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November 24, 2005

Down With Agribusiness! (Happy Thanksgiving)

By Neil the Ethical Werewolf

Leave it to me to attack a sector of the American economy on exactly the day that we engage in massive ritual consumption of its output, but wouldn't it be nice if we could beat up on agribusiness more? The number of bad things those guys do is pretty tremendous -- dumping pesticides all over the place, destroying the soil through bad crop rotation, occasionally cheating immigrant workers out of their wages, raiding the treasury, adding to fossil fuel dependence through petrochemical fertilizer use, and worst of all, impoverishing Third World farmers who can't compete with our government-subsidized agriculture. Different but similarly huge problems are caused by factory farming of animals -- I heartily recommend The Meatrix to anyone who wants to learn about this stuff in a very enjoyable way.

I was talking with West Texas native Amanda Marcotte last week, and she explained that there's still ranchers out there who take care of their land and do things very differently from the big agribusiness corporations. The yuppie/hippie types whom ranchers might regard as their cultural opposites are buying their organic produce and helping them make a living. I'm pretty much the last person to go to on the demographics of rural America, so I don't know if there are enough of these people to constitute a serious voting bloc, but I'm excited at the prospect of going after the family farmer / rancher vote by offering to change the criteria for farm subsidy payments.

If farmers earned their subsidies through environmentally sensitive farming practices, we'd be in a much better situation. Cheaper organic produce and free range meat probably wouldn't wreak havoc on the Third World farm economy, since those products would still be pretty expensive even after subsidies. In addition, we'd get all the obvious benefits of sustainable agriculture instead of paying farmers to grow way more stuff than they need to. (Replace subsidies for good environmental management with animal welfare laws stipulating that chickens shouldn't be in cages too small for them to turn spread their wings or turn around, and you've got a plan to win the votes of free-range chicken farmers. Sadly, the latter plan is far more politically dubious, as there's a lot of work to do before people are willing to think seriously about the cruelty of factory farming. But maybe in a few decades...)

This probably isn't a voting issue for anyone besides small farmers, environmentalists, and maybe the odd liberal economist, but as a matter of general Democratic positioning it's the kind of thing I'd like to see our party doing. Family farmers are a much more endearing constituency than agribusiness, and people who like to think of themselves as ordinary folks would be attracted to a party that defended the family farmer from big corporations.

November 24, 2005 in Economy | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 27, 2005 11:26:54 PM


...the anti-agribusiness policies that you think you would like to foist upon the farming business would certainly be anti-poor as well when the price of food triples.

[This post edited to kill a stray italics tag]

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 24, 2005 5:24:31 PM

Farmers DO earn their subsidies through environmentally sensitive farming practices - every farmer in a position to cause environmental harm has to come up with a conservation plan and implement it before they get subsidies. The government has cut the funds needed to fully enforce this policy, though.

The market for tofu and granola just isn't that big; you'd have to subsidize it down to current levels to get people to buy it. And shifting our economy to supporting more expensive foods basically fucks poor people out of the upper portions of the food pyramid.

That said, most farmers do support hard caps on subsidies - something Bush proposed for this year's budget but allowed to die without so much as a peep. Hard caps would close the loopholes that currently allow the CEOs of big farms to collect more than a million dollars in subsidies when they are supposed to be limited to a third of that.

Posted by: Drew Miller | Nov 24, 2005 6:00:23 PM

This is happening in the UK, albeit slowly. Subsidies are shifting away from production and towards land management, while battery cages must be phased out by 2012 under EU law. Of course, the UK doesn't do much agriculture, so it's barely a drop in the ocean.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Nov 24, 2005 6:08:37 PM

Monsanto must die! as must the children of United Fruit. and will someone please stop granting patents on hybrid strains of plants?

ps: looks like this thread has been sadly no!-ed

Posted by: almostinfamous | Nov 24, 2005 9:13:44 PM

Some farmers wishing to maintain traditional farming practices are able to serve local people through farmers' markets. Afraid it's been a while since I stumbled across an article about a fellow in Washington who used this mechanism to keep alive older breeds unused by factory farms. Since flavour alone is sufficient to keep local restaurants consuming his products there is a stable market.

Posted by: opit | Nov 24, 2005 10:07:00 PM

While I agree that it is not terribly bright for first world governments to subsidise food production and depress prices for developing world farmers, I will point out that the subsidies do alow developing world urban dwellers to buy cheaper food than they would otherwise. The end result could be a wash or a net gain for developing countries. (Of course it is a net loss for the first world countries.)

