The argument against agricultural subsidies has been made loudly and frequently during debates over the past several farm bills. Despite high-minded rhetoric about national food security and the economic viability of America’s heartland, there is very vocal opposition to the entire concept of government subsidizing farmers.
Of course, none of the opposition comes from people who actually have to spend 80 hours a week running a combine during harvest time, or managing a multi-million-dollar investment in a season’s plantings, only to watch commodity prices tumble below the point of profitability.
And too many consumers simply reason that we get our food from the supermarket or a fast-food drive-thru. Why are we wasting money on a bunch of farmers, who are already rich?
Activists certainly trade on that fundamental disconnect from the realities of food production, but their basic complaint goes further.
The coalition of anti-farm subsidy activists continually demands a radical restructuring of federal government payments, so that so-called specialty crops — fruits and vegetables — have as much priority as corn, wheat, soybeans and cotton, thus enacting a de facto end to the practice (as they see it) of handing over lucrative payments that enrich corporate farmers at taxpayers’ expense.
There is some truth to that characterization, because federal programs do, in fact, often provide benefits to large-scale farm operations. As Mike Espy, Bill Clinton’s USDA Secretary, once famously said, “Regardless of size, if you qualify [for a subsidy], you’re entitled to cash the check.”
However, there is one twist to the anti-subsidy argument that is emerging in the wake of the eco-attacks on animal agriculture, and the irony of how illogical it is seems to escape the partisans who demand changes.
The reasoning goes like this: The government, thanks to lobbying by big corporate interests, lavishes egregious subsidies on the meat and dairy industries, which makes their products “affordable” for the masses.
(Yes, I realize that producers don’t receive direct payments, other than disaster relief, but the cost of feed corn and soymeal are supported to an extent by farm bill programs; so indirectly, livestock production benefits from taxpayer support).
The conclusion, then, is that if the federal government would simply eliminate all farm subsidies, most people would switch to a vegetarian diet through economic necessity, since the cost of meat and dairy products would be prohibitively high.
This is sort of a backdoor approach to transition the country to a healthier and (allegedly) cheaper diet.
Bad Idea, Faulty Logic
Of course, the notion that the elimination of farm subsidies would somehow “force” people to switch to beans and rice and cornmeal mush, instead of bacon, eggs or burgers, is only slightly less ridiculous than the proposals to impose a “meat tax,” or other silly ideas to make eating the foods that veggies hate prohibitively expensive.
Here’s the problem with that entire train of thought. The vegetarian choices that anti-industry shills always espouse are, in large measure, based on the very commodities that by their own logic are cheaper than they should be, due to government largesse.
In the imaginary free market that activists pretend to embrace, the soy protein, gluten and corn oil that comprise so much of modern vegetarian fare would cost more, not less, making the vegetarian lifestyle even less affordable for American families in the lowest income quartile.
If you’re affluent enough to shop at Whole Foods Market and order vegetarian specialties online, then you’re voluntarily spending on your food bill what millions of people would be forced to pay if price supports for commodity crops went away.
In the fantasy world of veggie believers, in which people stop eating meat and dairy foods, and thus spend less, stay healthier and live longer, the challenges of food security, rural viability and food affordability are simply non-issues.
Most of the screeds against “paying farmers whether they grow anything or not,” fail to even acknowledge that the Direct Payments program, which is what they’re referencing, was eliminated two years ago in favor of stronger crop insurance and market loan programs. But the currency of most activists fighting to sell their demonization of American farmers and producers is ignorance.
Unfortunately, most of the public doesn’t know and doesn’t care about the details of the farm bill.
And that’s exactly what the advocates of a vegetarian paradise are banking on.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.