Understanding the Farm Bill: Tracing Out the Corn Subsidies

Every once in a while, someone sends us something great. This is one of those times. Driven by her desire to simplify the massive Farm Bill, Sasha Breger Bush, a PhD based in Denver, CO (her bio and photo are below) set out to create a tool to help people understand the corn subsidies and their far-reaching impact in our food system and economy.

The header image for this post shows just a piece of what Sasha calls a Corn Subsidies Traceout, providing a brief history of the subsidies, and showing us in a clear, linear fashion how they impact our health, our wallet, our community, and our backyards (you can read another recent article about the commodity programs here). We're grateful to Sasha for her terrific work. Please take a look.

Click this link to download a pdf file of the Corn Subsidies Traceout.

Click this link for a list of the sources used to compile this document.

Sasha Breger Bush lives in Denver, CO with her husband Bill, and enjoys organic gardening, cooking, eating, live music, books and camping. Sasha has a PhD in International Studies, and teaches economics and international relations at the Colorado College and University of Denver.




The header image represents some great values, but contains quite a bit of false, misleading, and/or missing information. This can easily be proven. These are the same falsehoods that have been widely replicated throughout the mainstream media and food movement. This header image therefore leads activists to advocate for the wrong policies, (ie. policies that favor agribusiness instead of opposing agribusiness,) just like we saw in advocacy on the 2008 farm bill.

What's false? 1. Farm subsidy programs did not begin in the Great Depression (except cotton, but only 1934-9). Proof: "Farm Income: Data Files": Scroll down to: "Government Payments" "United States by Program, 1933-2009," (choose (1933-95"). There were no corn subsidies prior to 1961. See #1 "What's missing," below.
2. There was no major subsidy related policy change to encourage overproduction starting in the 1970s, as Pollan and others have often also claimed. (See sourcefor #1 above and #2 "What's missing" below.
3. Increases in corn production were not caused by "production subsidies."
Farmers have received less and less income from corn prices plus subsidies. Subsidies have not led to increases in corn income per bushel, but rather decreases.

What's missing? 1. Since the 30s, instead of subsidies we had price floors and supply reductions to keep prices up without oversupply, and price ceilings with reserve supplies to temper occasional price spikes.
2. The major change was Congressional lowering of price floors starting in 1953, along with some weakening of supply management. See data charts for various crops in my YouTube Videos (search) "Michael Pollan Rebuttal 1" and more in "...2" Corn, feedgrain, & wheat subsidies started in 1961, cotton '64, rice '77, soybeans '98, and they didn't affect supply, and see these videos for proofs/sources for that. There were multiple causes for increased production: Reduced supply management; increases in productivity, low price floors causing low prices stimulating increased use of corn, including CAFOs getting below cost corn, taking livestock away from farms, (removing pastures and hay ground, so farmers were left with fewer choices). Farmers get
3. Price floors were lowered and prices went down more than the amount of extra money farmers received from subsidies (as compensations for these reductions). There was not any increase in the amount of money farmers got from raising corn, but corn decreases were not as great as other decreases.

Extra: While other feedgrain acreages are relatively small, soybeans (not shown in pie chart) is also a major feed ingredient and is widely planted. Other major crops are wheat, rice and cotton.

The false information has been repeated widely on the internet. As a result, those spreading falsehoods have much confidence and it's hard to correct the myths with facts. Among the sources linked here, they're not from those who understand and try to correct these issues. Pollan and Environmental Working Group, for example, are usually wrong about the issues I've raised. Typically my comments about all of this are mostly ignored, not debated. Exceptions (ie. 230+ comments) can be found in 2 blogs at Daily Kos, where people tried vigorously to prove me wrong on these points, and I cited a wide range of online sources, in a long list of rebuttals, to prove that I'm correct. These blogs are: "Pretending about Farm Subsidies: Myths at Daily Kos" and especially "The Case for Raising Farm Subsidies". Go there to see what a vigorous discussion of my main points looks like. Click my name here for more sources supporting me: IATP, APAC, NFFC, FWW, GDAE, etc.

None of this is a criticism of other parts of the header image and sources.

I understand your rebuttal but it really doesn't matter when the bill was signed, and what part was for cotton and what part for corn. What really matters is  multinational co. Are feeding herbervorious livestock corn when they should be feeding them grass


The arguments I make, including when we had subsidies, are important, as they make the difference between advocating in favor of agribusiness exploitation or against it, in favor of subsidizing the feeding or corn instead of grass, or against it.  The false belief that subsidies cause cheap prices that subsidized CAFOs and junk food and dumped on other countries (below fair trade levels for 50+ years, below full costs 1981-2006 except 1996, USDA-ERS) leads to calls for subsidy removal as a policy solution.  This is, however, a zero price floor, zero supply management solution, a worse farm bill than what Reagan and Nixon signed. Instead we need support for the major "Farm Justice Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill."

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