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Nov 24, 2005 10:29:50 PM

Hrmm... testing.

Posted by: Drew Miller | Nov 24, 2005 11:08:47 PM

The problem with positioning on this issue is that the GOP has done a pretty good job aligning with this bloc socially (religion) and economically (trumping up fear of the estate tax). I don't think a nuanced proposal about subsidies is going to help with that bloc or those who care about it so long as the republicans still hold those two cards.

Posted by: Fnor | Nov 25, 2005 12:37:42 AM


[This post edited to remove a stray italics tag.]

Posted by: Capt. Trollypants | Nov 25, 2005 3:07:56 AM

I'm not sure how far the prices of produce would go up if we undid the subsidy regime. At a certain point, big supplies of foreign produce would come in, and we could buy that.

If I were in a polemical mood, I'd say that the people who regard unwinding subsidies as anti-poor didn't care about the Third World poor, who would be helped. But there are other explanations of why they said those things.

Mr. Brak, the urban dwellers point is a good one. But bear in mind that much of the labor oversupply we see in the urban areas, which leads to sweatshop wages, is caused by the destabilization of the farm economy. People flee to the cities for any job they can get.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 25, 2005 11:20:14 AM

Removing subsidies would in some cases lower prices certainly. Many of our subsidies aren't in the form of payouts, but quotas on how much we can import. Sugar is the biggest example of this. Remove those quotas, and the American market price of sugar will converge to the international price of sugar, which is about 1/3.

Of course, this is the reason so much of our artifical products have Corn Syrup instead of sugar (ever had a can of Coke in Latin America? yummy.) And Corn Syrup creates more calories and fat than sugar (although not hugely so). Removing sugar quotas would help Latin American economies, lower food prices in America, and make our kids a little healthier.

But we don't because a lot of votes and money concentrated in the right states (ie, Florida) make a lobby you really do not want to tick off. This logic spins to many other policies.

In general, our political system of committees and slow-change makes removing policies that are bad as a whole but extremely beneficial to a small group, very difficult.

Btw, check out kickaas.typepad.com for developing news on reducing agri-business subsidies.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Nov 25, 2005 12:25:55 PM

I'd say that the people who regard unwinding subsidies as anti-poor didn't care about the Third World poor, who would be helped.

Maybe, maybe not. However, what is for sure is the food costs in *this* country would dramatically increase and that would pretty much fuck the poor *HERE*.

I'd like to point out that this attitude of putting your own last is one of the reasons why the voters have wrested power from the liberal left. When the party more closely reflects the attitudes, desires and needs of those who actually vote, they will be rewarded.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 25, 2005 12:29:06 PM

I too live in an area where I see happy cattle grazing on giant stretches of land (a lot of free-range cattle in the US-owned forests, too). The thing with a lot of these cows is that before they actually go to slaughter, they're sent to a feed lot for a goodly period of time to fatten them up. So, it may look like you have a lot of nice happy cows out there, but the reason local farmers aren't selling their meat as "organic" or whathaveyou is that it's not the whole picture.

Further, the family farmer is not an appreciable voting bloc. It is a great way to tug at the heartstrings of large numbers of voters, but their actual numbers are quite small.

The pressure to make food production cheaper is about more than farming subsidies, though they don't help at all. People buy cheap, processed foods and they like them. They demand them - and Con-agra is happy to help them out. In case you haven't noticed, free-range meat is very very expensive compared to conventianally-produced meat. For whatever reasons (and I think the reasons are many and complicated, and difficult to explore without prejudice), people in this country simply are not willing to pay for food that is produced in a way that is kind to people and the environment.

Personally, what I would like to see is encouragement for agribusiness to just become more organic. 100% organic (and I'll use organic as shorthand here for free-range, worker-friendly, etc) is obviously not what people are willing to spend their money on. It would be nice, though, if 25% of the ingredients in a food product were produced organically. Reducing the harmful aspects of agribusiness by 25% would have an enormous benefit, and be a lot more consumer-friendly.

