Day October 2, 2006
A hearing in the House Agricultural Committee last week highlighted everything wrong with U.S. farm policy. In preparation for writing the 2007 farm bill, House members heard from 17 witnesses representing every possible farm lobby —from cotton to corn, sugar to potatoes, rice to eggs, and sorghum — but not a single spokesperson for the interests of the American people as a whole.
Fewer than two percent of Americans farm for a living, and only a third of those farmers receive subsidies. Yet the interests of subsidized and protected farmers dominate every farm bill discussion in Washington. The broader interests of the United States and the other 98 percent of Americans are systematically ignored.
The biggest losers from U.S. farm policy are taxpayers. From 2000 to 2005, Congress spent an average of $17 billion a year in direct payments to farmers. That’s real money, even in Washington. Most of those payments did not go to small “family farms,” but to large operations and agribusinesses, including some Fortune 500 companies. Indeed, according to the Environmental Working Group, the top 10 percent of recipients collected two-thirds of the payments on offer, and the top 5 percent collected 55 percent.
Trade barriers and domestic price supports also force tens of millions of families to pay higher food prices. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, U.S. farm programs transferred an average of $10.5 billion a year from U.S. food consumers to producers from 2003 through 2005. That amounts to an annual food tax of $140 for a family of four — a regressive tax that falls most heavily on poor families that spend a larger share of their budgets on foo