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The Weak Strategy of Sustainble Food and Farming

The US farm and food movement has made some strategic mistakes in recent years, because we haven’t worked together well enough.  The main food movement has worked quite well with sustainable/stewardship farmers in the movement, but not well with the family-farm/justice sector, as I’ve written elsewhere.

One consequence is that the food movement (from books, blogs and films to conferences, to action alerts) has missed a chance to utilize powerful movement strategies.

For example, following the 2008 farm bill, (around which the food movement usually did not correctly understand the Commodity Title/farm price and subsidy issues) we had a major economic crisis.  Inside the beltway, our NGO staff worked hard to get us a piece of the economic stimulus pie, to get Democratic leaders to include us in the stimulus checks being written out.  Our issues got some money FROM the government. Our DC organizational staff did not, however, have enough of the family farm justice, grassroots historical perspective to also offer a stimulus TO the government.

(Of course, the power to do that also requires influencing the broader food movement to fully bring a justice perspective in as a major set of priorities.  We also didn’t get that done before and/or after the 2008 Farm Bill.) 

Now we have a new political climate and the focus is on hacking away at the budget.  Once again this is a great time to be proactive and beat the Republicans and the Tea Party at their own game, by offering a stimulus TO the government, but that is still not understood. So here we are, we got some money here and there in the stimulus, and now we’re begging to keep government spending, across the various titles of the farm bill, for example.  We were gimme, gimme gimme before, and we’re gimme gimme gimme again.  “Write us checks!  Write us checks!  Write us checks.”  That’s our only strategy for this time of economic crisis and balancing the budgets, because we don’t know that anything else exists.

The Stimulus We Offer:  A Strong Alternative Strategy for Our Time

The core of our strategy should be to give the country a permanent economic stimulus that the government does not have to pay for.  We had that in the past.  The New Deal farm programs had no commodity subsidies, but instead used regulation to set a floor under prices and a ceiling over farm commodity prices.  Price floors were set at 90% of parity, 90% of a fair trade, living wage price, when the Banking Committees got involved, with the Steagall Amendment of 1941.  There was no cheap corn, (and no corn subsidies,) 1942-1952 when US agriculture achieved parity every single year.  There was no export dumping of cheap corn on Mexico (botttom side of price)!  There were reserve supplies to put on the market to address price spikes (top side of price).  Farmers got price support loans, (and yes, that requires start up money for a revolving loan fund,) but then farmers paid interest TO the government, the farmers did not receive commodity subsidies FROM  the government.  (There were, of course, programs in other titles, like conservation.)

At that time it was argued that one dollar in agriculture generated seven dollars across the economy, and created six jobs.  That’s why the stimulus was enacted.

We can compare this to oil.  OPEC managed supply and charged higher prices.  We reduced supply management and lowered prices, even though we had twice as much market clout (in corn and soybeans, for example) than the Middle East in Oil.  In 1947 a bushel of corn and a barrel of oil were the same price.  What happened since then is that corn (prices x production in todays dollars) fell from the Steagall standard by abut $1,600 billion, while farmers were compensated with only about $160 billion in otherwise unnecessary subsidies. Plug in oil price rises and you go up from the $1,600 billion by about another $11,000 billion ($11 trillion).  That's corn compared to oil.

During the 1980s farm crisis, a version of this stimulus (this farm bill,) was offered by Democrats in Congress as the Harkin-Gephardt Farm Bill. Today it’s offered in the Food from Family Farms Act of the National Family Farm Coalition (

These provisions were made permanent in the farm bill.  They were not temporary matters, just for the Great Depression and the war, for example.  Over the recent years corporations have opposed this stimulus and forced the US to lose money on farm exports.  Price floors were lowered 1953-1995 and then eliminated.  Subsidies didn’t cause this, as can easily be proven (see 4 proofs at YouTube in: "Michael Pollan rebuttal 1" and 2).  For example, there were no commodity subsidies during the early part of the declines in price floors and prices.  There were no rice commodity subsidies until 1977!  Most of the food movement knows nothing of this, and therefore, like corporate agribusiness (like Cargill and ADM, Like Smithfield and Tyson CAFOs,) advocates for zero price floor positions. 

The reason for these policies is that free markets and free trade do not work in agriculture.  Farm commodity prices do not self correct  on either the supply side (farmers) or the demand side (consumers).   They have prices that are very “inelactic,” as abundant economic data shows.  They do not self correct very quickly at all, and not very much).  As a result, farm prices are usually low.  Only occasionally have they risen up close to or above fair trade, living wage levels.

To cap/green/eliminate subsidies, (with no price or supply management) is to believe in free markets, to believe in the corporate ideology and not in the economic data.  Such policies subsidize individual CAFO corporations at the multibillion dollar level, (much higher than in the data on (and more recent database of) farm subsidy payments, that compensated farmers for massive losses 1981-2006!)  

