The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Will alphabet soup help the world be better fed?

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We need agricultural policies that can pass basic democratic muster and help serve up a just food system better equipped to ensure everyone has access to the safe, nutritious, and affordable food they need.

US commodity farmers deal with acronyms on a daily basis simply because their income is as much tied to government policies and programs as it is to weather, soil, seeds, and rainfall. Over the past thirty years, I’ve had to master the ins and outs of LDPs, CRP, CSP, CU acres, DPs; I’ve had to adjust my memory as ASCS became FSA and SCS turned into NRCS.

However, my head is spinning with all the proposals that have poured from Ag state legislators and commodity organizations over the past month. As the major commodities face real cuts ahead, they are scrambling to create programs that may seem to cost less but preserve the most favored status of corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat.

This alphabet soup of new proposals (along with their acronyms) is mindboggling. We now have ADAP, ARRM, CRGP, CROP, FFSN, FOR, RMAF, and STAX, plus some others in the mix (see key below). All are in some way, revenue protection plans that are, according to K-State economists Art Barnaby and Troy Dumler, “focused on a risk management tool to cover shallow losses.”

(For more on why the alphabet soup is boiling over now see my colleague Ben’s take here.)

Okay, farmers don’t like weeds, and we are getting into them now. So let’s cut to the chase. All of the players that feed from the subsidy trough are rushing to get their two cents in before something moves forward out of the Super Committee that will only need a yea or nay vote to pass.

Shallow loss revenue schemes mean that with as little as a ten percent variation in either price or production, farmers will still receive compensation paid for by taxpayers whether or not they need it. This means that what appears to be $23 billion in cuts now could disappear altogether if volatile markets or weather conditions impact prices or production levels.

Even the American Farm Bureau sees the folly in these schemes, saying that they could inspire extreme risk-taking. “If much of the risk in farming is reduced, the government may be encouraging producers to take on more risk than they would in response to market signals alone. If a producer knows the government will cover all but 5 or 10% of losses, he or she may be inclined to buy more acreage than they can effectively manage and therefore bid up the price of land.”

And in the larger picture, we still have Farm Bill supports that largely benefit a very narrow range of interests for crops that mostly go to gas tanks, feed lots, blue jeans, and processed foods, and provide incentives for highly industrialized, unsustainable, and unhealthy modes of production.

If the Ag committees have their way, the next Farm Bill will be authorized without any efforts to address trade distorting effects of commodity support that hurt poor farmers, and will take us backwards on efforts to conserve American farm land and protect our health.

Alphabet soup comes in a can, but we don’t need a canned farm bill. We need agricultural policies that can pass basic democratic muster and help serve up a just food system better equipped to ensure everyone has access to the safe, nutritious, and affordable food they need.

Key: ADAP (Agriculture Disaster Assistance Program) by National Corn Growers Association, ARRM (Aggregate Risk and Revenue Management) by Senators Brown (D-OH), Thune (R-SD), Durbin (D-IL), and Lugar (R-IN), CRGP (Crop Revenue Guarantee Program) by Senator Conrad (D-ND), CROP (Crop Risk Options Plan) by Representative Neugebauer (R-TX), FFSN (Farm Financial Safety Net) by a private crop insurance company, FOR (Farmer-Owned Reserves) by National Farmers Union, RMAF (Risk Management for America’s Farmers) by American Soybean Association, and STAX (Stacked Income Protection Plan) by National Cotton Council.

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