George Hawkins is stepping down as head of DC Water, but he leaves at a moment when the agency is facing criticism over how they bill consumers for stormwater runoff.
In the current budget climate, calls are coming from across the political spectrum to shrink or eliminate farm subsidies. For many Americans, they are typified by programs like those that pay farmers not to grow crops. But the subsidy picture is complicated, and affects more than farmers. We look at the often misunderstood and always controversial policies around farm subsidies.
- Roger Johnson President of the National Farmers Union
- Alan Bjerga Reporter with Bloomberg News
- Don Carr Senior Communications and Policy Advisor for the Environmental Working Group
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe farmer, paid to grow no crops. Insurance against low prices. For many Americans, these are the examples that come to mind when you say farm subsidies, but the picture is more complicated than that. The farm bill includes conservation programs, for example. Farm subsidies have always been controversial, even though we're talking -- or what we're talking about is less than one half of one percent of the federal budget.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut all of these programs could be on the chopping block. And in the current budget slashing mood, it seems that, across the political spectrum, everyone agrees that cuts to farm programs are necessary. That, of course, doesn't mean there's agreement as to where and how to cut. Joining us to discuss this is Alan Bjerga, he is a reporter at Bloomberg News, coving agricultural policy and author of the upcoming book "Endless Appetites." Alan Bjerga, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ALAN BJERGAThank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Don Carr, senior communications and policy advisor for the Environmental Working Group. That's an advocacy and research organization focused on the environment and health issues. Don Carr, thank you for joining us.
MR. DON CARRThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlan, I should have mentioned that you were the immediate past President of the National Press Club. Can we clarify what we're talking about when we discuss farm subsidies? What are the main programs?
BJERGAThe main programs for farm payments have been redesigned. And about the last 10 years or so, a lot of your programs that paid farmers not to produce were jettisoned over the last generation to try to put farmers more in line with market forces, actual supply and demand. Right now, you have a certain set of programs. There are certain payment programs that are based on what the price of a crop is. They're called Countercyclical programs. Where when prices are low, then the farmers are subsidized, when prices are high, they go away.
BJERGAYou also have what is called the direct payment program. Those goes to farmers of certain crops regardless of what crop prices are. And then you also have conservation payments, which pay farmers to farm their land or not farm their land for environmental purposes. And you also have crop insurance programs in which basically, the government subsidizes crop insurers that then farmers can buy policies and manage against weather risk.
NNAMDIDon, it seems that across the political spectrum, there's agreement that cuts meat to be made. Even organizations representing farmers say that cuts are necessary. Is that unprecedent?
CARRIt is now. And what's happening is farm country is doing quite well. Especially with the commodity crops that are in these programs. We've got an all-time high for farm income. The past five highest years ever, farm income have occurred in the past decade. We're seeing sky prices for commodities. So for the programs that pay farmers and the government writes checks for farmers, we're looking at these now and saying, maybe there's not as much need here anymore.
NNAMDISo what are some of the proposals, either for elimination or reduction?
CARRWell, there's been some proposals floated for, you know, completely eliminating direct payments, ratcheting them down, but, you know, from the debt deal that just happened, what we're finding out now is that there really isn't a proposal out there for us to look at and talk about today because we have to wait for the communities to report back with cuts that they're going to give to this super congress.
NNAMDIAlan, what kinds of numbers are we talking about for all of these programs?
BJERGAYou've seen various numbers bandied about. What is considered to be the most vulnerable program is the direct payment program. It's the one makes less sense, the least sense to a general audience. I mean, paying farmers regardless of a crop price doesn't have as much sympathy as a program that pays to farmers when there may actually be a financial need. When you're looking at that program, you've seen discussions of cuts anywhere from $10 billion to $30 billion over the course of 10 years. If you get broader than that, then you start going into some of the conservation programs.
BJERGAAnd also, don’t forget that in the farm bill, you have a lot of other spending. In fact, the majority of your spending goes for nutrition programs, such as the Women, Infants and Children Program, the Food Stamp program. When you start seeing the larger cuts, you start seeing those programs brought in as well.
NNAMDIBut when we're talking about farm subsidies in general, what percentage of the federal budget are we talking about here?
BJERGAIt's a very small part of the federal budget. Less than one half of one percent is the number that you usually see. I think that actually, Don's group is estimating about $10.5 billion in farm subsidies this year. When you're looking at a nearly $3 trillion federal budget, it's a small savings but of course, they're looking everywhere they can.
