View from the Levee: Farm-Bill Sausage

When it comes to grinding the sausage that becomes the farm bill and other laws of the land, Congress relies on recipes from lobbyists -- the real cooks in the new system. 

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Forget what you’ve heard: It’s now perfectly safe to watch sausage and legislation being made.

After all, better enforcement of better rules by today’s better-funded U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service ensures (probably) that (mostly) sausage-makings go into sausage.

Clearer rules and more money have changed the legislation-making game, too.

For example, the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court made it legal for both corporations and unions to toss unlimited money into the political meat market. Before the decision we suspected as much; now we definitely know.

We also know what key ingredients—like who and at what price—the money buys.

Take Monsanto, the St. Louis-based ag seed giant. In 2012 its political action committee (as tracked by the Center for Responsive Politics) contributed $654,325 to congressional candidates, double the amount it contributed in 2008 House and Senate races, the last full election cycle before Citizens United.

A less evident but even more powerful force on Capitol Hill is what journalist William Grieder calls the “permanent government,” the unelected 12,373 paid lobbyists who earned $3.23 billion in 2012 pedaling their sausage up and down the hungry hallways of Congress.

Unlike your senators or representative, however, these meat cutters and wrappers never sleep or go on vacation; they work 24/7/365 to ensure Congress is always aware of their clients’ problems and solutions.

This well-honed carving up of Congress shapes markets, communities and lives. The 2008 crack-up of big American banks, the U.S. housing market, then Wall Street had deep ties to a decade of bank deregulation pushed in Congress by the banks themselves.

Likewise, the farm bill, the multi-year legislation that guides American farm, ranch and food aid programs, by its very nature, picks winners and condemns losers up and down rural roads.

Congressional guide to the farm bill: butter beans are on the left.
How do members of Congress—most of whom wouldn’t know butter beans from buttermilk—choose which farm and food program to bless or burn?

They rely on recipes from the sausage grinders, of course.

That mix—price support levels for feed grains, subsidies for crop insurance, funding for university research, soil and water conservation dollars to name a few—are all determined by Congress and, lock, stock and pork barrel, all are packaged and pushed by big agbiz and big ag farm groups.

For example, farm bills in the 1990s featured feed grains over livestock and exports over ethanol. That emphasis led to cheap grain, tens of billions of government support payments and rapid consolidation of key livestock sectors like pork.

Subsequent farm bills hoped to correct the imbalance with more “market-oriented” legislation like federal ethanol-blending mandates to boost corn usage and prices, fatter subsidies for private-sector crop insurance and expanded soil and water conservation programs to protect vulnerable lands from intensive production.

These programs, too, anointed winners and drowned sinners.

For example, over the last four years, corn and soybean farmers have seen prices, profits and land values soar. Ranchers and cattle feeders, who must compete with ethanol producers for corn and land, however, have been hammered.

Indeed, 2013 U.S. cattle numbers now stand at 89.3 million head, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the “lowest January 1 inventory of all cattle and calves since the 88.1 million on hand in 1952.”

USDA Economic Research Service
USDA chart shows historic and projected grain prices, which have soared in the last four years.
This corn/soybean-centric ag policy has had other consequences, too, researchers from South Dakota State University noted in a late-February report. The biggest is a pre-Dust Bowl-like stampede to grow corn and beans on fragile, Western grasslands and wetlands.

According to the South Dakota report, from 2006 to 2011, 1.3 million acres of grass in North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota have been converted to corn and soybean ground in a pace not “seen in the Corn Belt since the 1920s and 1930s.” 

Those extra corn acres mostly went into ethanol—40 percent of all U.S. corn now goes into biofuel production—and most of the soybeans went to China, the new global glutton for grain, to feed its swelling middle class.

Is tearing up fragile, High Plains grasslands and wetlands to grow crops to make ethanol or expand exports to China good, long-term farm and food policy for our nation? For you?

To decide, take a look in the sausage grinder and tell us.

Alan Guebert is an agriculture journalist who lives in central Illinois.

 

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