As happens every five years, the Farm Bill--the legislation appropriating funds for agricultural subsidies--is up for renewal. The Farm Bill is one of those somewhat-controversial bills that always gets passed; political costs of opposing farm subsidies are high for members of Congress from agricultural states, and so renewal has been quite consistent. President Bush campaigned in the 2000 election on promises to reform the subsidy system; eventually, political pressure proved too high and he actually reversed progress made in the '97 "Freedom to Farm" legislation. Now, of course, the President is threatening to veto the new Farm Bill, claiming issues of fiscal irresponsibility and potential repercussions in international trade. The kicker: Bush's proposed version of the Farm Bill actually costs more. So much for fiscal responsibility (although really, almost all Washington politicians sound a little hollow when they gab about fiscal responsibility these days, and with Iraq and Afghanistan...).
This time, there's an alternative. A new bipartisan reform bill would "trim direct payments to farms and corporations and replace them with revenue-based insurance programs for nearly all farmers and ranchers. At a time of historic national debt, it would decrease the federal deficit by at least $3 billion." There are a couple reasons why this is a Very Good Thing.
The Dead Zone.
No, it's not a bad movie (although a TV show apparently shared the title). It's actually the result of overdone industrial/corporate farming, bloated even more by misallocated federal subsidies. Which sounds like a bad Hollywood script, but still. The short version goes something like this:
"The greatest pollution threat to coastal marine life today is the runoff of excess nitrogen from fertilized farm fields, animal feedlots, and urban areas. Airborne nitrogen—from industrial smokestacks, automobile exhaust pipes, and ammonia rising from huge manure lagoons—is also deposited in the ocean. Just as they fertilize the land, nutrients fertilize coastal waters, and excess amounts can cause massive blooms of algae. These blooms can trigger a chain of events that deplete the ocean waters of oxygen, turning vast areas into hypoxic areas, also known as dead zones. Some of these algal blooms produce toxins that can be fatal to fish, marine mammals and occasionally people." (Pew Oceans Commission, 2003)
And what's the worst offender? At the moment, the most well-known dead zone is the one the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico, where US agricultural fertilizer is deposited after running off into the Mississippi River. Now, this dead zone, and the others off the US coast, probably aren't going to destroy the world all by themselves; there's a lot more ocean than hundreds of square miles off the shores of the United States. Still, there is a severe economic impact on the US fishing industry (see the last link, from Bloomberg), and subsidizing one US industry to overproduce at the vast expense of another seems somewhat unwise, at the very least. Additionally, considering what the chemicals in question do to the ocean, do you really want your tax dollars going to corporations that put that stuff on your food? Finally, if you've ever seen a pond (or an outdoor hot tub or swimming pool) build up massive algae deposits (green slime), imagine doing that to hundreds of square miles of ocean. Sickened by the mental image? Okay, great, let's move on.
US cash-crop subsidies provide incentives for domestic industries to massively overproduce. This massive increase in supply, coupled with a fairly static domestic demand, means that US industries turn around and dump the surplus on countries in the global South. This means that the farmers there are run out of the market and end up receiving foreign assistance (largely from the US). African cotton farmers are among the hardest hit; also taking a blow are Mexican corn farmers, who were largely wiped out financially by the last round of federal corn subsidies.
At the end of the day, there is really no reason to subsidize massive agricultural corporations to produce far more than the market demands. The FRESH Act provides insurance to create a genuine safety net for American farmers without encouraging them to do bad things, like dumping nasty chemicals on your food and destroying families abroad. In fact, you might even have fewer nasty chemicals to worry about anyway, given the support for organics in the FRESH Act. It's clearly the better alternative, all things considered.
What You Can Do.
Currently, the legislation is all in the Senate. The directory for the 110th United States Senate is here. If you don't know the names of your senators, you can search by state in that directory and they will come up, with their contact information. You can then take that information and use it to contact them, suggesting that they support the FRESH Act (the Lautenberg-Lugar legislation) instead of the 2007 Farm Bill as it currently stands. For my friends from California, Senators Feinstein and Boxer still (as of last word) have not taken positions on the Farm Bill. This means that you, in particular, should contact them, regardless of whether you think they deserve their jobs. There will be time to deal with that in the 2010 and 2012 Senate elections.
Those of you who have huge numbers of friends on Facebook (or, perhaps, in real life) should let them know, preferably soon. It doesn't take long to send an email, and you don't even have to worry about time zones. So let your senators know, and hopefully one of the worse pieces of federal legislation this year can be replaced with something better.