Leaner, greener farms

October 30, 2005

Farm subsidies, a mainstay of economic, political and trade policy for generations, might be about to collapse of their own gluttonous weight.

The trick will be convincing farm-state lawmakers that most of their constituents as well as the nation will be better served if the agriculture safety net is no longer tied to production but to protecting green space and preserving the family farm as a viable means to make a living.

Pressure for change is coming most powerfully from a successful World Trade Organization challenge by Brazil to U.S. cotton subsidies, setting a precedent sure to apply to other commodities. President Bush, in turn, is trying to get the European Union to match U.S. concessions on farm aid in order to open markets for developing nations trying to farm their way out of poverty. The timing for reducing farm payments - which average $15 billion to $20 billion annually - is also propitious because Congress is on the hunt for budget savings.

Quite helpful, as well, has been exploding the myth that farm subsidies currently go mostly to support small, independent, family-run operations. Thanks to computerized listings of the recipients now easily available on the Internet, it's clear for all to see that 10 percent of the biggest, and usually most profitable, crop producers collect 72 percent of the subsidies. Nearly two-thirds of all farmers don't qualify for subsidies, especially in small-plot states like Maryland.

The millionaires and absentee owners raking in this taxpayer largesse aren't letting it go without a fight, however. Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, representing the cotton growers, is trying to thwart reform of the subsidy program by including a provision in this year's budget that would keep the program largely intact through 2011.

His legislative colleagues should overrule him, and if they fail, Mr. Bush should veto the measure. Crop payments to giant agribusinesses and factory farms work against the interest of everyone else. They encourage overproduction, put small farmers in this country and in developing nations at a crippling disadvantage, and waste tax money that could be put toward conservation and other more worthwhile purposes.

Congress is scheduled to undertake a major overhaul of the farm aid program next year. Thanks to budget and trade pressures, lawmakers have a rare opportunity to defeat the status quo - to substantially pare back the subsidies; to limit them to small-scale, working farms; and to encourage environmentally sensitive operations instead of bigger-is-better production targets.

But none of that can happen if Senator Chambliss is allowed to stack the deck in advance.

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