The roots of current agricultural subsidies can be traced back to the Great Depression, an era when around 25% of Americans lived on about 6 million farms. The goal of subsidizing agriculture was to stabilize the widely fluctuating prices of crops, in hopes of helping small farmers. Today, demographics have changed dramatically, and less than 2% of Americans live on farms. Instead of helping small farmers, the majority of subsidies now contribute to large commercial farms' and corporations' pocket books. In 2001, 73% of all farm subsidies went to the richest 10% of farms. Subsidies to twelve Fortune 500 companies rose by 82% in that year alone, from their 1996-2000 average. These subsidies to corporations have been aptly described as a form of "corporate welfare".
In practice, they aid large corporations' effort to buy out small farmers' land, allowing the industry to further consolidate. The extent of consolidation is alarming: for example, just three companies (Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Zen Noh) control 81% of US corn exports. When large corporations single-handedly control so much of the food supply, they are allowed freer reign to use unethical business practices, with small farmers and consumers suffering the consequences. For example, in 1996, Archer Daniels Midland pleaded guilty to charges of criminal price-fixing and was convicted. The case was influenced by testimony from a former ADM President, James Randall, who said of the company's public relations philosophy, "Our competitors are our friends. Our customers are the enemy." Another agribusiness giant, Monsanto, has an infamous track record of bribery and scandal. For example, in 2005, Monsanto was fined $1.5 million by the US Department of Justice and the SEC, after admitting to bribing a high-level Indonesian official. The bribe was made in an attempt to allow the introduction of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) cotton into Indonesia, despite strong opposition from activists and small farmers. Despite this and numerous other accusations of bribery and corruption, Monsanto currently enjoys a highly influential position in US policy-making. The company spent nearly $9 million on lobbying in the year 2008 alone. Michael R. Taylor, Monsanto's former lawyer and Vice President for Public Policy, was appointed to the newly created position, Deputy Commissioner for Foods, at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2010. Links like these between big agribusiness and government are quite prevalent, and they often come at a huge price--that of causing the American public's interests to be appraised as secondary to those of corporations. It is high time that the subsidies which help to sustain and encourage these relationships be reevaluated and cut from the federal budget.
In addition to unnecessarily subsidizing large corporations, these subsidies are detrimental to the environment and to Americans' health. Over 90% of subsidies go to farmers of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. This emphasis on just a few cash crops encourages the practice of monoculture, which has numerous harmful effects: it causes land to degrade rapidly (these agricultural practices are responsible for 66% of North America's topsoil loss, which is thought to cost $125 billion annually in lost productivity in the US alone), monoculture increases reliance on large amounts of fertilizers and pesticides (fertilizer runoff has helped to create what is now a 8,543 square mile "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico), and these crops wind up in our diets largely in the forms of hydrogenated soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup. With an epidemic of obesity plaguing the nation, and a record one-third of children and adolescents now overweight or obese, it is shocking that the federal government is still insistent on subsidizing these few cash crops which have driven down the cost of sugar-laden, high-fat, processed foods.
These subsidies for commodity crops are a massive waste of taxpayer dollars (over $23 billion was spent on direct subsidies in 2005 alone), they increase the consolidation of the agriculture sector, and they contribute significantly to our growing public health epidemic. We want these subsidies for commodity crops, particularly subsidies for corn and soybeans, cut from the federal budget and from the re-authorization of the Farm Bill. Instead, more focus should be placed on subsidizing fruits and vegetables, which currently receive little funding. Additionally, more emphasis should be placed on helping the many small farmers who are consistently being squeezed out by the agribusiness giants.
 Mary Hendrickson and William Heffernan, Concentration of Agricultural Markets (Columbia, MO: Department of Rural Sociology, University of Missouri, 2005).
 Chris Edwards and Tad DeHaven, “Farm Subsidies at Record Levels As Congress Considers New Farm Bill,” Cato Institute Briefing Paper no. 70, October 18, 2001.
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