, the government now spends an average of $16 billion annually to buy products from farmers who can’t find buyers in America or overseas. This has resulted in a massive stockpiling of food across the country. U.S. dairy producers, for example, have a 1.39 billion-pound surplus of cheese—its largest surplus on record—because they have selectively bred cows to overproduce milk, and milk is stored best as cheese. There’s also a 2.5 billion pound surplus of meat, Vox reported this week, which is partially due to Trump’s tariffs but also the waning interest in meat.

“A tangled web of ill-conceived federal policies explains a lot of the problems we see” in the food chain, Anne Kapuscinski, a Dartmouth professor and board chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, explained in an op-ed last year. “It explains why junk foods are cheaper than fruits and vegetables (because corn and soy, key ingredients of processed foods, benefit from on-farm subsidies and taxpayer-funded research); why farmers increase planting of these crops even when prices are low (because crop insurance guarantees their income); and why some of the most food-insecure people in our country are ironically the very people who produce and prepare our food (because many farm and food service workers work in the shadows without a living wage).”

Trump’s farm bailout includes measures to handle the surplus of food, including purchasing it and donating it to food banks, which highlights yet another problem with welfare for the agriculture industry. Forty-one million Americans currently suffer from food insecurity—meaning these subsidies, which originally were intended to ensure the nation had enough food, are not working for that purpose. According to CBS, “Rural counties are among the worst-hit, comprising 79 percent of the counties with the highest food insecurity rates, even though they make up only 63 percent of all U.S. counties.”

Trump’s farmer bailout is equivalent to about one-sixth of what the U.S. spends annually on SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps, which help more than 40 million Americans. And yet Trump, though quick to cut a $12 billion check for farmers, seems to think even $70 billion is too much to feed the nation’s hungry: In his 2019 budget, he proposed cutting SNAP by $213 billion over 10 years, a nearly 30 percent cut. (Congress largely ignored his request.)

In addition to costing the government billions without adequately feeding Americans, the farm industry’s overproduction has also caused a veritable drinking water crisis in rural areas across the country. Nitrogen-based fertilizer from large-scale agriculture has a tendency to slide off of farmlands and into the nation’s freshwater systems, causing serious nitrate pollution in towns in the Mississippi River Valley. Drinking water with even small amounts of nitrates increases the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Trump’s bailout is supposed to be temporary. Eventually, he argues, the trade war will pay offfarmers will no longer need taxpayer help. “The farmers will be the biggest beneficiary. Watch,” he said. “We’re opening up markets. You watch what’s going to happen. Just be a little patient.” Is it possible that, with a long-running trade war, Trump can fix America’s broken food system? Sure, it’s possible. Perhaps when pigs fly.