Since the Great Depression, the federal government has taken an increased stake in the farming industry. The Agricultural Adjustment Act, enacted in 1933, is considered to be the first modern farming bill. The Act provided subsidies to farmers who left some of their fields undeveloped in an effort to reduce the crop surplus and therefore raise crop prices, helping farmers. Yes, the federal government actually created an agency to raise food prices by destroying crops and livestock in the U.S.
The Agriculture Adjustment Act greatly helped large farmers through the subsidies. Smaller farmers were run out of business and hired by the larger landowners, while customers took on higher prices. Even though this initial legislation proved to be very unpopular with the people of the U.S., today the federal government is still heavily involved with farm subsidies, encouraging larger farms, and disregarding the laws of the free market.
Over the past several years ethanol subsidies have come into the public eye. The federal government has been pumping billions of dollars into ethanol for years, and all we’ve had to show for it are record high corn prices worldwide, a ballooned and inefficient corn production, and yet ethanol still has made no headway as a viable energy alternative. Corn is connected to countless key food products, whether it be cattle feed or a primary food staple, but this has been totally disregarded in an effort to promote an unsustainable, inefficient, and costly energy source. The government subsidizes this irresponsible ethanol program while heavily limiting foreign, and possibly more viable, ethanol sources from being imported into the country.
Recently a new bill has popped into view and generated some buzz with the farm community. H.R. 875, The Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, was introduced on February 4, 2009. The bill aims to create a Food Safety Administration (FSA) within the Department of Health and Human Services. The bill is quite complex, but I’ll do my best to break it down a bit here.
The FSA would be responsible for creating a national food safety system and enforcing it on “food establishments” through all the stages of food production. To ensure that the new safety systems are being followed, the FSA would create and implement a national system of “regular unannounced inspections of food establishments”. The FSA would design new regulations in order to have “minimum standards related to fertilizer use, nutrients, hygiene, packaging, temperature controls, animal encroachment, and water” in “growing, harvesting, sorting, and storage operations.”
What’s especially vague in the bill is the definition of the “food production facilities” who would be subject to the new agency and regulations. From the bill: The term ‘food production facility’ means any farm, ranch, orchard, vineyard, aquaculture facility, or confined animal-feeding operation. The FSA would have the authority and ability to regulate state farms and commerce, areas previously largely out of reach of the federal government. Essentially all local, state, and inter-state food operations would be placed under the jurisdiction of the federal government, through the FSA. One thing that is clear about the bill is that it would greatly expand the regulatory powers of the federal government to unheard of levels in U.S. farming history.
You would think that the principles of the free market and individual responsibility would be respected a little bit more than this. The FSA would be able to enforce laws and bans that previously the FDA has not been able to, such as banning the sale of raw milk. Enacting national standards for all farms, large and small, would be disastrous for local farms. Local, smaller farms do not have the resources to go through such a regulated, bureaucratic, biased system. Just as the initial farm subsidies in the Great Depression eliminated many smaller farmers to the advantage of the larger ones, the FSA would create such a legal hoopla of new laws and regulations that it would be next to impossible for smaller farms to continue operations.
Whether it be through subsidies or increased regulations, these interventionist policies from the federal government always benefit the larger farms and their often unsustainable farming practices. Larger farms generally have a difficult time operating and surviving without using harmful pesticides and farming techniques that hurt the environment and decrease food quality. The FDA’s regulations and restrictions, as well as the subsidies from the federal government, promote larger farms, the unsustainable and inefficient farming practices they employ, while bogging down the local farmers who are often growing healthier food with more sustainable and environmentally-friendly farming methods.
I see farm subsidies as an attack on smaller, local farms. As the farms get larger, supported by subsidies and regulations that stifle the competition, the focus of the people drifts away from the local level. When this is done artificially through the support of the federal government, you get what we have today: large farms with unsustainable farming techniques, heavily processed food, and a system that would most likely be worthless were it not for harmful pesticides and preservatives. I would not argue against this nearly as much if it was a decision reached freely by the people through the free market. Food is one of the necessities of life, and when the government starts interfering with it and manipulating farms in favor of the larger businesses, the economy as a whole will be built on an artificial, unsustainable basis.
The consumer should be the most powerful regulator in a society, but that has been taken away first and foremost with the intervention in food industries. If we can’t make our own decisions about what we eat, can we seriously expect to make decisions about anything else in our personal lives? The federal government is not the regulator we need. Rather, we should be empowering people to make their own decisions through their local economy, community, and government. Local farms are the heart of local economies; discourage them and you build the foundation for nationalization, greater federal intervention into all industries, and a people who are no longer able to make their own decisions.