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Posted at 11:28 AM ET, 03/ 2/2011

The argument for farm subsidies -- though not the ones we have now

By Ezra Klein

Mark Bittman makes the case for mending, rather than ending, farm subsidies:

Eliminating the $5 billion in direct agricultural payments would level the playing field for farmers who grow non-subsidized crops, but just a bit -- perhaps not even noticeably. There would probably be a decrease in the amount of [high-fructose corn syrup] in the market, in the 10 billion animals we “process” annually, in the ethanol used to fill gas-guzzlers and in the soy from which we chemically extract oil for frying potatoes and chicken. Those are all benefits, which we could compound by taking those billions and using them for things like high-speed rail, fulfilling our promises to public workers, maintaining Pell grants for low-income college students or any other number of worthy, forward-thinking causes. ...

But let’s not kid ourselves. Although the rage for across-the-board spending cuts doesn’t extend to the public -- according to a recent Pew poll, most people want no cuts or even increased spending in major areas -- once the $5 billion is gone, it’s not coming back. ... By making the program more sensible the money could benefit us all. For example, it could:

-- Fund research and innovation in sustainable agriculture, so that in the long run we can get the system on track.

-- Provide necessary incentives to attract the 100,000 new farmers Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack claims we need.

-- Save more farmland from development.

-- Provide support for farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits, vegetables and beans, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods.

-- Level the playing field so that medium-sized farms -- big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow -- can become more competitive with agribusiness.

Thoughts?

By Ezra Klein  | March 2, 2011; 11:28 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

i get mark bittman's arguments; large agribusinesses as well as the oil and gas industry do not need taxpayer subsidies. drive across this country from one coast to another, and you would think the only thing we grow anymore is corn. if obama were allowed to eliminate these, perhaps as he is wont to do, he could do both - spend some on say pell grants and high speed rail, and some on promoting the small farmer and keeping land out of the hands of developers.

Posted by: sbvpav | March 2, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

There are many farm states. Each has two senators. Despite the fervor for budget cuts and the fact that these subsidies encourage unhealthy eating, I predict no cuts to crop production subsidies.

Posted by: jeanlucj | March 2, 2011 11:43 AM | Report abuse

My family owns farm land in north central Iowa that has been in the family for generations. Having said that, the current system (originally a New Deal program that was never canceled due the Senatorial influence referenced by jeanlucj above) is insane. We could out-compete other regions without the subsidies and the amounts are not significant.

What the country could use is a system of crop insurance or the establishment of a floor crop price. Direct subsidies are a waste of taxpayer money.

Posted by: bouvier7 | March 2, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I would need to see this fleshed out more. I'm ok with repurposing these funds for better uses within agriculture, but I'd rather see them go than let the opportunity to axe them disappear.

Posted by: JWHamner | March 2, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

Why can't the private insurance market create policies to insure farm production? Isn't this a new business opportunity for such companies? It would provide true risk-based products and get the government out of this sector all together (and yes I'm an Obama Democrat).

Posted by: agoldhammer | March 2, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I would expect any subsidies for organic crops, open space, and sustainable ag to largely be gobbled up in the same way that job-training and nutritional tax breaks/subsidies are gobbled up by McDonald's and other fast-food joints. (Fast Food Nation--Eric Schlosser) The money is intended for X, so company Y does X in name but really keeps on trucking the way they were.

Posted by: daveliepmann | March 2, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

"Provide necessary incentives to attract the 100,000 new farmers Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack claims we need."

Vilsack has no idea how many farmers we "need". Prices will let us know.

Posted by: justin84 | March 2, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I have heard reasonable cases made for counter-cyclical payments, but direct payment subsidies to farms should be eliminated entirely. There are also too many duplicitive conservation programs, which should be streamlined.

Why all the talk about reallocating the money? The U.S. government needs to start constraining its budget. Therefore, we should be cutting unnecessary spending like many farm subsidies.

Posted by: ldavidadler | March 2, 2011 12:03 PM | Report abuse

"Fund research and innovation in sustainable agriculture, so that in the long run we can get the system on track."

The problem is that there are scores of very highly paid lobbyists in the DC metro area who would disagree that the system is "off track".

Posted by: willows1 | March 2, 2011 12:09 PM | Report abuse

I don't believe all subsidies are bad. There are some programs I think are vital, such as Conservation Reserve (a direct payment to not farm land), crop insurance, and disaster alleviation.