Shooting Ourselves in the Feet with “Gimme Gimme” Strategies

We need to return to policies and programs that regulate farm commodity markets.  Then there will be no possible need for the misguided approach of trying to pay compensations to farmers in rich countries for some of the massive losses of US policies of losing money on farm exports.

Unfortunately, as long as this remains unknown in the food movement, most US advocates will unknowingly side with corporate agribusiness (zero price floors, zero supply reductions and reserve supplies, zero price ceilings).  When that happens, it doesn’t just help farm subsidy advocates, it severely damages many other titles of the farm bill.  When we ignore the the real Commodity Title needs, and try only to get bigger checks for other titles, we actually cause a lot of damage, greatly increasing the need for money for other titles.  We shoot ourselves in our feet, repeatedly.  For example.

Conservation Title:  Cheap grain gives livestock in giant feedlots and animal factories a competitive advantage over grassfed meats from diversified farms.  Farmers then plow up hay fields and pasture, which adds to the oversupply of cheap grain and cotton.  Instead of having livestock harvest their own feed and spread their own manure (fertilizer) without fossil fuels, the system is unsustainable. Without clover and alfalfa, farmers then have to buy more nitrogen, in less sustainable forms, from commercial sources.  Diversified smaller farmers, like you get with a good Commodity Title, are also better for local food systems.  It makes no sense to create more of these problems and at the same time to fight for dwindling government money for conservation and sustainability.

Credit Title:  more subsidized credit is needed if farm prices are allowed to be low most of the time.  

Research Title:  The incredibly cheap farm commodities that the farm bill Commodity Title made available to the agribusiness output complex 1981-2006 was a powerful stimulus for bad ag research, research that strongly favored concentration.  The lack of market management caused that.  You won’t fix that with the money that’s politically winnable in the Research Title (as the food movement, meanwhile, continues to support cheap corn policies, like zero price floors and supply management).

Rural Development Title:  The powerful economic stimulus of price floors with supply management is especially valuable for rural areas. It cannot eliminate the need for a Rural Development Title, (or any other title,) but it can make massive contributions to rural development in many regions. A bad Commodity Title (zero price floors, etc.) devastates rural areas.  To ignore that and just keep asking for more and more money to fix what continues to be broken is an incredibly stupid movement strategy, one doomed to failure.

Trade Title: The stimulus described above impacts farming countries worldwide, because the US is often the price leader, setting world prices.  If we choose to make a profit (like OPEC in oil,) it’s the most powerful economic stimulus for Least Developed Countries, which are 70% rural.  We also stop paying farm commodity subsidies on exports. (Note:  we paid $40 billion in wheat subsidies for wheat bought here, but also $50 billion for wheat exported,  in todays dollars.)  When, long term, we have zero price floors and ceilings and zero supply management/reserve supplies, we usually create massive poverty, massive needs for food aid.  Note also that the needed policies give topside protection to address spikes in wheat, rice, corn, and other prices.  Spikes also cause enormous damage.  We can’t possibly win enough money to make up for the damage we typically cause with mere subsidy reform policies, (zero price floors & ceilings and supply management including reserves).  The policies I’m favoring are endorsed by the Africa Group at WTO and by La Via Campesina, the world peasant movement, but not most of the US food movement (so far).  

Nutrition Title:  The low prices of zero price floor etc. policies, damage food by subsidizing transfats, high fructose corn syrup and CAFO meats.  Our movement had had the very bad strategies of ignoring the need for price floors to address nutritional problems, while calling for the government to write out checks to fix food. Our own movement has been inadvertently endorsing minor or “major” subsidy reforms that do essentially nothing about the giant free market problems related to bad food.  Additionally, the economic stimulus I'm describing helps to reduce poverty and create jobs, helping to counteract the rise in need for food stamps, especially in rural areas.  It also puts a ceiling on top of farm prices, to protect low income consumers.

In all of these ways, the strategy of ignoring the Commodity Title market management reforms of NFFC is a way to shoot ourselves in our feet (ie. various farm bill titles).

Our strategy must be that, unlike the Republicans (and Democrats since 2002), we’re asking for the US to make a profit on farm exports.  Unlike them, we’re asking for less long term spending on the Commodity Title AND an economic stimulus that comes from the private sector, (not a government check,) with help from appropriate government regulation (Commodity Title and Livestock/Concentration/Antitrust Title).

Originally posted to Iowa Farm Activist on Wed Apr 06, 2011 at 06:51 AM PDT.

Also republished by A Perfect Conversation, Progressive Country, and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (13+ / 0-)

    "We're trying to warn this nation of a tidal wave ..., and it's coming your way, whether you want to know it or not...!" family farm woman, Donahue Show, 1985

    by Iowa Farm Activist on Wed Apr 06, 2011 at 06:51:55 AM PDT

  •  A breaking up of the big commercial farms (5+ / 0-)

    and a supporting of smaller family farms would help a lot.

