Agriculture policy in this country has been geared for 30-odd years toward one goal: the production of ever-cheaper food. But as is by now painfully obvious, cheap food has foisted its real costs onto the environment, public health, workers and animals. Taxpayers bear that burden indirectly in the form of enormous health-care and food-safety bills, but what's particularly nauseating is how much we pay directly, through government programs that spend millions to prop up the largest, most offensive food-related businesses.
Which is why a new report out yesterday, titled "Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough: How Large Hog and Dairy Operations are Subsidized by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program" (full PDF of report | press release) and written by the Ethicurean's own Elanor Starmer for the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, makes for particularly sickening reading.
In the name of "conservation," taxpayers are paying millions to store and transport vast oceans worth of antibiotic-laced manure from Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. And despite that fact, as Elanor has previously written, $4.1 billion in taxpayer dollars has been spent over the years to deal with leaking manure storage facilities, with more billions going to other waste-related problems.
The bottom line is that EQIP is being used to subsidize the growth of the most polluting model of livestock production (read this vivid eyewitness piece by Grist's Tom Philpott) rather than rewarding the kinds of farms that offer environmental benefits to the community. And unlike commodity subsidies, these payments are not publicly accessible.
This shit has got to stop.
EQIP didn't start out as a piggybank for industrial agriculture. It was established in the 1996 Farm Bill as a cost-share program to help family farmers incorporate more conservation practices into their farming operations. But the 2002 Farm Bill opened up the EQIP spigot to even the largest factory farms, allowing them to expand their operations to the tune of $450,000 from EQIP over five years, up from the $50,000 per farm the 1996 bill had offered.
Not surprisingly, CAFOs quickly muscled out the little guys away from the trough. But just how much they were gorging on to fund things like massive manure lagoons or the wonderfully named "manure transfer" payments (federal funding to move manure off a farm when the operation produces too much to apply to available cropland) was mostly hidden. That's because the 2002 Farm Bill also contained a nice little bit that prohibited the USDA from releasing specific information about the "conservation" contracts — such as how participants in these taxpayer-funded programs were using their payments — presumably for homeland security reasons.
Well, I know Elanor, and she's a tenacious New Englander who doesn't take no for an answer, certainly not when it comes to CAFOs (on which she wrote her master's thesis). She found the money. Well, some of it, anyway. "As it turns out, the Ag Resource Management Survey that the USDA's Economic Research Service does every few years does have some data, and that's what I used," says Elanor. "It's by no means complete, but at least it's a start."
From her report, here are some choice facts about how EQIP is using our tax dollars:
…although dairies housing over 500 cows make up only 3.9% of all dairy operations nationally, they receive an estimated 54% of all EQIP contracts to the dairy sector. Mid-sized dairies of 100-199 cows, which account for 13% of all dairies nationally, receive only 7% of dairy contracts. Similarly, hog operations of over 2,000 head make up only 10.7% of all hog operations nationally but receive an estimated 37% of all EQIP contracts to the hog sector. Mid-sized hog farms with 500-999 head represent roughly 15% of all operations, but receive only 5.4% of EQIP hog contracts.
The 2008 Farm Bill decreased the amount of EQIP funding any operation can receive from $450,000 to $300,000 over the life of the Farm Bill, but allowed the lower cap to be waived in "special environmental circumstances." We can bet that CAFOs will try to work that loophole. The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, the coalition of Midwestern groups that commissioned Elanor's report, is urging Congress and President-Elect Obama to reform the program with five specific suggestions detailed in the press release. Soon, we taxpayers will get a chance to add our voices to the EQIP reform chorus: the USDA is expected to open a public comment for the program any day now. Elanor will keep us posted on how we can put a stop to this crap.