A massive assistance bill to one sector of the economy failed in the U.S. House of Representatives last week because it proposed to reduce assistance to another sector of the economy. Such was the defeat of the federal farm bill, which faced both the wrath of conservatives for its big spending and enraged liberals for its proposed cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Fifth-district Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty best captured the sentiment of Connecticut’s House delegation, all of whom voted against the bill.
“Cutting more than $20 billion in nutrition assistance for families is not a reasonable reform and neither is weakening the safety net for our dairy farmers,” Esty proclaimed.
Of course, we are really talking about two safety nets here — one for lower-income Americans and another for business people in the agricultural sector. But when used properly, SNAP is a valid part of our social safety net. The nearly half-a-trillion-dollar farm bill, on the other hand, is little more than crony capitalism — a price-fixing scheme for a politically well-connected business lobby.
U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal voted for the Senate version of the bill, which passed. Like Esty, Blumenthal lamented the SNAP reductions, saying he was “disappointed” in the cuts, but praised the bill because it makes it a federal crime to be a spectator at an animal fight. So a corporate dairy farm in North Dakota will be guaranteed a price for its milk, but if in my wanderings I stumble upon a cockfight and don’t flee immediately, I’ll be pursued by the FBI. Isn’t this a great country we live in?
Moreover, the farm bill and food stamps are connected in another way. In our desire to satisfy Americans’ passion for cheap food, we just might be killing ourselves. Government price supports, especially those encouraging corn production, help keep the cost of food artificially low. And what better way to sweeten foods than with high-fructose corn syrup, which researchers have shown to have long-term adverse health consequences compared to table sugar.
On my way to work every day, I pass two large factory farms in East Canaan. One has about 1,000 head of dairy cattle; the other roughly half that. The cows are packed into barns, never see the light of day and are penned up 24/7. One can only imagine what they’re fed to enable them to grow quickly and ward off disease.
All of this is being done to keep the price of food at rock-bottom. Eggs, for example, are 85 percent cheaper than they were 100 years ago, adjusted for inflation. This is bound to have adverse health consequences for humans — to say nothing of the fact that the birds themselves are often treated inhumanely.
And there are adverse environmental consequences to price supports. Much of the rest of America’s bumper corn crop is used to feed livestock. If you’re a greenie, that’s got to be a cause for grave concern. A 2006 United Nations report found that the meat and dairy industries produce more greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, cars, trucks, planes, and ships in the world combined. Yes, we’re talking mostly about decaying animal waste and cow farts.
So not only are we ingesting undesirable and perhaps toxic substances — e.g. antibiotics given to chickens and pigs, bovine growth hormone in beef and dairy — but anyone who is concerned about global warming should think twice about consuming animal products. Ironically, both Murphy and Blumenthal are fond of preaching action against climate change, but the farm bill they helped pass actually subsidizes some of the world’s dirtiest agricultural practices.
At this point, it’s obvious to everyone — well, almost everyone — that the goal should be to decrease SNAP recipients’ dependence on the government for subsistence. But don’t we also have a moral and economic imperative to wean agribusiness away from its dependence on the kind of government protection most of the rest of us could only dream about?
Right, and if we accomplish those lofty goals, maybe we can tackle the protection racket enjoyed by Connecticut’s 1,150 liquor stores. But one crisis at a time, please.