Why farm bailouts may cause the next Dust Bowl

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On their surface, farm subsidies, which are government funds given to farmers to help offset bad weather, price fluctuations and other risks to crops, seem like a reasonable use of taxpayer money. And many people probably assume that farm subsidies are helping to support farmers who truly need them, such as those whom you may meet at your local farmers market.

The reality, however, is much more sordid. Since the 1970s, farm policies have favored the consolidation and industrialization of agriculture and the food supply. Federal farm subsidies, tax credits, crop insurance, price supports and disaster payments favor industrial agriculture and the streamlined production of cheap food.

USDA bailout goes to wealthy farmers — and even non-farmers

In 2019, the government authorized the USDA to provide up to $14.5 billion to farmers and ranchers whose commodities were impacted by “unjustified foreign retaliatory tariffs” that led to a loss of export markets. The Market Facilitation Program (MFP), as it’s known, is available to producers of certain commodities, including wheat, cotton, corn and soybeans, with an average adjusted gross income of less than $900,000.1

As reported by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “China responded to … tariffs on Chinese aluminum and steel products by placing retaliatory tariffs on more than 800 U.S. food and farm products, which led in turn to the MFP bailout program.”2 Nathan Rosenberg, a visiting scholar at the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, explained via the Farm Bill Law Enterprise (FBLE):3

“The White House announced the MFP in response to large, retaliatory tariffs that the Chinese government imposed on most agricultural products from the U.S. in April 2018.

Prior to 2018, China had either been the largest or second largest buyer for U.S. agricultural goods each year since 2008. Agricultural exports to this massive market declined quickly after the tariffs were put into place, reducing the prices farmers received for many important commodities, especially soybeans.”

In previous years, analyses by EWG revealed that “city slickers” are often recipients of farm subsidies. In 2015 and 2016, for instance, 17,836 people living in large U.S. cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, received $63 million in farm subsidies.4 In 2017, further analysis by EWG revealed that 19,832 people living in big cities received $108 million in farm subsidies.5

The trend continued in 2018 to 2019, when EWG obtained MFP data via a Freedom of Information Act request. Again, thousands of people living in large cities received MFP payments. Further, large farms were overwhelmingly favored and the majority of payments went to a small number of farm businesses.

According to EWG, 54% of MFP payments from 2018 through April 2019 went to the top one-tenth of recipients. And while there are supposed to be caps of $125,000 on MFP payments, rules allow relatives to also receive farm payments, even if they’re not meaningfully involved in farming.6

Wealthy farms receive greatest payouts, minorities left out

The top receiving farm, DeLine Farm Partnership in Charleston, Missouri, received $2.8 million in MFP payments while, in all, 82 farms received more than $500,000 in MFP funds. According to EWG, “The top 1 percent of MFP recipients received, on average, $183,331. The bottom 80 percent received, on average, less than $5,000,” and minority farmers are often left out.7

Farmer businesses may also receive other subsidy money from commodities and crop insurance, and disaster payments, however since MFP began due to the ongoing trade war with China, it’s become the largest subsidy source for farmers.8 According to Rosenberg:9

“These payments are large enough to constitute the single largest source of subsidies for farmers. During the Obama administration, the federal government provided operators with roughly $15 – $20 billion annually through agricultural subsidy programs.

These subsidies were primarily distributed through crop insurance, commodity payments, and conservation programs, which, together, make up the modern farm safety net. The MFP is larger than any of these single programs and has substantially increased the amount of subsidies farmers are receiving.”

Not only have the payouts been rewarding wealthy landowners on a disproportionate level, but an analysis by Rosenberg and a colleague revealed that, of the approximately $8 billion in MFP payments to producers of whom race could be identified, 99.5% went to white business owners. When gender of the receiving producer was identifiable (as it was in about $6.8 billion in MFP payments), more than 91% was given to males. Rosenberg continued:10

“Not only did almost all of the funds go to white operators, but an overwhelming share of the funds appear to have gone to upper-middle class and wealthy families.

The average family that produces soybeans has a much higher income — and a lot more wealth — than the average family in the U.S. But a disproportionate share of MFP money has been paid out to families operating large-scale farms, who have even more wealth.

According to data we received from a separate FOIA request, the largest 11 percent of soybean producers applying for MFP funds received 52 percent of all soy payments through February 20.

Meanwhile, the largest 3 percent received more than a quarter of all payments. The … administration plans to distribute up to an additional $14.5 billion to farm operators for crops produced this year. Most of that money will go to well-off white families.”

The second round of MFP payments will be based on per-acre payments,11 which means, as EWG noted, “The bigger the farm, the bigger the government check.”12

Vanishing prairies, shallow roots, drought = Dust Bowl

Farm subsidies, which once began as a safety net focused on food security, are now contributing to environmental destruction that could lead to food scarcity, including an environmental catastrophe similar to the Dust Bowl. In the early 1900s, the grasslands of the southern U.S. plains were rapidly plowed up and turned into wheat fields.