Beginning in 2002, the US switched most crops eligible for subsidies to a system of base payments and counter-cyclical payments should market prices fall below a certain floor. Whether this was good or not, it had the effect of separating our interest in promoting a quality of life for rural workers from our roles as consumers (now we pay in our roles as taxpayers). I think this is a good thing.

The newsmakers seem to always be the large agribusinesses. Divide this group into two. One are large farms that receive big payments, and I think there is a question as to what is fair for all (read, means-testing).

The second concerns industries like the dairy industry. This industry is still highly coordinated by government, but it is to produce efficient coordination and reduce volatility in a tricky market.

I think so much of the problem is that we imagine our daddy's farm program, and most are not aware of how much changed since Freedom to Farm in 1996.

Posted by: rcd2 | March 2, 2011 12:13 PM | Report abuse

Bizarre and uneconomical article!

"Level the playing field so that medium-sized farms -- big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow -- can become more competitive with agribusiness."

In other words, increase the same subsidies that you argued against in the first paragraph>

"while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods."

Desirable to whom? Apparently, there is a market for the current apportionment of desired products, even leaving out the horrendous perversion of ethanol.

"Fund research and innovation in sustainable agriculture, so that in the long run we can get the system on track."

What on earth does this mean? Doesn't Bittman realize that there is a whole industry devoted exclusively to this?


"Those are all benefits, which we could compound by taking those billions and using them for things like high-speed rail, fulfilling our promises to public workers, maintaining Pell grants for low-income college students or any other number of worthy, forward-thinking causes"

I haven't looked it up yet, but Bittman could only be one of two things:

- a twenty something blogger who has never worked in any job but writing his own opinions

- a middle aged college professor of economics, probably at a private school.

I'll go check now to see if I nailed it.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 12:13 PM | Report abuse

LOL he's the first one, but I got the age wrong! A food critic who has never held a job except giving his opinion.

Well I guess that gives hope to all those young uninformed bloggers that they can make a living for the rest of their lives by spreading nonsense in an entertaining style.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Bollocks. I've no problem in someone arguing for an end to direct payments, or to counter-cyclical payments; that's a reasonable position. But I want to know how he plans to subsidize fruits and vegetables. I can't imagine a workable plan.

Mr. Bittman also has faulty logic. Supposedly government subsidies have meant cheap corn, wheat, cotton, rice, etc. But if he would check the markets, he'd find most commodities are near their historical high, at least in nominal terms. The world, particularly the world of agriculture, is far more complicated than Mr. Bittman dreams.

Posted by: bharshaw | March 2, 2011 12:26 PM | Report abuse

"Desirable to whom? Apparently, there is a market for the current apportionment of desired products, even leaving out the horrendous perversion of ethanol."

This is at least partly the result of the current perverse subsidies, which help ensure that the burger and corn syrup soda is cheaper than the salad at the fast food joint.

I think the goals that the writer supports are mostly admirable, but that it would be better to eliminate the agricultural subsidies altogether and try to encourage better production methods and consumer dietary habits in other ways. Consumer awareness and support for healthier foods produced by sustainable methods is already growing, and will get an added boost if the other stuff is not made artificially cheap with taxpayer dollars. That's enough for me.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 2, 2011 12:29 PM | Report abuse

"Provide support for farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits, vegetables and beans, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods."

Well that's obvious. Why do you suppose it is that a loaf of bread can be had for a dollar, yet a red pepper costs 3 bucks?

Posted by: sanonymous | March 2, 2011 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Patrick_M - I think there's a lot of confusion out there about what constitutes an "agricultural subsidy". These can range from disaster insurance, which I'm guessing most folks would agree with, to tax breaks on exports, which is probably the single most harmful subsidy out there. But subsidies can also include price supports, direct payments, conservation reserves, grants for converting to no-till, etc. So I don't think you can just say "government go away and agriculture will be better". It just doesn't work like that. And you have to remember that the whole price-support and allotment program began because the farm system was essentially not working at all.

Personally, if I had to advocate for one change, it would be eliminating the encouragement of agricultural exports. This causes overproduction in the big four (corn, soy, oats, wheat) and takes the bottom out of the market in developing nations where farm production is important to their overall well-being. Of course, you would have to replace these subsidies with something else to avoid a major shock to the system, so that would probably mean going back to the 1936-1973 model of allotments and government purchase of excess production. I'm not sure it would be cheaper, but it gets us away from the worst parts of the production problem.

