May 27, 2008

Food for Thought

by Laura Rusu, Senior Press Officer at Oxfam America.

I must admit that as a lifelong progressive, it has been odd to find myself on the same side as President Bush.

I'm speaking of course of the Farm Bill. By sprinkling enough money across the landscape to secure votes, Congress was able to pass the bill without addressing much needed reform. So I found myself cheering Bush's veto.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot to like about the bill. Over half of the funding for the Farm Bill goes to domestic nutrition programs that are critical for America's poor, especially given the economic downturn and the increases in food prices we are currently experiencing. Although I, too cheer for the increases for programs for nutrition, Congress failed to reform the programs that dole out billions of dollars in subsidies to large industrial sized farms, doing little for family farms and rural America, while hurting poor farmers abroad.

Devised during the Great Depression, the Farm Bill was designed to give American farmers a safety net when the market bottomed out. Today's Farm Bill gives out large government payments to producers of a small number of crops. Only a quarter of America's farmers receive subsidies- yet, for those who do, the benefits flow largely to a small minority of producers in states whose elected officials fiercely protect their handouts from their seats on the agriculture committees in the House and the Senate. Smaller farmers--particularly farmers of color--face even bigger challenges in trying to make a living from farming.

Through these "commodity subsidies," taxpayers actually provide the funds that enable the biggest producers to gobble up smaller farms, driving land prices up and making it difficult for family farmers to afford to stay in business, and nearly impossible for beginning farmers just starting out. And despite decades of farm program payments, economic researchers have been unable to establish that these payments help sustain farm-based communities.

To make matters worse, subsidies actually hurt poor farmers in developing countries. By encouraging the overproduction of crops such as cotton, some agriculture subsidies actually create a glut that drives down world prices, undermining the livelihoods of millions of small farmers around the world.

According to a study by economist Dan Sumner UC Davis, reforming the cotton subsidy program could substantially improve the welfare of West African cotton farmers by increasing their incomes by 8-20 percent. For families living on $1 a day, this is a substantial benefit and translates to more money for food, medicines, and school fees.

We at Oxfam have worked together with a diverse group of allies to reach out to Americans to get involved in the debate and call for needed reforms. Across the country, from the left and the right, from San Francisco to Des Moines, Americans have spoken out in favor of changing a system that rewards those who need help the least.

But Congressional Republicans and Democrats fought to the bone to prevent any meaningful reforms to subsidies.

At a time when America confronts a growing global food and financial crisis, as well as a weak domestic economy, can we afford a Farm Bill that rewards those who need help the least?

Laura Rusu is Senior Press Officer at Oxfam America, a non-profit organization working toward a just world without poverty. Working in 26 countries in 7 regions, Oxfam America addresses aid reform, global trade, worker's rights, access to natural resources (and many more), while also providing emergency assistance in disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the cyclone in Myanmar.

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