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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farm Bill: Lawmakers Try to Sow Seeds of Change

Air Date: Week of

Cotton is king in Stanly County, North Carolina. (Photo: Brian Hathcock)

Critics of farm subsidies say the billions in payments to corn, cotton and soybean growers hurt the poor and the environment. Reformers had hoped Democratic leaders in Congress would change things. But Living on Earth's Jeff Young tells us that changing agriculture politics is a tough row to hoe.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, sitting in for Steve Curwood. The U.S. Congress is debating a bill with huge implications for the environment. No, it’s not about climate change or endangered species it’s about farms.

Every five years the Farm Bill comes up for renewal and it affects everything from wetlands and habitat protection to alternative fuels production and international trade, not to mention the food on our tables. Critics of the current ag policy say farm subsidies negatively affect all of these things, and waste taxpayer money to boot. With Democrats in control of Congress, hopes for reform were high. But Living on Earth’s Jeff Young tells us those calling for change have a tough row to hoe.


YOUNG: There were so many boots and cowboy hats in the house agriculture committee’s hearing room it looked like a hoedown. Lobbyists for ranchers and farmers crowded in, eager to hear what Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson would say about the new farm bill and the billions in subsidy payments it might send to farm country. Peterson warned they might not like it.

PETERSON: Maybe what we’re doing here is just trying to come up with a bill that made everybody equally unhappy.

YOUNG: Here’s Peterson’s dilemma: Congress is under pressure to limit the massive subsidy system that pays about 20 billion dollars a year to farmers—many of whom are already quite wealthy. But about 40 percent of that money goes to the home districts of the members of the agriculture committee. So Peterson came up with a compromise: No one making more than a million dollars a year could get payments.

PETERSON: This bill represents reform. We’ve made changes that nobody thought we could never do and knock a bunch of farmers out of the system.

YOUNG: Analysis by the Agriculture department shows the new bill would eliminate only about 3100 of the one-and-a-half million subsidy recipients. Critics say that’s no reform at all.

KIND: I think the loopholes that exist with the committee bill is so large you could drive a combine through it and yet it’s not addressing the true needs of other priorities.

Cotton is king in Stanly County, North Carolina.(Photo: Brian Hathcock)

YOUNG: That’s Wisconsin Democrat Ron Kind. Kind teamed with Republican budget hawks to offer an alternative to the farm bill. They want to ban payments to farmers making more than a quarter million a year. The money saved would go instead toward programs for nutrition and land conservation. These reformers thought they’d have a good chance: crop prices are high, the U.S. faces international pressure to comply with agriculture trade agreements, even the White House wants to cut subsidies to rich farmers. A varied coalition of environmental, anti-poverty and fiscal conservative groups came together to push for change. David Keating is with the free market group, club for growth.

KEATING: I think today we see the strongest left right coalition ever assembled to work for change. And hitting congressmen from left and the right maybe we might finally score a knockout punch against the special interests.

YOUNG: It’s not often you see the Club for Growth teamed up with groups like Bread for The World. But Reverend David Beckman says his anti-hunger group finds common ground with conservatives who think that U.S. crop subsidies hurt farmers in developing countries. Beckman says cheap American grain and cotton flood global markets.

BECKMAN: Our subsidized cotton goes all over the world and it competes with cotton that’s grown in Mali, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, South Africa. Those growers are making 400 dollars a year. But they’re up against cotton farmers in the U.S. that have all kinds of technology plus big checks from the federal government. It’s just not fair.

YOUNG: Environmentalists say subsidized crops strain the land. They wanted more money in the bill to pay farmers to protect soil, wetlands and wildlife habitat. The conservation program turns away most applicants because it’s short of cash. Scott Farber of the group Environmental Defense says Democratic leaders fell short.

FARBER: We are very disappointed that Speaker Pelosi would support a farm bill that provides less conservation spending than the proposal made by the Bush administration.

YOUNG: Farber thought he’d have California Democrat Nancy Pelosi on his side. She supported reform five years ago. But now that she’s the House Speaker, Pelosi supports the farm bill.

FARBER: It’s hard to imagine that a farm bill that would allow 99.9 percent of our farmers to get unlimited subsidies could be called reform by anyone, especially speaker Nancy Pelosi.

YOUNG: As Speaker, Pelosi needs to keep farm money flowing. She wants to protect some newly elected Democrats who represent rural, farming districts. They can’t afford to anger farmers by cutting subsidies. For example, Democrat Tim Mahoney barely won half the vote in conservative central Florida after Republican Mark Foley resigned in disgrace amid a sex scandal. Mahoney’s counting on the farm bill to bring big juicy payments to Florida fruit growers—as much as 10 million a year.

MAHONEY: We have a committee that puts farmers, and growers and ranchers first, and as a result the state of Florida was a big winner.

YOUNG: And Mahoney’s one of eight freshman Democrats on the agriculture committee. Keeping their farming districts happy could be key to keeping Nancy Pelosi in the Speaker’s chair. Agriculture Committee chair Peterson knows Pelosi is squeezed on this issue.

PETERSON: She’s getting a lot of heat back in her district, and she’s hanging in there and her sticking with us is why I think we’re gonna get this farm bill.

YOUNG: In short, farm reform ran into one of Washington’s sacred cows. The reformers lost. But they’ll try again when the Senate takes up its version of the farm bill later this year.

For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



Environmental Working Group’s Farm Bill database

The House Agriculture Committee website

OXFAM on Farm Bill


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