But who is going to advocate for this? Beneficiaries to the current system include the American consumer, Monsanto, ADM, big agribusiness-type growers, and the McDonaldses of the world. Honestly, they have a lot more clout than a vaguely organized group of back-to-the-landers and low-end organic consumers riding around on beat up bicycles. (I put myself in the second category).

The best first thing to do would be to make Mark Ritchie the agriculture secretary. The best second thing would be to pass the "300-lb kid" tax on soda and candy bars.

Posted by: willows1 | March 2, 2011 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Fill a bucket full of money, people will find ways to access it. So, tobacco subsidies = death by lung cancer; dairy subsidies = grilled cheese sandwiches in our schools; HFC = what? Now, the government has to find a way to 'use' all that excess HFC. That's why nearly everything in your local grocery store - 99% of it - contains HFC.

Could that be the reason: Feb. 10, 2010 --"More Americans are becoming overweight or obese, exercising less, and eating unhealthy foods.

"That’s the finding of the latest Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which shows that 63.1% of adults in the U.S. were either overweight or obese in 2009."

What choice do they have?

Not only are direct subsidies a waste of taxpayer money, they are hazardous to our health. In the great 'food v. fuel' debate, the same issues obtain. Until we change behavior, we will fail in our intention to save the environment in which we dwell, indeed, life itself on this planet. This should be the role of govenment -environment, individual, GOVERNMENT, business - a shield between humankind and those who would profit at the expense of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - even of life itself.

Imagine a steel wheel on a steel rail - more energy efficient than a jack-rabbit hopping across a prairie! Now, imagine a rubber tire on an asphalt roadway. Can you see why those who had gasoline - a waste product of the oil-drilling industry - to sell, promoted the rapid growth of the interstate highway system and neglected an in situ system of rail travel, nearly to death? Oh yeah, each union member - Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Engineers - could be counted on the deliver fifty (50) votes to the Democratic Party.

My father, in the 1950's, (not 100 years ago)was absent from home for weeks at the time; came home exhausted and sick bacause of the conditions under which he was housed; and, went out on strike against the railroad to achieve decent working conditions, healthcare for his family, a decent salary, and a retirement plan. We were never rich. We made our own clothes and grew our own food including chickens and eggs. We shared one car and got scholarships to college - even a full waiver of tuition and fees to Cornell's Department of Design and Environmental Analysis.

Today, I live in the solar house I designed and built from re-purposed materials, twenty-five years ago. My home is 3000-ish square feet with all major appliances. A recent electric bill was $44.22; but, I'm planning to add photovoltaics, soon, to clear up that last little messy bit.

If we are waiting for politicians to solve the problems we face, we wait in vain; for, they are clearly representing someone besides the health and welfare of their constituents, their country, their planet.

Nevertheless, we are Americans. We don't assassinate our leaders, we vote them out of office (maybe a recall if necessary)!? Who can we count on to stand for the environment,for us, in 2012?

Posted by: SSASHWORTH | March 2, 2011 1:02 PM | Report abuse

Although I would like to see small independent farmers receive greater support than they do now, I support the complete elimination of agricultural subsidies (according to your article back some time that quoted the OECD, the value is somewhere between 20 and 100 billion depending on how you define subsidies) as well as those for gas and oil. The overwhelming majority of the direct payments are for corn, wheat, soy, cotton and rice. Wheat, soy and corn are essentially dangerous products that provide no nutritional value, undermine the health of most Americans (think obesity, heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune disease, etc.) and are used to support the worst aspects of the American diet: HFCS, factory farming, a 20:1 omega-6:omega-3 ratio, and gluten poisoning. Eliminating these items will improve the American diet, reduce (control) medical costs significantly, and stimulate the rural economy by favoring smaller farms over larger corporate farms. Any apparent increase in food costs are certainly offset by reduced expenses in health care, cost of subsidies and increase in employment. Producing good food is the most radical and anti-corporate action we can take as individuals.

Posted by: johnsonr1 | March 2, 2011 1:15 PM | Report abuse

A couple of other commenters above don't seem to be aware that the USDA already runs crop insurance, which Vilsack wants to reform. His testimony to the House appropriations subcommittee on ag is pretty informative: http://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?contentidonly=true&contentid=2011/03/0090.xml

I agree with Bittman generally. I think the direct payments generally ought to be phased out in exchange for incentivized payments, like the Conservation Stewardship Program, to better reform agricultural practices.

