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How To Crack King Corn

Ah, the farm bill. Every year it emerges in Congress, innards stuffed with hideous subsidies, and every year liberals and conservatives alike band together and rail against all the waste and abuse in the bill—the money flowing unnecessarily to corporate farmers, the perverse incentives to forgo crop rotation and degrade the land—and, then, every year, once the carping has run its course, the bill… passes with overwhelming support. Is there any chance of this annual charade ever changing? Maybe. Adam Sheingate has a great piece on our messed-up agricultural regime in the latest issue of Democracy that sketches out blueprints for a reform coalition:

A progressive urban-rural coalition would link farmers disadvantaged by the current system of subsidies with consumer, public health, and environmental groups engaged on issues of food safety and sustainability. Together, such a coalition could lobby to cap subsidies received by the largest farmers and require that any savings from a subsidy cap be used to support organic farming, encourage regional supply chains that link local producers to urban markets, or reward environmental stewardship practices–in short, subsidize quality instead of quantity....

We can look to Europe to see the potential power of this union between producer and consumer. There, environmentalists, consumer advocates, and small farmers have joined together in a broad movement to change European-wide policies.... Europe is far from solving the problem entirely. There as well, agricultural subsidies are heavily skewed toward the largest farmers, albeit less so than in the United States.... Nevertheless, the terms of the debate in Europe are changing. Reforms to the EU Common Agricultural Policy are gradually reorienting payments toward smaller producers.

The point that needs to be emphasized, Sheingate argues, is that most small farmers don't benefit from the current array of subsidies, which give incentives to eke as much production out of the land as humanly possible, sustainability be damned: "Maximizing output requires the intensive use of industrial inputs like chemicals and machinery. The costs of these inputs narrow profit margins… Meanwhile, larger farms absorb s the smaller ones, aided by government policies that reward increasing scale."

Sheingate thinks that if those farmers started speaking out en masse, and linked up with environmental and consumer groups, there'd be enough pressure on the senators and representatives sitting on the agriculture committees in Congress to get a real change. So what's stopping this from happening? A lack of organization? Iowa's plum position on the electoral map? Distrust between farmers and environmentalists? And is Europe, whose subsidy payments remain monstrous, really such a prime model for what U.S. farm policy should aspire to? Sheingate sounds optimistic that the EU is inching toward a better direction, but you have to read a fair bit into just a few vaguely encouraging signs.

P.S. Tom Philpot flags a minor but egregious example of how in hoc Congress is to Big Ag. So the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry held a hearing Monday on antibiotic use in livestock farms. That's kind of a big deal. Industrial farms have a habit of shoving lots of animals together into a small space, letting them fester in their own shit, and often the only way to keep them alive until slaughter is to pump them full of antibiotics. To top it off, producers also pump their animals full of unnecessary antibiotics to help them grow.

The upshot is that feedlots are becoming breeding grounds for new, drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Good topic for a hearing! Except that the subcommittee didn't bother inviting any public health experts to testify on what this development might mean for, uh, the rest of us. Instead they summoned one, two, three, four, five, six flacks from the livestock industry. Moo.

--Bradford Plumer