It would be hard to find a bigger collision of interests that in the debate of the farm bill currently before Congress. Everything from Mike Bloomberg's war on soft drinks to market economics and food stamps is in play, all against the backdrop of a policy that was put in place about 80 years ago for the needs of a world that no longer exists.
In 1930, 21.5 percent of Americans worked or lived on farms. Today less than 1 percent claim farming as an occupation, with about 2 percent actually living on a farm. And while the agriculture industry is quick to note that family farms still rule the industry, a quarter of farms earn more than $100,000 a year, and the net income of all farms is about $91.7 billion, which the government says is the second-highest level ever.
And yet the government still pays some farmers whether they plant a crop or not. The vast majority of money in the farm bill — $768.2 billion over 10 years — would go toward food stamps and nutrition, with most of it going to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And a good deal of the bill also would subsidize crops that are the basis for sugary and starchy foods and drinks, or junk food — the very thing that is feeding a national obesity and health crisis.
In simple terms, things get complicated when the government decides to stick its nose into private business, and it is now in the messy business of choosing winners and losers.
Times may be bad, but this is not the 1930s. Price supports are keeping some prices artificially high, which is upsetting to some food producers. The 99 percent of taxpayers who don't earn their living off the land may indeed wonder why their taxes are going toward this stew of competing interests.
The House is considering a bill that would end most of the direct payments to farmers regardless of whether they decide to grow anything. That is long overdue. However, the Senate version of the bill also would increase the amount the government pays to subsidize crop insurance, covering the deductibles farmers must pay before their benefits kick in. The government would offer protection against "shallow losses," when the money farmers earn falls between 11 percent and 21 percent below a five-year moving average of earnings.
Anyone who believes Congress is incapable of compromise hasn't studied these bills or looked closely at how home-state interests trump ideology and party loyalties.
Perhaps the best proposal is one that would turn a portion of the food stamp program over to states in the form of block grants and look at ways to eliminate fraud. No matter how counter-intuitive it may seem to some, the best way to administer relief programs in hard times is to allow a lot of experimentation and innovation at the state level.
Under the current political climate in Washington, it would be impossible to return agriculture much more to the private market than what has been proposed. That's too bad. While no one can deny the importance of agriculture to a nation rich with food choices, it would be foolish to think that the market forces that produce such amazing advances in other fields would not do the same to farming if a bit more risk was introduced.