Posted by: slyc | March 2, 2011 1:17 PM | Report abuse

willows1,

I think the points you make are entirely valid, and that my own language about eliminating subsidies was overly broad. I am mainly referring to subsidizing artificially cheap production of the foods that are making us ill (like non-edible corn that is processed into HFCS), at the same time that we are trying to discourage over-consumption of the very same food products to prevent obesity and diabetes (among other diseases).

It reminds me of the tobacco subsidies continuing forward at the same time we were trying to warn the public of the health risks of cigarette smoking - just plain crazy policy.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 2, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse

Patrick_M -

Yeah, those are good points. I guess I've gotten jaded to the fact that ag policy is always going to be a tangled mess working at odds with itself. I didn't mean to single you out so much as expound on my own opinions of ag subsidies.

Posted by: willows1 | March 2, 2011 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Great ideas, especially about the medium-sized farms.
0.00000% chance of passing.

Posted by: ctown_woody | March 2, 2011 2:06 PM | Report abuse

"Consumer awareness and support for healthier foods produced by sustainable methods is already growing, and will get an added boost if the other stuff is not made artificially cheap with taxpayer dollars"

What exactly is sustainable methods?

This column has more than the usual tally of silly commentary. (not you Patrick)

All we need is for someone to quote Jefferson about a nation of yeoman farmers! LOL

The day of the family farm is over. Likewaise the idea that somehow we will get people to eat more beets and less sugar. Talk to an ag ec person. You cannot feed the world, which we literally do, with a big diversity in crops. The mega yields are unavailable.

Also looking at it from a macro viewpoint, nearly every poster on here would agree with Obama that we need to imcrease exports. Yet you want to undercut one of the few areas where we are perhaps the world leader in exports!

Small family farms, don't export to feed the world, nor does raising bok choy and mangoes because they are healthier. Get over it!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 2:17 PM | Report abuse

I understand the various objections raised in the comments, but why not simply require that subsidies be granted ONLY to farms smaller than, say, 100 acres? Or fifty, or 150 -- whatever makes sense. That eliminates the enormous, counterproductive handout to Big Ag, supports family farms, encourages people to continue living on farms (rather than hiring transient, seasonal labor), and even encourages fruit & vegetable production. Seems like a easy win-win to me.

Existing interests would be powerfully opposed, of course.

Posted by: Mike-Cooper | March 2, 2011 2:58 PM | Report abuse

The current subsidization (farm policy in general) is extremely perverse. I generally agree with the end state Bitman wants, but the major hurdle in getting there is probably simply removing the disinsentives (yes, ag inspectors love to pick on small farmers; no, banks don't like to deal with small farmers...).

BTW, I agree that CORN ethanol is a boondoggle. But lets not forget that Henry Ford preferred ethanol to gasoline for a reason, and he lost that fight with Std Oil. The oil companies have > 100 yrs experience in spreading disinformation. It is so deeply embedded it is now CW even among progressives and environmentalists. (Hint: it takes many years to build a refinery. Both WW's required many, many times the refining capacity of the entire industry at the time. So what fuel did they actually use? Que Jeopardy theme.)

Posted by: GBMcM | March 2, 2011 2:59 PM | Report abuse

GBMcM:

Got totally lost in your abbreviations.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 3:07 PM | Report abuse

johnmarshall5446 - Come one. We grow enough grain in this country for every living person to consume 6000 calories per day - four times what the typical person needs. Over half of this is fed to animals. We subsidize farm exports which is why we're so good at exporting them. Over half of the antibiotics used in this country are given to farm animals. Pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics used in farm production are present in measurable quantities in our drinking water supplies. This is not a sustainable or desirable situation. I'm sorry but the answer to this is not "get over it!!!".

Also, I know for a fact that you are smarter than to think that grain exports are somehow the same as car or TV or satellite component exports. How many good jobs are supported in the grain-exporting business? The point is jobs and economic development. You get that by adding value to raw materials and then selling them. Exporting grains is pretty much the polar opposite of this.

Posted by: willows1 | March 2, 2011 3:09 PM | Report abuse

Mike-Cooper wrote:

"but why not simply require that subsidies be granted ONLY to farms smaller than, say, 100 acres? Or fifty, or 150 -- whatever makes sense. That eliminates the enormous, counterproductive handout to Big Ag"

What is counter productive about support to Big Ag? LOL Haven't we had enough food riots in the world this year? Maybe you would like some more by making food exports more costly?

