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Sowing the Seeds of Inefficiency

Original illustration by Elizabeth Long '24, an Illustration major at RISD

This fall, as senators, representatives, and the American people turn their attention to the torturous annual process of funding the government, another bill will be lurking in its shadow, waiting to be renewed. The Farm Bill is a one-thousand-page behemoth. It has shaped every aspect of American agriculture since President Franklin Roosevelt signed it as part of the New Deal in an attempt to revive the US farming industry in the wake of the Great Depression. This year’s bill will be no less ambitious, with an estimated cost of $1.5 trillion over the next ten years.

For starters: What is actually in this little-known trillion-dollar bill? Eighty percent of funds will be allocated toward food security programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps low-income families purchase groceries. The rest of the funds—$12.6 billion this year—will be paid out through a system of crop and emergency insurance policies that are expected to subsidize 62 percent of the cost of insurance premiums for farmers. These funds effectively pay farmers to produce specific types of crops like soy, wheat, and corn.

Despite US politicians parading these subsidies as a way of preserving the “family farm,” this long-standing structure ensures that smaller farms suffer while conglomerates producing and purchasing specific grains and legumes save big: In 2015, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that half of Farm Bill subsidies went to households with incomes above $140,000. Just 23 percent of farms with income under $100,000 received funds, compared to 69 percent of farms with incomes over $100,000. The multinational meat processor and marketer, Tyson, has seen its profit increase 33 percent since the 2018 Farm Bill took effect, while everyday farmers’ share in every dollar spent on food remains at an all-time low. Further research in a 2011 Food & Water Watch report revealed that Farm Bill subsidies save soda companies around $100 million per year on purchases of notoriously unhealthy high-fructose corn syrup. 

As Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) reiterated earlier this year, “The broken American food system is working against nearly everyone it touches, from farmers to families buying groceries to workers and communities. In fact, the only winners seem to be the massive, consolidated multinational corporations that dominate our food industry.”

The Farm Bill’s impact transcends American family farms. Instead of allowing consumers in developing countries to purchase food at lower prices, US subsidies have decimated agricultural industries worldwide. With the Farm Bill throwing billions upon billions of dollars into subsidizing cash crop production, American crops have become the cheapest on the international market. This forces small farmers across the world to compete without the advantage of comprehensive national agricultural subsidies, which are rare at the Farm Bill’s scale in developing nations. 

The United States has a long history of suppressing the economic growth of its southern neighbors in particular. In 1954, a CIA-directed coup deposed Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically-elected president of Guatemala, and replaced him with the genocidal Castillo Armas—all to protect the profits of the United Fruit Company. This triggered the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted for decades, destroyed millions of people’s livelihoods and decimated the country’s economy. Though the 2023 US Farm Bill does not aim to overthrow any world leaders, it ties into a greater legacy of using American economic might to bully developing nations.

Several states across Africa and Latin America have called attention to how US subsidies manipulate agricultural markets and produce lost farming income, with varying results. In Burkina Faso, researchers linked US subsidies to the estimated loss of 1 percent of GDP and a 12 percent decline in export earnings, despite production costs being one-third of those in the United States. More recently, the Argentine agricultural sector—once a success story, alongside Brazil’s, for its profitable soy industry—has required government intervention due to drops in the price of soy. Though it would be a stretch to suggest that Argentina’s $56 billion International Monetary Fund bailout was induced by US soy subsidies, it is impossible to ignore the glaring pattern of American subsidization neglecting international welfare

The World Trade Organization (WTO) has tried to hold the United States accountable for the impact of the Farm Bill. When Brazil challenged US cotton export subsidies in 2004, the WTO imposed a $830 million sanction on US cotton products. Ultimately, the United States agreed to pay Brazil $300 million in damages and end its cotton export subsidies. 

Congressional reports have found that liberalization agreements reducing subsidies and tariffs are the only effective means of helping the agricultural sector in developing nations. Yet, between 2001 and 2011, trade talks pitting US trade representatives against their counterparts from agriculture-dependent countries yielded only marginal cuts to the billions in subsidies US farmers receive. It is time to end the subsidies and buyback programs advertised as altruistic donations to hunger-stricken regions and replace them with aid that does not come at the expense of local producers

When President Roosevelt introduced the Farm Bill, the need for agricultural subsidies was clear: An economic depression threatened the livelihoods of millions of American farmers. Today, with farmers earning above average median incomes, that fails to be the case

Instead, new epidemics face the United States: Over 10 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions (and 40 percent of methane emissions) are linked to agriculture, 34 million Americans are food insecure, and more than 70 percent of Americans are classified as overweight or obese. The answer to these immense problems is not to increase subsidies but to divert the money back to protecting the interests of American citizens and global food security. 

Policymakers should build on the Inflation Reduction Act by expanding the Agriculture Conservation Easement Program, which allows landowners to conserve farmland. Policies should incentivize clean energy infrastructure for rural farms and increase research funding for solutions that increase energy reliability and reduce emissions. The Farm Bill should have a role in a healthier America too; while subsidizing vegetable production is likely not sufficient to change the dietary habits of Americans, a pilot study refunding 30 cents of every SNAP dollar spent on vegetables increased vegetable consumption by 26 percent.

This year’s Farm Bill presents a clear opportunity to ameliorate a national health crisis driven by the types of food consumed by Americans and to put the United States on track for net-zero emissions in agriculture by 2040. Ultimately, whether it also brings this century of international economic oppression, brought on by anticompetitive and devastating subsidies, to an end comes down to the congressional willpower to override the lobby of megafarms and suppliers—the only true beneficiaries of American farm subsidies.