Well past time to axe corporate welfare from farm bill

How serious are Colorado’s congressmen about cutting wasteful spending?

The farm bill vote in the U.S. House on July 11 provided some answers. While a lot of attention had been on previous bills’ food-stamp provisions, this version was totally focused on agricultural policy, which provides plenty of shining examples of wasteful taxpayer handouts that could be eliminated.

Unfortunately, a bloated bill passed, and if it becomes law, it would send billions of taxpayer dollars to huge, profitable agribusinesses — and to make matters worse, it would subsidize junk food ingredients and encourage our country’s obesity epidemic.

icon_op_edThis is not how things were supposed to be: Current agricultural subsidy policy is now a bloated relic of its original purpose as a safety net for small farms. Since 1995, taxpayers have shelled out $277 billion in agricultural subsidies. Of that, 74 percent has gone to just 4 percent of farms. That means billion-dollar companies like Cargill and Monsanto slurp up most of the dollars, while small farms that could actually use the help get almost nothing. In fact, only 38 percent of farms collect any subsidy payments at all.

These subsidies are emptying our wallets, but they’re also hurting our health. Most U.S. agriculture subsidies support just 10 specific crops, with corn and soy getting the bulk of them. Only 1 percent of the corn we grow is the familiar sweet corn you can find in groceries or farmers’ markets. Much of it ends up feeding livestock and producing fuel, but an enormous quantity ends up getting processed into unhealthy additives like high fructose corn syrup. In fact, of the $277 billion spent on agricultural subsidies since 1995, CoPIRG recently found that $18 billion went to various forms of junk food ingredients, ranging from corn syrup to vegetable oils and shortening.

Colorado taxpayers pay $17.5 million a year to subsidize junk food ingredients. That’s enough to buy eight two-liter bottles of soda for each person under 18 in Colorado.

So how did our representatives do?

On one key amendment Reps. Diana DeGette, Jared Polis, Doug Lamborn and Mike Coffman stood with taxpayers at first. The amendment — which was narrowly defeated — would have ended crop insurance premium subsidies for agribusinesses making more than $250,000 a year and placed a $40,000 cap on the amount of crop insurance subsidies that individual agribusiness can receive.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that this reform would affect just 4 percent of agribusinesses, but would save taxpayers $9.3 billion over the next decade.

That would have been a great first step.

The final result was less encouraging. Despite voting against the similarly wasteful farm bill of a few weeks before, this time Reps. Coffman and Lamborn joined Reps. Cory Gardner and Scott Tipton to help pass the final, wasteful version of the bill. The Senate’s version, passed in June with the support of Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, is not good enough, either. While ending one egregious subsidy program, direct payments, a new potentially larger taxpayer giveaway was created.

Still, we shouldn’t give up hope for common-sense reform.

The previous version of the House’s farm bill was defeated with bipartisan support, and many legislators from both sides of the aisle have come out against its egregious waste. CoPIRG has joined a diverse coalition of groups, from the National Taxpayers Union to the Environmental Working Group to hundreds of small farmers from around the country, in fighting to end these handouts.

While many in Congress are trying to make this the 11th hour for the farm bill and “just pass something,” it’s not too late for Colorado’s delegation to take a solid stand on the side of Coloradans.

Voters — and taxpayers — should make sure that they do.

Lisa Ritland is field director for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG). This op-ed originally appeared in the Denver Post.


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