The first taste of disaster derived from losing prairies occurred not long after, in the 1930s. With millions of acres of plowed fields and a chronic drought, winds picked up the soil creating thick clouds of dust called “black blizzards,” which covered the region in an unprecedented yearslong dust “storm.”

It seems no lesson was ultimately learned, as grasslands are still disappearing at alarming rates while farm subsidies promote the planting of annual monocrops. Annuals — which include the grain crops and soy that make up most U.S. farmland — are chemical intensive and enemies of diversity.

Carbon erosion from the land and into the water and air is one result of this turn toward industrial agriculture and annual monocrops. The removal of forests that not only can sustain but also regenerate our soils and solidify this fragile carbon balance is a major part of the problem, but so, too, is industrial agriculture, including the removal of grasslands to plant more corn.

Agricultural chemicals are polluting waterways, leading to toxic algae and red tide, while tilling can destroy the integrity of the soil structure while encouraging runoff. It’s a system based on degradation, rather than restoration.

Annual monocrops destroy the soil and the surrounding ecosystems, whereas regenerative agriculture based on perennial ecosystems rebuilds it, increasing soil organic matter and leading to a number of beneficial outcomes.

Farm subsidies could lead to another Dust Bowl

With drought and hot conditions occurring regularly in the Plains, farm subsidies that encourage continued planting of monocrops could easily lead to another dust bowl. Further, in a 2017 report by EWG, it’s explained that a provision in the Federal Crop Insurance Program could be paving the way for a new dust bowl:13

“[A] provision in the Federal Crop Insurance Program, snuck into the 2014 Farm Bill, encourages farmers to plant the same crops and use the same methods, year after year, repeating the mistakes that led to the Dust Bowl.

The program guarantees farmers’ earnings from their crops won’t fall below a percentage of their usual income. The percentage is set based on a multi-year average of a farmer’s actual crop yields, and averaging good and bad years grounds the program in reality.

But under the new provision, called Actual Production History Yield Exclusion, the government pretends bad years didn’t happen. In some cases, more than 15 bad years can be thrown out when calculating the average yield, resulting in artificially inflated insurance payouts, year after year. The distortion is worst in the very same counties that were hardest hit by the Dust Bowl and are now suffering from severe drought.”

A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also explains that about 500 million people live in areas affected by desertification, where dust storms and other extreme events occur. Land degradation, as occurs via intensive agriculture promoted by farm subsidies, only worsens the problem.

“When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon,” the report notes.14 What’s needed, instead, are perennial ecosystems that “redesign agriculture in nature’s image.” In other words, as stated by Forest Agriculture Nursery’s restoration philosophy:15

“Annual monocropping produces nearly all of the grain, meat, vegetables, and processed foods consumed today. These practices require giant machinery, tilling, and the application of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, resulting in the eradication of biodiversity, the erosion of topsoil, and contributes 30% of global carbon emissions — more than from any other source.

Despite the massive human efforts applied to farming, we are woefully short of the inherent resilience, stability, and outright beauty of natural ecosystems. We need look no further than native ecosystems for a template of how to move forward from the many woes of annual monocropping.”

Soybean farmers largest recipients of MFP payments

Meanwhile, although it’s clear that annual monocrops like soybeans are degrading the environment, and contributing to health problems by promoting a processed food diet, the government continues to promote them. In fact, part of EWG’s analysis revealed that soybean farmers are the largest recipients of MFP payments and have received $46 billion in subsidies from 1995 to 2019.16

Subsidy programs that instead reward crop diversification and regenerative farming practices like planting cover crops are urgently needed.

Unfortunately, Food & Environment Reporting Network noted that 45% of farmers who say they’re interested in trying cover crops hold back because of concerns about crop insurance, and a 2015 National Wildlife Federation survey found “over one-third reported that they’d been told by an agent or adjuster that using cover crops could put a claim at risk of denial.”17,18

How can you help? Make an effort to support the farmers who are farming the right way, using regenerative farming techniques — often without the help of any farm subsidies. If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods in your area:

EatWild.com EatWild.com provides lists of certified organic farmers known to produce safe, wholesome raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other organic produce. Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.

Weston A. Price Foundation The Weston A. Price Foundation has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.

Grassfed Exchange The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.

Local Harvest This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.

Farmers Markets A national listing of farmers markets.

Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food From Healthy Animals The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.

FoodRoutes The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs and markets near you.

The Cornucopia Institute The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO “organic” production from authentic organic practices.

RealMilk.com If you’re unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area. The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws. California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.

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