Oh your other idea makes about as much sense as subsidizing your local electronics store so they can compete against Walmart and Best Buy, because we like the Norman Rockwell-esque idea of buying from a small family run business, (not of course because anybody wants to pay the higher electronic prices involved!)

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 3:14 PM | Report abuse

why subsidize farmers at all? almost all that money goes to corporations, not quaint little family farms.

and i've never understood why we'd even want to subsidize family farms , but let Walmart take over family shops.

Posted by: newagent99 | March 2, 2011 3:20 PM | Report abuse

johnmarshall - One other thing. Farm exports are subsidized because it allows farmers to grow waaaay more crops than anyone could possibly eat in the US without the price falling out. Before 1973, prices were supported through the allotment program which sought to optimize the balance between production and price. In excess years, the US gov't bought the excess production and kept it in reserve for the lean years, when the allotments missed their mark.

Also, it is funny you should mention food riots. Because it could be argued, pretty coherently, that excess production within the US has led to food riots in other parts of the world - particularly when much of the production goes toward ethanol and corn syrup. In many parts around the world, farmers have been unable to compete with cheap, gov't-subsidized grain coming from the US and so their own farming capacity has been reduced substantially.

Finally, if our system of agriculture is so much more efficient, why does it require such a large involvement by the federal government? The point is that it is not at all efficient and so requires constant support from the taxpayers to keep from consuming itself. So if we're agreed that the government has to be involved either way, why not use government policy encourage best practices among farmers and agribusinesses?

Posted by: willows1 | March 2, 2011 3:23 PM | Report abuse

willows wrote:

"How many good jobs are supported in the grain-exporting business?"

Well the answer is none at all if you support the local farmer against the exporter. It's far more than just jobs you know. It's the international balance of currencies too. That's why you don't listen to a food critic on this subject!

I don't disagree with the disproportionate nature of the grains given to feed animals but comsumption of more meat is a growth market in emerging nations. That's what they WANT. If we don't sell it to them, the market will take up the slack in other places. Our lifestyle is what the world WANTS and aspires to. That's neither good nor bad to me, it's just the market. You may believe otherwise.

You are definitely right about antibitotics, but the idea of "free range" anything is 40 years out of date. These are the reasons that Malthusian projections have so far been wrong. Follow Bittman's ideas, and you will see a huge resurgence in his popularity.

A final thought. You really CAN'T do everything you can on one hand to slow the natural mechanisms of population control, wars, disease, famine etc. and yet on the other say let's go back to all natural methods of food production. They are economically impossible ideas.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 3:28 PM | Report abuse

willows wrote:

"Because it could be argued, pretty coherently, that excess production within the US has led to food riots in other parts of the world - particularly when much of the production goes toward ethanol and corn syrup"

Wherever you read this it is completely untrue!

Farmers in places such as Indonesia are changing production to biofuel crops, but never for the US market. It is because of the worldwide insanity for biofuel production. Nothing from Southeast Asia winds up in the US market. Wow, talk about blame the US for everything!

We don't import corn, anything you may have read to the contrary is crazy.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 3:36 PM | Report abuse

willows1: I suspect you're taking Mr. Pollan as your expert on farm programs. He's not, believe me. Far from ending production adjustment in 1973, we had our biggest effort ever to restrict annual production under the Republican administration of Ronald Reagan in 1983.

At today's prices, the problem is trying to produce more corn, wheat, and cotton, to export to the developing markets.

Posted by: bharshaw | March 2, 2011 3:45 PM | Report abuse

willows:

I just don't get why you're against one of the few things that we can export better than anybody else and provides a counter balance to our trade difficulties. Your talk of price supports comes from an entirely different world that is gone forever.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 3:47 PM | Report abuse

johnmarshall5446:

"What exactly is sustainable methods?" Farming that builds topsoil.

"The day of the family farm is over." When you eat at a good restaurant, what you're eating was almost certainly grown on a small farm.

"Small family farms, don't export to feed the world." All the more reason to encourage small sustainable farming worldwide.