NNAMDIAlan Bjerga is a reporter with Bloomberg News, covering agricultural policy, author of the upcoming book "Endless Appetites." He's immediate past president of the National Press Club. He joins us in studio with Don Carr, Senior Communications and Policy Advisor for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy and research organization that focuses on the environment and health issues. If you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think we need to help farmers with taxpayer funded subsidies? 800-433-8850 or you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there.
NNAMDIDo you think certain crops like corn, ethanol, should be subsidized? You can also send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Joining us now by telephone is Roger Johnson, President of the National Farmers Union, which represents farmers and ranchers across the country. Roger Johnson joins us by telephone from Vermont. Thank you for joining us.
MR. ROGER JOHNSONThanks for having me.
NNAMDIYour organization is not necessarily opposed to cuts to farm subsidies. What is, in fact, your position?
JOHNSONWell, we -- we represent -- we tend to represent smaller and medium-sized family farm operations around the country. We've got members in all states, but most of our membership is in the middle of the country. And we think it is critically important that we have a safety net for farmers when times are difficult. And that's long been our principal argument. When the market collapses and the market's high right now, it's not going to stay high, it never has before.
JOHNSONNow, maybe it's different this year and we're always going to see high prices 'till the end of time. I doubt it. So when the market collapses, you need a safety net so that folks have a chance of surviving to farm another year. When you have the kinds of weather disasters that we always have somewhere in this country, we think that there ought to be a standing disaster program so that there will be some predictability to how that would come in as opposed to in the past.
JOHNSONWe used to have ad hoc disaster programs which are passed after the fact and yet they tend to get real messy and not very efficient because they're passed by Congress after the disaster has occurred. And as you sometimes see, they tend to get loaded up with other things, so that would -- our principal argument is, we want a safety net to help when times are difficult. And the other point that I...
NNAMDISo you feel that decisions made on -- based on how the picture looks right now, because crop prices are pretty high right now, you feel that if those decisions are based on what's currently existing, that it could hurt farmers over the long term?
JOHNSONYeah. What we would argue is that when the market price is high, you really don't need a subsidy to be paid out at that same time. But when the market collapses and you have an extended period where prices, to farmers, are well below cost of production, it's at that point -- it was sort of the Countercyclical payment program that Alan was talking about in the earlier segment of your show. Those kinds of programs are very helpful because they help keep farmers in business during difficult times.
JOHNSONWe shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the agricultural system we have in America is the most efficient in the -- it provides the most affordable food supply of any in the world. About 10 percent of the consumers disposable dollar is used for food and that is far cheaper than it is virtually anywhere else in the world among developed and undeveloped countries.
NNAMDIAlan Bjerga, some economists think, or might think, argue, certainly that higher prices might be here to stay. How would that affect these payments?
BJERGAIf you had permanent high prices in the current system, there would be permanently lower subsidies a that's something that you've seen in the past few years. Roger's historically example does hold true. Times of high production and high prices tend to be followed by even higher production, which begets lower prices. Farmers can often be their own worst enemies. When you see a bump or a crop and prices start to go down, the incentive is actually to grow even more food. There's an argument that because of biofuels, because of rising economies, because of lots of reasons for supply and demand, that may not be the threat that it once was. Of course, only time will tell.
NNAMDIWell, Roger, some -- one issue, I guess, with discussing subsidy programs is that all crops are not the same. Some would like to see more help for those growing fruits and vegetables, for example. What would you say to incentives tied to healthier crops?
JOHNSONI think we would be very open to that. Historically, there's not been much done in the area of, what are called, specialty crops. But we were supportive of a specialty crop title in the last farm bill and I'm sure that our organization will be supportive of a specialty crop title in the -- in this farm bill as well. We think that, you know, there's something that's happened recently with this, sort of, know your farmer, know your food, buy local, all that kind of stuff, eat healthier, that's really resonating with a lot of the consumers.
JOHNSONAnd we certainly support those kinds of incentives, programs to help these small farmers, especially those on urban fringes, to be able to make a living growing healthy fruits and vegetables and providing it to folks in their neighborhoods.
NNAMDIRoger, what programs, in your opinion, could be scaled back or eliminated?
JOHNSONYou know, we've been hesitant to put our finger on that, but I would say that among our membership, this -- it sort of divides by region of the country. Most of our members in the northern part of the country would say that the most important programs are things like crop insurance, permanent disaster programs and that the direct payment program, the one that -- it's the same payment whether prices are high or low, whether crop produced is abundant or short, that that program should be scaled back.