If you look at the controversy surrounding the "organic" labeling in this country, however, it becomes clear that the idea of organic-ish products does not apeal to organic consumers either. Michael Pollan has written extensively on the nastiness of agribusiness (and as far as I can tell, hates corn more than any human being ever alive has or will), and had a really interesting article about the meaning of "organic," and its dilution in big agribusiness. (Article here: http://www.mindfully.org/Food/Organic-Industrial-Complex.htm) Check out his writing for elaboration, but he does a good job of tapping into the all-or-nothing brand of organic food production that strikes me as pretty useless when it comes to really changing things.

Posted by: Sara | Nov 25, 2005 1:08:24 PM

Yeah! Other than feeding a good portion of the world and making obescity the number one health problem of the poor what good has agri-business ever done for anyone...

I am all for getting rid of subsidies etc. But when you start demanding only organic food raised in loving care by highly paid plant nurturers can be raised you are also demanding millions of deaths by starvation. Some think that would be a good thing, but I strongly disagree.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Nov 25, 2005 2:04:44 PM

Maybe, maybe not. However, what is for sure is the food costs in *this* country would dramatically increase and that would pretty much fuck the poor *HERE*.

I'd like to point out that this attitude of putting your own last is one of the reasons why the voters have wrested power from the liberal left. When the party more closely reflects the attitudes, desires and needs of those who actually vote, they will be rewarded.

I can't say I get it. "Food subsidies lower prices enough that getting rid of them hurts the poor, and that's why voters hate Democrats by a stunning 2% margin?" Is that what you mean? Let's go over the more outstanding assumptions/errors here.

1. "Voters think Democrats don't care enough about America's poor."
2. "Paying companies to produce food is the best way of easing the cost of this food" (not say, giving the cash directly to the consumer in tax cuts or food stamps).
3. "Democrats are more eager to get rid of subsidies than Republicans." Just because Neil argues it, doesn't mean the Democratic party does it. In fact, I feel the Dem party has been pretty bad at encouraging agri-subsidies, especially as it tries to use them as a last bastion with the rural working class. Did Clinton or Kennedy stand up to subsidies? No. Bush at least tried to cap subsidies, Hagel (a Republican from Nebraska) is one of the few Senators to vote against the most recent subsidy bill, and McCain was the only candidate from 2000 or 2004 to tell Iowa he was against the ethanol subsidy.
4. "Ending food subsidies would raise prices". Again, most of these subsidies are in the form of tariffs or quotas. Getting ride of them reduces prices.
5. "The left wants to repeal all subsidies." No, they're pretty happy leaving them at a smaller amount so family farms still get benefit, but not huge corporate farms, who aren't about to stop making the food anyway.
6. "The average American centrist voter cares." The problem with subsidies is that the only people who care are the ones who get them. The large portions of the American populace who decide elections generally can't bother to read about the price effect of the Senate's passage on their grocery bill.

You know, I really used to believe Fred was knee-jerk Republican. But what Republican would want to troll in favor of government programs that tell farmers what food they should be growing and horribly distort the market. Fred is just knee jerk anti-Ezra (or whoever is posting).

Posted by: Tony Vila | Nov 25, 2005 2:38:44 PM

There appears to be some unclarity about my position here, so let me deal with that. I'm not demanding that we stop doing anything but organic farming. I'm arguing that subsidy criteria be changed to encourage more environmentally sensitive farming practices (like organic farming). People could still farm in the environmentally destructive ways they have been -- they just wouldn't get subsidies anymore. Sara says, "Personally, what I would like to see is encouragement for agribusiness to just become more organic," and that's exactly the position I've been arguing for above. (Dave, did it seem like I was arguing for something else?)

Tony, thanks for the quota point -- import quotas are in general a dumb idea, except if you're just interested in doing destructive favors for a home industry, which pro-quota politicians are. And it does seem that Fred is pretty much a reflexive opponent of Ezra-blog posters rather than someone with any consistent political views.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 25, 2005 2:51:12 PM

Unbelievable the revisionism that happens around here. Next thing you know they'll be taking library books off the shelves. I don't expect anyone will ever read these words, or they'll be altered where I'm calling myself a doo-doo head.


[comment not edited. we promise. no editing here]

Posted by: Capt. Trollypants | Nov 25, 2005 2:55:31 PM

You know, I really used to believe Fred was knee-jerk Republican.

You must be a stellar kind of dumbass. I have taken positions that are quite contrary to the Republicans. My statement still stands that eliminating subsidies will raise prices. That being said, I think eliminating subsidies is desireable. I am not in foavor of corporate welfare.