Posted by: GBMcM | March 2, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse

bharshaw - Reagan tried to limit production by limiting the allotments, not by curtailing exports. Reigning in production in the Reagan years was done as a way of getting government out of the price supports and allotment program. The export programs weren't touched. Also, I won't pretend for a moment that Democrats or Republicans have the high ground on this one.

johnmarshall - I'm not sure where I implied that we import corn, but certainly I didn't mean to. As for the relationship between our farm production and agriculture in the developing world, there is a pretty well established relationship between US dumping cheap grain in certain nations which essentially curtails their own production of grains. The problem is that then the farmers in those nations turn to inedible products like sorghum, or in today's world maybe it is biofuels (madness). This makes those countries very susceptible to external shocks in their food supply. And when there are external shocks to their food supply, food riots ensue.

You may be right that the world of bessie the cow and whatnot are gone forever. But when you can buy a 1/2 lb hamburger at McDonald's for $2, it makes me think that we could tighten our agricultural production substantially without causing too much pain on consumers or the food supply.

Posted by: willows1 | March 2, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse

johnmarshall5446

BTW = By the way
CW = conventional wisdom
WW = world war

Posted by: GBMcM | March 2, 2011 4:01 PM | Report abuse

GB:

"When you eat at a good restaurant, what you're eating was almost certainly grown on a small farm"

But what does that have to do with macro ecnomomics of farming?

"All the more reason to encourage small sustainable farming worldwide."

That's very Gahndi-like of you, but Cairo for instance has a population of between 7-8 million people. Nothing on earth that happens in Egyptian small sustainable farms is going to feed that population.

You and several others are Malthusians without intending to be.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 5:06 PM | Report abuse

willows wrote:

" there is a pretty well established relationship between US dumping cheap grain in certain nations which essentially curtails their own production of grains. The problem is that then the farmers in those nations turn to inedible products like sorghum, or in today's world maybe it is biofuels (madness)."

No there really isn't. Think of the concept that you are talking about dumping cheap grain. In most of the world, people pay 20-30% of their income for food, much higher than the US. We can grow and sell grain cheaper than they can produce it because we have superior farming economics. How does it help the population of Cairo for instance, as I used above, if they ban US imports so that a few Egyptian farmers can make more money and grow more crops? You're selling a recipe for worldwide famine.

The farmers themselves, all over the world are doing what capitalism tells them to do, namely grow the crop that produces the most cash income for them. In Afghanistan it's poppies, in Indonesia it's palm oil for biofuels. They're reacting in their own best interests, just like you and I.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 5:17 PM | Report abuse

We should eliminate subsidies to X and use the money we save to subsidize Y?!? You do like to spend my money, don't you?

Posted by: ostap666 | March 2, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse

john marshall:

We devote huge areas to nothing but grain for animals (85% of corn goes to animals). We keep the animals on small lots (which they turn to hardpan) and truck in the grain (the 15% of the plant that we harvest). The animal poop is toxic (they should really only eat about 15% grain).

Cut the fence. The animals will now eat 60% of the plants. The poop will be non-toxic (far less acid in their stomachs, a completely different kind of stomach flora). Broken down by sun and rain, it will be good for the soil. You won't have to replant every year. You cut way down on trucking. You can use way less fertilizer, less land, or grow more animals (how is that Malthusian?). And, they'll be happier animals. Win win win.

Who loses? It's much harder to fit into a macro economist's spreadsheet. Awww.

PS: See Bill Clinton's comments on what a huge mistake it was to convince Haiti not to grow their own rice.

Posted by: GBMcM | March 2, 2011 5:50 PM | Report abuse

willows1 wrote: "The export programs weren't touched." [presumably by the 86 farm bill] I don't know what "export programs" you're talking about. The marketing assistance loan/loan deficiency payment provisions originated in the 86 bill, first for cotton and rice if memory serves, then expanded to the grains in the 90's. But with today's market prices those programs, as well as the counter-cyclical program, are essentially inoperative. That accounts for 2 of the 3 big bucks programs. The final one, the direct payments, is green box under WTO provisions because it's not considered market-distorting. Bottomline: as of today, our exports aren't being directly subsidized.

Posted by: bharshaw | March 2, 2011 6:43 PM | Report abuse

"Cut the fence. The animals will now eat 60% of the plants. The poop will be non-toxic (far less acid in their stomachs, a completely different kind of stomach flora). Broken down by sun and rain, it will be good for the soil. You won't have to replant every year. You cut way down on trucking. You can use way less fertilizer, less land, or grow more animals (how is that Malthusian?). And, they'll be happier animals. Win win win."