JOHNSONBut our Southern members would argue that that is really one of the programs that is most helpful to them in terms of going to their bank and being able to get a loan in order to put the crop in. And so it's a very divisive issue in agriculture, but again, our principal test is, we want help during difficult times. And so if the direct payment program is one that's going to continue, we would very likely be supportive of there being some sort of test and I know that's been talked about as well.
JOHNSONThat either you have to be in a state or a county where there's been a disaster declared or where the market has collapsed or something like that so that it would behave a bit more like a countercyclical program.
NNAMDIAnd finally, which programs do you feel could be made more efficient?
JOHNSONWell, I think there's probably room for all programs to be made more efficient. One of the things that USDA has struggled mightily with, in recent years, is that their technology is way, way behind what most of Americans use in their own homes. And getting their computer systems up and running to the point where you have -- when a farmer has to sign up for a program at the local USDA office, you should only have to do it one time, fill out the information once as opposed to currently, you do it with your county USDA office.
JOHNSONYou do it again with RMA, you do it with your insurance provider for -- if you carry federal crop insurance. Those sorts of things often times, you go across the street into another USDA office that deals with conservation programs, you provide the same data all over again and the systems haven't done a good job of talking to one another...
NNAMDISo you feel a better integration of systems...
JOHNSON...I do think that there needs to be a more integration and I know that USDA is trying hard to get to move in that direction but they've got to have some funding to do it. When that happens, I think you'll see a lot more efficiency that would happen.
NNAMDIRoger Johnson, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIRoger Johnson is the President of the National Farmers Union, which represents farmers and ranchers across the country. He joined us by telephone from Vermont. We're talking about farm subsidies, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think disaster aid for farmers is important? You can ask that question or answer that question on our website kojoshow.org or sent us a tweet @kojoshow. Alan, a lot of average Americans may not understand the intricacies of farm subsidy programs, but oppose the idea, for example, of paying farmers not to grow crops. What is or what was the reasoning behind a program like that?
BJERGAWhen you take a look at dealing with farmer income and prosperity, a lot of these programs date back to the Great Depression, when you had a much more rural economy in general. One way that you can preserve farmer income is you can make sure that there are markets for the production so they get a good price for their crops. You can also manage supply. For generations, there was a supply management approach.
BJERGAAnd during the Great Depression, when there was much greater supply then there was demand, to keep farmers in business and to provide income to people in a very rural nation, paying farmers to dump their milk raised the price of milk. A lot of those programs have gone away, although you still see some traces with certain commodities. And that was one way to keep farmers in business. You don't see it as much as you used to.
NNAMDIBecause in those days, a quarter of Americans lived on farms, today less than one percent of the American population is involved in farming.
BJERGAThat's right. And that's something that the farm community gets very nervous when they start seeing people outside the farm community working with farm programs because they know that from the outside, it may look a little crazy, but there internal dynamics to this and they want to make sure that they have a voice, too.
NNAMDIDon Carr, there's be criticism of foreign subsidies since they were first put into place, as we talked about during the Depression, but reforms in 2008 were meant to make them work better and cut out some of the more extreme problems. Has that, in fact, been the case?
CARRUnfortunately, no. A lot of the reforms that were -- that were talked about and talked about, just have not occurred. These programs have a lot of gross inequities inherent in them. Those inequities, first of all, being that only five crops get the vast majority of these payments, corn, cotton, rice, wheat and soy beans. All their crops really, kind of, are left by the side. The other gross inequity is the largest mega farms in America take most of this subsidized dollars. You got 10 percent -- the largest at 10 percent of the farms in America get 74 percent of the subsidies since 1995.
CARRAnd if you look at it in the context -- and these are just subsidized farms, you've looked in the context of all American farms, that number drops to just four percent of all American farm have taken in 74 percent of the subsidies since 1995, so it's heavily weighted to large mega grain operations. And it's not equitable and it's not helping all farmers. Sixty-two percent of American farmers are not in these programs.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Steve in Stafford, Va. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi, yeah, I appreciate you taking my call. Really appreciate the comments that have been made so far by Roger and Alan both. My questions -- actually a two-part question, if I could. The first one on, it was -- kind of been touched on already is what's subsidies and what programs do you suggest to eliminate and possibly what programs should possibly we add? And I would caveat that with mega farms. How can we get some of the small farms included into these subsidies and exclude mega farm so we continue to keep farming across America as the American family run?
