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OP-ED | Oh, ‘SNAP!’ There Goes The Farm Bill

by Terry D. Cowgill | Jun 28, 2013 5:30am
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Agriculture, Business, Environment, Opinion, North Canaan, East Canaan


A massive assistance bill to one sector of the economy failed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week because it proposed to reduce assistance to another sector of the economy. Such was the defeat of the federal farm bill, which faced both the wrath of conservatives for its big spending and enraged liberals for its proposed cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.

Fifth-district Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty best captured the sentiment of Connecticut’s House delegation, all of whom voted against the bill.

“Cutting more than $20 billion in nutrition assistance for families is not a reasonable reform and neither is weakening the safety net for our dairy farmers,” Esty proclaimed.

Of course, we are really talking about two safety nets here — one for lower-income Americans and another for business people in the agricultural sector. But when used properly, SNAP is a valid part of our social safety net. The nearly half-a-trillion-dollar farm bill, on the other hand, is little more than crony capitalism — a price-fixing scheme for a politically well-connected business lobby.

U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal voted for the Senate version of the bill, which passed. Like Esty, Blumenthal lamented the SNAP reductions, saying he was “disappointed” in the cuts, but praised the bill because it makes it a federal crime to be a spectator at an animal fight. So a corporate dairy farm in North Dakota will be guaranteed a price for its milk, but if in my wanderings I stumble upon a cockfight and don’t flee immediately, I’ll be pursued by the FBI. Isn’t this a great country we live in?

Moreover, the farm bill and food stamps are connected in another way. In our desire to satisfy Americans’ passion for cheap food, we just might be killing ourselves. Government price supports, especially those encouraging corn production, help keep the cost of food artificially low. And what better way to sweeten foods than with high-fructose corn syrup, which researchers have shown to have long-term adverse health consequences compared to table sugar.

On my way to work every day, I pass two large factory farms in East Canaan. One has about 1,000 head of dairy cattle; the other roughly half that. The cows are packed into barns, never see the light of day and are penned up 24/7. One can only imagine what they’re fed to enable them to grow quickly and ward off disease.

All of this is being done to keep the price of food at rock-bottom. Eggs, for example, are 85 percent cheaper than they were 100 years ago, adjusted for inflation. This is bound to have adverse health consequences for humans — to say nothing of the fact that the birds themselves are often treated inhumanely.

And there are adverse environmental consequences to price supports. Much of the rest of America’s bumper corn crop is used to feed livestock. If you’re a greenie, that’s got to be a cause for grave concern. A 2006 United Nations report found that the meat and dairy industries produce more greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined. Yes, we’re talking mostly about decaying animal waste and cow farts.

So not only are we ingesting undesirable and perhaps toxic substances — e.g. antibiotics given to chickens and pigs, bovine growth hormone in beef and dairy — but anyone who is concerned about global warming should think twice about consuming animal products. Ironically, both Murphy and Blumenthal are fond of preaching action against climate change, but the farm bill they helped pass actually subsidizes some of the world’s dirtiest agricultural practices.

At this point, it’s obvious to everyone — well, almost everyone — that the goal should be to decrease SNAP recipients’ dependence on the government for subsistence. But don’t we also have a moral and economic imperative to wean agribusiness away from its dependence on the kind of government protection most of the rest of us could only dream about?

Right, and if we accomplish those lofty goals, maybe we can tackle the protection racket enjoyed by Connecticut’s 1,150 liquor stores. But one crisis at a time, please.

Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He can be found on Twitter @terrycowgill.


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(7) Comments

posted by: ASTANVET | June 28, 2013  10:02am

I think if you separate the issues - instead of another 1000 page bill, you will see all that’s happening.  One thing at a time though, the Farming is a case of corporatism.  Small farming is on it’s last legs, and all that’s left are the mega farms.  Partly because it’s just hard work, partly because of disinsentives through taxation, partly because of the regulatory arm (all working to squeeze out the small farm in favor of the NIMBY big farms somewhere else) - Corporatists are a blight on our society, and the crooked politicians who pander to these folks are nothing but criminals.  SNAP program - I would rather support the old fashion Soup Kitchens than provide an EBT card so people can go out and get a pack of smokes on my dime.  SNAP is a joke, it is not means tested, there is so much waste fraud and abuse you can’t even track it all!  Kill SNAP - make it a TRUE safety net and i’ll be volunteering for the serving line.

posted by: DirtyJobsGUy | June 28, 2013  11:05am

My my we’ve got lots of things to worry about.  Words like corporate farm etc are code words for real farms even if they are owned by one family.  Run the numbers yourself, the Department of Agriculture puts gobs of data on line.  Look just a gross income to start:

Acres x Yield/Acre X price/unit food = Gross income

You will be astonished how little this can be (particularly if you run the organic numbers).  But also you can figure it takes about 1 acre of good farmland to support 1 person.  Figure 3 acres when using organic methods.

So your “enormous corporate farms” here in m CT might support a neighborhood.  Food is inexpensive (but rising in cost) in USA, so why do an increasing fraction of people need food aid?  Just payoffs to potential voters.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | June 28, 2013  2:09pm

GoatBoyPHD

Definitely two issues. I support SNAP in one respect? I advnocate a minimum income on a Federal I’D card. Eliminate SNAP and Section 8 and energy subsidies and unemployment. One system, one minimum income.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | June 28, 2013  2:12pm

GoatBoyPHD

SNAP is means tested and you can’t buy cigarettes legally on SNAP. The asset requirement was raised on SNAP.

posted by: Matt from CT | June 29, 2013  6:44am

Any assistance to the poor from SNAP is a side-benefit—always has been.

Food Stamps was a New Deal era program meant not to feed the poor, but to increase farm sales to support farmers—that’s why it is part of the farm bill.

And that is why there is are no nutritional restrictions on it.  Over time it has morphed more into a corporate sales support program allowing processors and stores to sell plenty of high profit warm-and-serve foodstuffs as well as ice cream, soda, chips, etc.

WIC, which is a Great Society era program, gets the nutrition part right even if the system of vouchers is perhaps too restrictive.

Somewhere in between the two, along with a healthy dose of home economics and the ability to front-end load benefits so folks can afford the initial stocking of their pantry, would improve health and get more bang for our taxpayer’s buck…of course, at the expense of corporate profits.

posted by: Matt from CT | June 29, 2013  6:56am

>but also you can figure it
>takes about 1 acre of good
>farmland to support 1
>person. 
>Figure 3 acres when using >organic methods.

All depends on what you’re growing and how you’re growing it.

A one acre garden supported large (7-10 member) families from colonial through early industrial days—a time when folks were eating 4,000 calories/day.  2-3 million calories/acre/year would not be unusual.

That *would* be supplemented by some field crops like potatoes, a bit of corn, some pumpkins, some wheat or rye.  So maybe you’re up to three or four acres to provide the needs of a family.

That was their intensively cultivated plots.

You would also have sources of protein, like cows and sheep—who grazed primarily land unfit for cultivation.  This being an age of manual labor even hay was cut off less then prime farmland.  (Pigs primarily converted household waste into protein, while chickens scavenged around the farmyard)

That it might take 1 acre of good farmland today is more a factor of extensive, industrialized farming rather then the carrying capacity of the land.

Reduced yields on organic lands, where it is true, is more a factor of lack of scientific research in that field over the last 80 years compared to industrial agriculture.  Getting and keeping organic yields high requires a lot of attention and high inputs of management time…something you can’t package up and sell like fertilizers and pesticides.

posted by: ASTANVET | July 2, 2013  1:58pm

goat boy, you’ve obviously never been in the inner city, and never seen how these programs work in reality…