To the Editor:
On Thursday (May 26), Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) will host the second farm bill reauthorization hearing in Washington, D.C. It's not her first rodeo shepherding farm bills through Congress. A decade ago, she steered what became the 2014 farm bill through the Senate and has led subsequent bills since then.
In that farm bill, Chair Stabenow supported certain taxpayer- and farmer-friendly reforms. (https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/…) While some efforts -- such as elimination of the wasteful $5 billion-per-year direct payment program -- were ultimately enacted, other reforms haven't yet been signed into law.
For instance, bipartisan farm subsidy reform efforts have been watered down over the past decade, leading to more subsidies for millionaire farmers, wealthy landowners, city dwellers, and non-farmers alike. Adding insult to injury was the creation of so-called "shallow loss" subsidies that squandered savings from direct payments.
The result? Record levels of farm subsidies have flowed to agriculture in recent years, including $47 billion just in 2020. Subsidies have increased land prices, created additional barriers to entry for beginning farmers, and spurred farm consolidation.
The availability of generous farm subsidies and highly subsidized crop insurance has also resulted in more risk-taking at taxpayer expense. This has led to carbon-rich wetlands and grasslands, for instance, being converted to commodity crop production, all on taxpayers' dime. Instead of helping the climate and environment, many farm safety net programs do the opposite.
Simply put, federal farm policy is in dire need of reform. Subsidy costs have ballooned while algae blooms, water pollution, soil erosion, and climate risks continue to grab headlines and hurt bottom lines. Most farm subsidies benefit a small segment of agriculture -- large operations growing crops like corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, peanuts and rice.
Michigan farmers in Stabenow's home state, for instance, received just 1.7% of farm subsidies from 1995-2020, according to the Environmental Working Group. (https://farm.ewg.org/…) Smaller and diversified producers -- growing alfalfa/hay, nuts, fruits, and vegetables -- receive pennies on the dollar compared to highly subsidized commodity crops, grown in states ranging from the South to the Great Plains.
The next farm bill should promote resilience, instead of dependence on federal subsidies. Chairwoman Stabenow is well-positioned to lead the way in the next farm bill.
While numerous reforms are necessary to achieve a more cost-effective, transparent, accountable, and equitable farm safety net that is responsive to actual need, Congress should start with:
-- Eliminating wasteful farm subsidies and reforming the heavily subsidized crop insurance to promote resilience, diversification, and risk-reducing conservation practices. Reining in subsidies to those who do not need federal support and ensuring producers traditionally left out of the farm safety net receive necessary assistance should be on the priority list. This should occur through the farm bill process, not ad hoc programs created without Congressional authorization.
-- Increase agricultural conservation funding while reforming programs to deliver real, measurable, and verifiable benefits to taxpayers and farmers. If done right, reformed agricultural conservation programs can help reduce producers' costs, build soil health, improve water quality, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve long-term profitability. This is a win-win for taxpayers, farmers, the environment and climate alike.
Now is the time for Congress to enact bold reforms in the next farm bill. The status quo isn't working. Farmers around the country are demanding a safety net that works for the next generation of agriculture. And with recent farm bills costing $1 trillion, taxpayer savings in wasteful farm subsidy programs are long overdue. Smart food and agriculture investments can also be made but that will mean placing common sense ahead of special interests in the next farm bill.
Sewell directs the Agriculture Reform Program at Taxpayers for Common Sense.
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