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The farmer on the dole

There's one last chance for Congress to avoid another disgraceful corporate welfare bill for growers.

November 05, 2007

It's good to be a farmer. With money rolling in as many subsidized crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans command unusually high prices, and with net farm income expected to hit a record this year, the government continues to throw cash at commodity growers. And despite the fact that a large coalition of corporate interests, environmentalists, nutritionists, economists and international anti-poverty groups has been loudly urging an end to this form of corporate welfare, Congress has so far turned a deaf ear.

Last month, the Senate Agriculture Committee approved a version of the 2007 farm bill every bit as bloated, unfair and irresponsible as the one passed by the House in July; it's expected to come to the Senate floor today. It will continue to award the bulk of subsidies to the richest growers and send checks to gentlemen farmers in Beverly Hills and Manhattan. It will continue to raise consumer prices for some crops, such as sugar, while distorting trade and wrecking livelihoods in the developing world. And it will waste about $16 billion annually in taxpayer money far better spent elsewhere -- the closest thing to "reform" in the Senate bill is a provision that would cut off payments to households making more than $750,000 a year, apparently under the rationale that farmers who make less than this are clearly in need of government assistance.

Farm bill supporters from the handful of Midwestern states that benefit heavily from these subsidies have succeeded largely by buying off their opponents. Because the farm bill also funds food stamps, urban representatives in the House were persuaded to sign on when some $4 billion was added to that program. Lawmakers from states such as California that don't traditionally get much in the way of subsidies acquiesced when extra money was added for conservation, nutrition and specialty crops of the kind grown here, such as tree nuts and vegetables. Yet all of the most destructive provisions of the last five-year farm bill, an outrageous giveaway to agribusiness that continues to damage U.S. trade relationships, remain in place.

There is some hope. Sens. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) have proposed an alternative called the Fresh Act, which would do away with billions in trade-distorting subsidy payments. Instead, it would expand free crop insurance to farmers with incomes under $250,000 a year, paying off only when they lose money. Unlike the current system, it would benefit all farmers regardless of what they grow, so it could be a boon for California. Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer should do the right thing by their state, the nation and the world and back it.

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