What you try to glean and then proclaim about my core beliefs is built on a few statements and a lot of assumptions and sterotypes. Then, all-of-a-sudden, you understand all. That about it?

If you wish to know something, why not simply ask and save yourself the embarrassment?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Nov 25, 2005 3:32:29 PM

He's not a dumbass, Fred. He's just somebody who reads what you write and draws rational conclusions. In this case, it's the conclusion that your comment writing is guided by no higher principles than the principles of trolling. And that's right.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 25, 2005 9:43:24 PM

I think, here as often, that it's important to separate thinking about policy goals and the political action needed to attain them. On the subject of policy, I'm certainly for reducing and reshaping agriculture subsidies, and I'm certainly for doing this in ways that support "good" farming practice, for some definition of good (mine includes most things that focus on the long-term like crop-rotation, with some bias towards keeping food tasty rather than pretty and shelf-stable). More generally, I know very little about the policy and outside of the large themes would prefer to listen to the proposals of real experts.

As to politics, it seems to me that the way to actually do any of this is to talk about "agriculture reform," perhaps even more general "subsidy reform." The government gives all kinds of money to all kinds of people and organizations for all kinds of reasons, some good, some bad, some indifferent. A wide-ranging reform plan probably gets support from everybody who wants to end all subsidies outright (just ask the republicans, who have wanted to "reform" Social Security, Welfare, and Taxes, to name but three) as well as the people who simply want some kind of change (recall the fear from the early Social Security plan days: everyone imagines "reform" is their dream reform as long as no plan is on the table). But, moreover, it can get hooked into an pro-individual message, a good-government message, a compassion message, and the overriding Democratic theme of "we're all in this together." You could end up with something like this:

"Farmers are the heart of America, and it's right to support them, but Monsanto alone pays more lobbying money than all the family farmers in America put together*; is it any wonder that they win out from current agriculture policy, threatening the livelihoods of $k$ million Americans? We need to spend money to support our values, not some CEO's golden parachute."

All in all, I tend to agree with Neil that it *is* possible to make something sensibly Democratic out of fixing problems with farm subsidies -- the bigger question of whether anybody cares enough to do so is, unfortunately, probably covered by Tony's point: if it helps almost everyone negligibly but hugely hurts some sufficiently big people, it's not going away easy, even if it is a good idea that slips neatly into Democratic messaging.

*That's from the Department of Not-Obviously-Falsehoods, but it's near-certain that something comparably shocking is true

Posted by: Dennis | Nov 26, 2005 1:13:57 AM

I find it interesting that some of the most useful comments on this issue come from people who cook and blog about food.

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Nov 26, 2005 6:26:45 PM

Your point about first world agricultural subsidies fueling developing world urbanization is interesting. I have to admit that I don't know just how much cheaper food actually is in the developing world as a result of subsidies. My guess is that food prices would not be greatly affected by a gradual reduction of subsidies, but agricultural production would become more efficent. For example, in Japan less rice would be grown and more fruits and vegetables, and farm sizes would increase.

While I agree that it is foolish for first world countries to fuel urbanization in developing countries via agricultural subsidies, urbanization has occured in every first world country and has mainly been driven by increased productivity, both in agriculture and manufacturing. While I think it would be better to gradually get rid of agricultural subsidies I don't see them as being a big problem for the developing world.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Nov 27, 2005 2:43:38 AM

To chime in on the "subsidies make food cheaper" question, there is the question of hidden costs. The cost of a McDonald's hamburger isn't just the couple of bucks you fork over at the drive-thru. There are health and environmental costs associated with that burger. So in the big picture, it may actually be cost-efficient to aggressively promote more sustainable and healthier modes of agriculture even when you factor in assisting those who may be adversely affected. (There was an article in the Philadelphia Daily News discussing this point a few months back, if I recall correctly.)

This is an interesting topic, and I'm still trying to process a lot of information so my thoughts are a bit unformed. I'm sort of at the point of feeling like something has to change, but not knowing quite what.

Posted by: Dave Thomer | Nov 27, 2005 11:24:14 PM

If anyone is worried about food prices going up in the U.S. if subsidies were removed, consider the cost of food in Australia, a first world nation without any real agricultural subsidies. (That is, it's fairly cheap.) Also, the actual cost of grain etc is a very small part of most people's food bills. Most of their money goes to processing, packageing, transport, marketing and retailers.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Nov 28, 2005 9:37:19 PM

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