    If you can find money to kill people, you can find money to help people. --Tony Benn

    by rhetoricus on Wed Apr 06, 2011 at 10:46:09 AM PDT

    •  ConAgra, ADM, etc. don't need subsidies (5+ / 0-)

      The vast majority of the farm bills are subsidies and tax credits of one form or another, and the vast majority of that money goes to big and highly profitable agri-businesses.  For small farmers, who work with some of the tightest profit margins out there and are never far from ruin, there's plenty of merit to government assistance in order to keep food plentiful and relatively cheap.

      But the farm bill, probably by design, doesn't make a meaningful distinction between a family farm and a commercial farm, so businesses with no need for assistance end up getting the most assistance.  It's perfectly in keeping with the conservative idea that people who need help don't deserve it while the strongest players deserve everything we can do for them, but it's not fair at all.

      Karl Marx wishes he was this guy

      by Visceral on Wed Apr 06, 2011 at 01:37:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent (4+ / 0-)

    I can't believe someone is actually willing to introduce into discussion such far out, wild and crazy ideas as regulation and price controls!

    Thank you for a welcome voice of sanity in the wasteland.

    A small point in addition to what was said above; the need for food stamps/UBT/SNAP. or whatever the program is calling itself today, would be reduced if renters were legally entitled to grow vegetbles on their rented property.

  •  What's wrong with CAFO meats? (3+ / 0-)

    I own a family farm, 50 acres, raising sheep who have access to lush pastures all day, every day.

    Our farm is sustainable.  My pastures have a huge variety of grasses and legumes growing on them.  The only fertilizer we use comes from our animals.

    I feed them no grain - and any supplement is just locally grown legumes.

    So what's so wrong with that?

    •  What you are doing is (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      absolutely right.  It also isn't CAFO.

      •  Yes it absolutely IS (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        dirtfarmer, Larsstephens, bfitzinAR

        You don't know what you are talking about.

        I have a CAFO license.  I can send you a link if you'd like, although I would prefer not to link my business with my online name, so if you would take my word for it I would appreciate it.

        You are confusing CAFO with feedlot.  

        The federal government cannot control stocking rates in local areas.  But what they can say is that if you confine your animals for any part of any day, we can control what you do with your waste.

        Having a CAFO license does not give you the right to have a feedlot.  That is under local control.  But a CAFO license is the best part of any feedlot operation.  It makes sure you collect all the waste.  It makes sure you turn it into good, usable fertilizer.  It makes sure you don't spread it where and when it can contaminate our water supplies.

        The Federal Government says that if you confine livestock animals for any part of the day on concrete for more than a limited number of days per year, you have to get a CAFO license.

        I operate a sheep dairy.  So although my sheep are on pasture every day, they are confined, on concrete, for about 5 minutes a day for about 200 days a year.  So I had to get a CAFO license.

        And the CAFO license really puts you through the paces.  It is designed to make the environment safe.  It is not a bad thing.  We have to collect all waste, account for it all, and show we have distributed it as manure in a safe manner.

        We are a CAFO, and we are proud, because we are  far cleaner than the old man farmer we bought the place from who was allowed to pile up the manure from the barns right next to the watercourse.

        So, you really need to educate yourself a little.  Your problem is with feedlots.  And stocking rates are locally controlled.  A CAFO license is a requirement of the Federal Government to make sure that farms don't poison everyone.

        •  Ah, now we are dealing with (0+ / 0-)

          technical/legal definitions v. general usage/contextual definitions.  I run across the difference every time somebody hops up and down about ethanol - ethanol from purpose-grown corn is highly inefficient (depending on which set of numbers you use, a gallon of ethanol from purpose-grown corn can use up to a gallon and a half of fossil fuel to make it) but ethanol from crop residue, garbage/sewage, etc is very efficient and we should be shifting over to it.  And did I ever have to deal with that when I was teaching science - no, a theory is not just a "scientific guess" (a hypothesis is a scientific guess based on data with no "just" about it) a theory is a hypothesis that has been replicate/tested many times under a variety of conditions and gets the same results each time.

          To the extent that you are talking about, a CAFO/having a CAFO license is good (thank you, Federal Government) although even that is inadequate for dealing with the sheer amount of excrement generated in a feedlot.  And thank you for dealing with the hard slog that running any kind of dairy just is.

    •  Doesn't sound like you have a CAFO (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Concentrated Agricultural Feedlot Operation= animals concentrated in small cages, fed grains and antibiotics their whole lives to fatten up quick and keep otherwise rampant diseases in check. Causing huge problems with water pollution and inhumane confinement. I wish more animals were raised as you describe Catesby.

