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How The Farm Bill Survived Intact

Via Kevin Drum, a Los Angeles Times op-ed gets furious about the farm bill that's gurgling through Congress. So much for all that noise about reform we heard last year  from Oxfam and various environmental groups (and from Bush, for that matter); it came to naught:

What can we citizens expect if the proposed $300-billion farm bill is signed into law? Federally subsidized feed—corn, soybeans and cottonseed—for animal factory farms that spread disease, greenhouse gases and dangerous working conditions wherever they set up shop. (Farm bill "environmental quality" programs will even pay up to $450,000 for the construction of lined "lagoons" to be filled with lethal concentrations of manure.) The continuation of America's obesity campaign, which ensures the cheapest and most widely available foods are made up of such high-calorie ingredients as high-fructose corn syrup, refined flours, saturated fats and unhealthy meat and dairy products. And more federally backed exports of California's water—in the form of cotton and rice, mostly sold overseas.

But here's the one that's really hard to stomach. More than $4 billion in permanent disaster assistance to growers in the Northern Plains. The brainchild of Montana Democrat and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, this is essentially a trust fund to guarantee income to farmers plowing up prairies and grasslands—lands prone to drought and erosion—to plant corn and wheat. Many observers fear a second Dust Bowl.

Agricultural policy can get pretty complex, and I actually don't think a totally hands-off, zero-subsidy farm bill would work very well, but one would've hoped that with rising food prices—driven partly by demand, and partly by the push for new biofuels—there'd be an opportunity to cut at least some of the grotesque subsidies doled out to big agribusiness. Guess not.

Michael Grunwald did a nice job laying out these issues with his long piece on the farm bill for Time last fall. There was an especially telling anecdote about how Colin Peterson, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and other farm-district Dems managed to muscle Nancy Pelosi away from her earlier pledge to reform the bill. At one point, after Arkansas's Marion Berry begged Pelosi not to set payment limits or cut subsidies, she told him, "Marion, this stuff is complicated, but if you say it's that important, I'll take your word for it." So, here we are.

--Bradford Plumer