Critics of farm-policy-as-usual — and I count myself among them — did a much better job of demonizing subsidies than they did proposing alternative forms of farm support that would have won over some percentage of the farmers now receiving subsidies.
The whole discourse depicting subsidies as a form of welfare — payments to celebrities, rich people in cities, mega-farms, etc. — convinced many farmers that the ultimate goal of the farm bill’s critics was to abolish subsidies, rather than to develop a new set of incentives that would encourage farmers to grow real food and take good care of their land. In other words, they created opposition to the programs without creating stakeholder support for better programs. The Farm Bill, for better or worse, is pork politics at its absolute finest. It’s legislation utterly unmoored from ideology, that slimes its way through Congress by rubbing some grease wherever there’s resistance. It will be very hard to beat it by making a better argument, because that’s not where it gains strength. Rather, you need to beat it by replacing it with some bill that has more winners, or at least a relatively equivalent amount [sic].
I suppose I don’t need to say much to explain why I have a problem with this. We are supposed to improve on a system where legislation “slimes its way through Congress” thanks to some careful skid greasing by substituting a system where we … grease the skids to slime our legislation through Congress. And what you end up with are farmers who, if you believe Pollan (as I do), will be freed from a system in which they need subsidies to prop them up because of the tiny amount of money they make selling their goods to corporate middlemen and enabled to sell those goods at prices that can sustain them but will still rely on subsidies to prop them up, thus artificially lowering the cost of produce at the taxpayers’ expense and still creating the sorts of market imbalances that currently have farmers in the third world on the verge of armed revolt against the injustices of U.S. agriculture policies. Yes, that seems to be just what we want.
Here’s an idea: if the numbers that Pollan is relying on to make his case for sustainable farming are legitimate, then he should be able to use them – and the concrete successes of those who have taken up farming practices and business strategies like the ones he is advocating for – to convince farmers that they do not need to sell themselves out to a government that has, in the past, demonstrated quite clearly that it has not had their best interests at heart. The only “incentives” they should need to “grow real food and take good care of their land” should be found in the recognition that (1) they will be growing real food, (2) they will be taking good care of their land, and (3) they will be making more money. Make this case, and let things fall out as they may. We do not need to replace one form of unprincipled pork-barrel politics with another, even if the sorts of agriculture supported by the latter make us feel – as those of agribusiness did the policymakers of yesteryear – all warm and cozy inside. These are cycles that need to be broken, not spun indefinitely in different directions.