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Monday, August 01, 2011

Deficit Reduction Must Tackle Ag Subsidies

Congressional leaders and the White House have reached an eleventh-hour deal to raise the debt ceiling and cut about $2.4 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years. The deal still needs to pass both chambers of Congress to avoid defaulting on the federal debt. It appears both parties had to give more than they wanted to and tackle some tough issues, yet largely absent from the closing political debate, once again, has been the need to deal with the multi-billion-dollar federal subsidies for industrial agriculture, including many of the highest-earning and most profitable farmers in the land.

From 1995 to 2009, federal farm subsidies have cost taxpayers a quarter of a trillion dollars. Today’s agribusiness subsidies—paid at a time of record-high commodity prices—drive up the deficit and distort the market, while also jeopardizing public health, the environment, and animal welfare. Most of these excessive commodity subsidies go to a small number of large-scale, wealthy producers, keeping animal feed artificially cheap and encouraging massive factory farm development, while driving out smaller and more humane and sustainable farmers.

Gestation Congress can support small family farmers and reduce deficit spending by capping eligibility for subsidies to farmers with an adjusted gross income of $250,000 or less, and by capping the total amount of money an entity can receive under the commodity payments program of the Farm Bill at $125,000 or $250,000. Several amendments to rein in agriculture subsidies came up on the House floor earlier this year during debate over both the Continuing Resolution for Fiscal Year 2011 and the Fiscal Year 2012 agriculture spending bill, but it remains unclear whether Congress can finalize individual appropriations bills this year, and whether lawmakers aligned with the agribusiness lobby will continue trying to punt on the tough questions, putting them off until next year’s Farm Bill.

The Administration’s deficit reduction commission recommended cutting $10 billion in farm subsidies from 2012 to 2020, and the President’s FY12 budget proposal included a decrease of $3.2 billion for USDA, largely from direct payments to high-income farmers. The debt ceiling deal will create a new congressional commission to recommend government spending cuts, and we urge this group to finally say enough is enough and stand up to the lawmakers who keep fleecing American taxpayers for the benefit of corporate factory farms. It’s time to wean big agribusiness off the government trough. If the government is going to hand over subsidies, it should be to foster innovation and to incentivize best practices—not to provide hand-outs to big agriculture and to reward its poor conduct and consolidation.

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