Politics & Policy

The Elephant-Sized Subsidy in the Race

Cattle at the trouth in Cuba, Ill., 2012. (Scott Olson/Getty)

An estimated $23.9 billion. That’s what total government handouts to agribusinesses will be next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Yet despite all the talk in the presidential race about federal overspending, you probably won’t find many candidates lamenting Uncle Sam’s extravagant “aid” to a group that already enjoys household incomes greatly exceeding our national average.

During the debate over the last farm bill, two years ago, the bill’s authors promised that the lavish subsidies would be cut. But the promises proved to be nothing more than “a mirage,” as NPR recently put it

As Iowa State University agriculture economist Bruce Babock told NPR: “Farm policy isn’t really about policy. It’s about farmers getting their money. And the agriculture committees in Congress are there to make sure that farmers get their money.”

Yet it seems few presidential candidates want to talk about knocking over the farm-subsidy apple cart.

RELATED: Refusing to Kiss King Corn’s Ring in Iowa

But it isn’t really apples we have to worry about it. In fact, a massive share of farm subsidies go, rather, to animal-based agribusinesses — to the meat, dairy, and egg industries — in the form of aid to growers of corn and soy, the two biggest components of animal feed for industrial farms.

It’s quite a lucrative business model, especially for an industry that often loves to tout its belief in free-market principles. When crop prices begin to dip, rather than accepting lower income, as most businesses would do, the agribusinesses are bailed out by the federal government at the taxpayers’ expense. Or, to put it another way, as a headline in Agriculture.com noted: “As Crop Prices Sink, Farm Subsidies Soar.”

#share#These industries occupy an astoundingly coveted position among American businesses: They get bailouts when they overproduce, have their most costly business expense (feed) subsidized, get federally supervised dollars to market their products, and even get free research and development that they benefit from but for which they don’t pay a cent.

RELATED: Abolish the Department of Agriculture

But does animal agribusiness really need to be feeding from the federal trough like this? After all, as author David Simon observes in his book Meatonomics, the dairy industry spends more on advertising in one week than the blueberry, mango, watermelon, and mushroom industries spend all together in a year.

At a time when we’re being encouraged to enjoy more fruits and vegetables, why does animal-based agriculture get such a disproportionate amount of support from the USDA and Congress?

We were told that the last farm bill would create a cost savings for the much-derided farm-subsidy program. We now know those were just empty promises.

At a time when deficit reduction and federal spending loom so large in America’s political life, this kind of agribusiness welfare should be the first to go on the butcher block.

— Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm-animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him at twitter.com/pshapiro

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