      The tea is not strong in the West.

      by Stumptown Dave on Wed Apr 06, 2011 at 03:35:19 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  No, that's not what a CAFO is (3+ / 0-)

        and I am absolutely a CAFO.  

        You need a CAFO license if you hold any livestock on a non-permeable surface for any amount of time in a day, for (I don't remember but approximately 30 days a year).

        The CAFO license is designed to help us all keep our environment clean.

        I milk my sheep.  Which means they are led into the dairy barn (made on concrete for cleanliness and safety) twice a day.  They spend about 10 minutes a day there.  But that is enough to mean I had to become a CAFO.

        And I am proud to be one.  Because the CAFO regulations are the one thing making sure our waters remain clean.

        And it's not an easy process.  My regulator is a great guy, and he loved to see that we were really willing to get to the heart of the CAFO regulations by keeping the waters clean - especially here in Oregon, where the place turns into a swamp for most of the year.

        We spent tens of thousands to put in guttering, pumps, a lagoon, devise a plan to make sure we were distributing the manure (which is laughably minimal), but we were proud when we were done.  The owner we bought the place from, who never confined his animals on concrete, used to dump the raw manure into a pond that was traversed by a watercourse.

        And CAFO doesn't mean 'Concentrated'.  It stands for 'Confined Animal Feeding Operation', which all dairies - including organic, qualified as, as we lure our animals to be milked with feed.  

        There are different levels, but CAFO does not mean feedlot.

        So this is why I comment every time CAFO is mentioned, because so many on our side get it wrong.  

        You do not have to be a feedlot to be a CAFO.  And CAFO regulations are the only thing preventing some of these horror farms from being even worse than we are.

        We need to support CAFO regulations, because they are great - even if some people cheat.  But if you want to stop feedlot operations, you need to attack locally, because that is where stocking rates are determined.

        If you use the word 'CAFO' as a derogatory, you are insulting the whole purpose behind the law.  And the purpose behind the law is a really, really good one.

        You abolish CAFO you will not abolish feedlots.

        So please people, use 'feedlots' instead of CAFO when you want to complain.

  •  Do remember that all members of US society have to (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, Larsstephens

    bear their share of the hits that deficit reduction require. The notion that there should be an area of the country, and an area of the economy which is free from that, and is protected by a regime that guarantees them income is inconsistent with the kind of economic equality in hard times  which all must share, not excluding farmers, no matter how happy farmers are to tinker with their guaranteed and preferred position. When we've got Congresscritters who are getting big bucks for not farming, and one of them running for president, it's something you need to think about, with an eye to protecting those who genuinely need it, not everybody, and getting rid of the waste and such in that system, at least.

  •  Ending farm subsidies is a good place to start (4+ / 0-)

    cutting the budget:

    National Summary Analysis, by Ken Cook

    $246.7 billion in subsidies 1995-2009.

    Top Recipients 1995-2009

    Top Recipients in 2009

    62 percent of farmers in United States did not collect subsidy payments - according to USDA.

    Ten percent collected 74 percent of all subsidies.

    Amounting to $157.7 billion over 15 years.

    Top 10%: $29,658 average per year between 1995 and 2009.
    Bottom 80%: $572

  •  I work with farmers, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    on the bean-counting end of things.  Literally.  I have counted beans.  And cows.  "Count the legs and divide by four," my boss said!

  •  Why should farmers (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    have a guaranteed income when the rest of us do not?

    I don't care if they are ADM or the farmer in the dell, they don't need subsidies.

    As soon as you start talking about "parity' or some silly ration of the price of a barrel of oil to the price of a bushel of corn, you are wading out into the deep end of the lake.  The word is "obfuscation."

  •  I learned a lot from this diary (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, Nastarana

    I've got a lot more to learn about the details of this important subject.

    P.S I'm personally hoping that fruit/vegetable farmers, especially family farms get more support/ encouragement by Federal Farm Policy. It seems counterproductive to have the bulk of subsidies go to mono-crop commodities. Encouraging family farms and locally grown food would be better for our country. Instead we have a nation feeding at the trough of cheap nutrient-devoid processed food made with subsidized corn, et al.

    The tea is not strong in the West.

    by Stumptown Dave on Wed Apr 06, 2011 at 03:29:13 PM PDT

  •  Tough call (0+ / 0-)

    I get infuriated when I drive down the road and in front of the big farms are the "Eliminate Welfare" , "Stop Socialist Obama"signs. Drives me nuts. I am small business and I get no breaks on fuel, vehicle licenses, electricity and other things. I get no tax exemtions on any supplies and get no breaks on property taxes.

    I wonder in my frustration if I am justified or am I just playing into some game where I am getting screwed so they should too.

    I want the big agra welfare to end and paying people to not farm land also has to go. In Many ways that huge tractor is the Welfare Caddy the big farms throw in my face every day I drive to work so I can eek by

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