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January 2008, Volume 14, Number 1

US Farm Bill, Sugar, Meat

The House approved its version of the farm bill in July 2007; the Senate approved its version, the 1,360-page Food and Energy Security Act of 2007, in December 2007. Both versions are expected to spend about $288 billion for farmers and low-income Americans between 2008 and 2013. The Senate bill provides $2 billion in funding for research and marketing for specialty crops, which include fruits, nuts and vegetables.

The Senate bill maintains subsidy payments for farmers with incomes up to $2.5 million a year. President Bush threatened a veto.

About two-thirds of farm bill spending is for food stamps and nutrition programs. Critics say that farm bill spending promotes obesity because it encourages overproduction and low prices of corn, soybeans and other crops that are converted into sweeteners and fats, making fast food less expensive than fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2006, more than 30 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program, which often serves cheese, pizzas and corn dogs.

Both the House and Senate versions provide funding for specialty crops such as fruits and vegetables, including funds to help low-income Americans buy fruits and vegetables, block grants to states that reflect their production of fresh produce and research funds to deal with disease.

The average income of farm households is $80,000, compared to $60,000 for nonfarm households. A third of the US farmers receive subsidies, most of which are direct payments to past and present growers of cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat or rice. Two-thirds of all crop subsidies go to 10 percent of farms.

The farm bill includes thousands of programs, including some that began with one purpose and were transformed over time. For example, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program included in the 1996 farm bill allowed farmers to recoup up to 75 percent of the cost of on-farm conservation programs, with maximum payments of $10,000. In the 2002 farm bill, overall funding for EQIP was increased, and farmers were limited to maximum payments of $450,000 over the five-year life of the farm bill. Many livestock farms received EQIP payments to help build manure lagoons.

Corn. The ethanol boom may be running into resistance in Midwestern states, according to the New York Times on November 13, 2007. Critics have questioned the efficiency of corn-based ethanol as an energy source, blamed ethanol for rising food prices, and debated the $0.51 a gallon federal subsidy that undergirds the industry. However, with 131 plants operating in November 2007, and 70 more under construction, there is a not-in-my-backyard reaction in some locations (there were 81 ethanol plants in operation in January 2005).

The US had 93 million acres of corn in 2007, up from 78 million in 2006.

Sugar. The new Farm Bill provides $1 billion over 10 years for the US sugar industry. The Washington Post on November 3, 2007 explored the contributions of the 6,000 US sugar cane and beet growers, emphasizing that 282 members of the House of Representatives supported raising the guaranteed price by half a cent and retaining 85 percent of the market for US sugar, even though most had no sugar growers or refineries in their districts.

The Government Accountability Office estimated that the sugar program costs consumers and food processors between $1 billion and $2 billion annually in higher prices for sugar and products that contain it.

Beginning in January 2008, sugar trade among NAFTA countries will be freed. Since Mexican farmers can produce sugar cheaper than US producers, Mexican exports are expected to rise. US sugar producers are guaranteed a price that is usually double the world price, and they want the US to guarantee to buy all their sugar at the guaranteed price of about $0.22 a pound and, if necessary, sell it at a lower price to ethanol producers.

US sugar policy limits the supply of sugar through production quotas and import restrictions, and uses financial mechanisms to set an effective price floor that does not result in direct taxpayer checks going to sugar producers, but does raise the price of products with sugar in them.

Meat. The US allows and the European Union bans the use of carbon monoxide to keep meat red. Some consumer groups want the US government to ban the use of carbon monoxide on meat, arguing that it is deceptive, and Safeway as well as Tyson Foods have pledged not to sell meat treated with carbon monoxide.

There were 21 recalls of beef in 2000 and 2002, and 20 in 2007, suggesting that industry efforts to keep E. coli out of ground beef and other meat products are not fail safe. In 1992, several people died after eating hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants, prompting the meat and food-service industries to search for ways to reduce E. coli 0157:H7 in their plants and products. Hamburger poses the greatest danger, since grinding can spread any E. coli throughout the meat.

Irradiating meat kills E. coli, but meat companies fear it would make meat more expensive, change the taste and color, and provoke consumer opposition. Instead, most of the largest meat processors are spraying hides to remove the mud and manure that gets on them in feed lots and could contaminate the meat.

A Los Angeles Times reporter recounted his experience with salmonella poisoning on November 3, 2007, noting that only 1.2 million of the 75 million cases of food-borne illness each year involve salmonella. Salmonella, which resides in the intestines and droppings of chickens, pigs and other animals, produces diarrhea and vomiting as the body tries to rid itself of the bacteria. The salmonella was eventually traced to the hollandaise sauce at a local restaurant.

Wolves. Gray wolves are to be taken off the endangered species list in March 2008, five years after the delisting was to have occurred. In the meantime, the number of wolves has soared in Wyoming and other mountain states to at least 1,500 and increasing by over 350 a year, and new residents interested in wildlife arrived. Defenders of Wildlife oppose the way in which the delisting of the gray wolf allows Wyoming the right to kill wolves at any time by any means across most of the state, with no permits needed.

Andrew Martin, "Meat Processors Look for Ways to Keep Ground Beef Safe," New York Times, December 6, 2007.

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