In a word, no. Your thoughts are internally inconsistent. How can you use less land by allowing the animals to roam free? Why do you think they went to the system in the first place, because of efficiency. (no, no one is arguing that the current system makes tastier beef or happier cows!) Your formula is magical rather than practical.

Now if you want to argue that this would be better for the health of the nation as a whole, of course I would agree. But we don't get to tell people that they HAVE to eat less beef and more grains or vegetables. That's the benefit/cost of being an American.

I once had a 19 year old visiting our house from the Ukraine, and the thing she found most amazing about the US was the supermarket. Here she was native to one of the world's greatest arable areas, and their choices were nothing compared to ours, because we have a better system of production and distribution.

Again if we want to wipe out wars, disease and famine (yay!) the "natural" population controls, then get rid of the idea of small or even medium sized farms producing for the local community.

We just differ in that you are looking at micro economics and I am looking at macro.

I have personally never heard a presidential candidate who understands less about our economic system than Bill Clinton. So even though I know nothing about Haiti, I'm inclined to disagee with him. LOL

Thanks for the discussion, I am enjoying it.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 7:10 PM | Report abuse

bharshaw:

You'll find that being right will get you nowhere! LOL

In some areas we have ideas that were formed in grade school and in movies by LB Mayer that shaped our ideas forever, one of which is the "family farm".

This notwithstanding that a lot of people were ruined on the family farms in hard times, and even on a well run one, 3 or 4 children cannot all have the same farm forever. So either they sell to somebody else, subdivide the acreage until it's uneconomical, or some of the children leave farming forever where they are STILL going to need to be fed, just like the millions of the world's non-farmers.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 7:21 PM | Report abuse

"Why do you think they went to the system in the first place, because of efficiency."

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Because of profit. Because externalities are ignored in your definition of "efficiency". Because Std Oil was looking for consumers for their waste products. Because there was virtually no understanding of ecology, particularly soil ecology.

Factory farming began early in the last century. They made some moderate improvements based on the hideous damage caused in the Dust Bowl. But the arc of agriculture has been almost constant for 100 years, and completely ignores scientific progress (as distinct from the sicko ag-engineering done by Monsanto and ADM). For example, did you know that tree roots actually "eat" microscopic animals in the soil?

I'm not naive. Scott Nearing was about 90% a fraud. Cutting the fence requires more people (which given our unemployment rate is probably a good thing). But you do get higher yields. And you will continue to do so, even when oil hits $400 / barrel.

Posted by: GBMcM | March 2, 2011 7:37 PM | Report abuse

GB:

We disagree, but it's a big world and I'm glad you posted. Hope you drop in more often.

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | March 2, 2011 7:51 PM | Report abuse

john marshall:

"I have personally never heard a presidential candidate who understands less about our economic system than Bill Clinton. So even though I know nothing about Haiti, I'm inclined to disagee with him."

Your profession of ignorance is accepted. Natural disasters, oil prices and other factors can (locally) make (global) macro economic "truths" utterly meaningless. It can make the most steadfast anti-Malthusian into a ... Malthusian.

Glad you enjoyed it. Try to sleep well.

Posted by: GBMcM | March 2, 2011 9:11 PM | Report abuse

"I have personally never heard a presidential candidate who understands less about our economic system than Bill Clinton. So even though I know nothing about Haiti, I'm inclined to disagee with him."

I have seen many development experts who have written and spoken about the dumping of American rice in Haiti and how it undermined the Haitian rice farmers and thereby harmed Haiti's economy. I have never heard a single expert argue any other position. Whatever one may think of Bill Clinton's economic knowledge, I don't think the effect of American rice is a wise issue about which to disagree with him.

And if Sarah Palin and/or Michelle Bachman run in 2012, I can already guarantee that you that you will hear a new Presidential candidate who will take over that low position in your estimation of economic understanding.

Thanks to everyone for a good debate. I hope Ezra read the comments (especially since he called for thoughts from the readers). There is a great deal of fuel here for further analysis, and agricultural policy does not often get the attention it merits.

Posted by: Patrick_M | March 2, 2011 11:09 PM | Report abuse

If the grain monopolies were forced to pay farmers a fair price for their crop we wouldn't need subsidies. ADM, Cargill and Bunge are the ones benefitting from taxpayer dollars--not the farmers.

Posted by: eholtgim | March 3, 2011 1:19 PM | Report abuse

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