STEVEThe first one on -- it was kind of touched on already, is what subsidies and what programs do you suggest to eliminate and possibly what programs should possibly we add, and I would caveat that with mega farms how can we get some of the small farms included into these subsidies, and exclude some of the mega farms so we continue to keep farming across America as the American family runs.
CARRWell, one of the first things we can do is, if you look at the farm bill as a whole, we stringently means test food stamp recipients, for example. Within the context of the farm bill, we should be able to means test possibly wealthy farm operations as well to make sure that they need this money. We're in a time of budget austerity and we're really talking about public benefit of public dollars.
CARRAre farms that are doing really well with high crop prices, high income, very large operations, are they deserving of our tax dollars or can we try and shift more of this money maybe to pay farmers to protect water and soil, things that are under constant assault from our modern agriculture system?
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Steve. Alan, crop insurance is another area that many people don't fully understand. What is unique about insuring crops?
BJERGACrop insurance is an interesting concept when you think about it. I think people most often, they'll think of fire insurance, auto insurance. One of the arguments behind crop insurance is that agricultural insurance works a little bit differently than a lot of sectors. When someone's crops fail and they have crop insurance, chances are their neighbors crops have failed as well.
BJERGAImagine the business model if you were Geico and you went seven years without a single auto accident and then one day, every car in the central time zone had a crash. That's how crop insurance works in the dynamic and that's one of the arguments behind why there should be subsidies for that model. The issue becomes because crops are so different, because farm operations have so many different sizes, how do proper policies be crafted? And it's always a perennial struggle when one decides to get into the weeds on designing crop insurance.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on farm subsidies. If you have already called, stay on the line. We will get to your call. We still have a few lines open, so you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think we need to help farmers with taxpayer funded subsidies? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking farm subsidies with Don Carr, Senior Communications and Policy Advisor for the Environmental Working Group which is an advocacy and research organization that focuses on the environment and health issues. And Alan Bjerga, he's a reporter at Bloomberg News covering agricultural policy and author of the upcoming book "Endless Appetite" for Bloomberg News, correct?
NNAMDIAnd you can join the conversation at 800-433-8850. Don, your organization focuses on environmental programs. What are some of the programs that fall under conservation in the farm bill?
CARRThere's a whole suite of programs and I appreciate you asking that question because earlier, we talked about the idea of paying farmers not to farm. And as Alan talked about earlier, those were the original supply control programs and the Conservation Reserve Program was one of those where they took land out of production and are able to manipulate production numbers that way. But over time and over a couple decades, that program, the CRP, Conservation Reserve Program, has evolved into one of our most cherished and critical environmental protection programs.
CARRIt takes highly erodible land out of production, it helps farmers that might not be able to pay for, say, stream buffers, a lot of different environmental aspects that kind of help mitigate a lot of the runoff problems we see, a lot of the erosion problems we see, a lot of the farm chemical into water problems that we see. So you've got the Conservation Reserve Program, you've got the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
CARRThese are all critical programs that in a lot of cases, are the last line of defense between a community's water supply and the ravages of modern industrial agriculture.
NNAMDIThese programs are meant to give farmers an incentive to lower the pollution of their operations. What are some of the issues with the system as it is now?
CARRWell, the issues that we have with the system as it is now is, if you look at the farm bill and the pots of money that are available in the farm bill to fund different programs, it always seems like the conservation programs that promises are made that they'll be funded at a certain level, but that's usually where lawmakers dip in to fund the other programs when times come to cut programs.
CARRSo these programs are constantly under assault and as I talked before, they're oftentimes in the Midwest the only last line of defense between pollution that pours into the Mississippi River basin that creates environmental catastrophes like the Gulf dead zone. And so we really -- these programs have a huge public benefit as opposed to, say, for instance, the commodity programs that only benefit a very narrow niche of wealthy mega farms.
NNAMDIHow about the issue of accountability? It's my understanding that farmers don't necessarily have to show what they do with the money they get from this, according to the 2008 farm bill.
CARRThat's absolutely true. There's a lot of conservation practices and there's a lot of tracking of conservation programs and their efficiency and their effectiveness that we just can't see because we're not privy to the information. There's also payment information that we receive before the U.S. Department of Agriculture for this information, the farm subsidy information, and in the last farm bill, actually, the amount of information that we are allowed to see has been shut down.
CARRWe can't see, for example, very wealthy individuals that might live in cities that hide behind paper farms and corporations. Taxpayers don't get to see exactly where their money's going.
NNAMDISome have proposed shifting conservation programs to polluter pays programs. Do you think that would improve the program?
CARRWell, I think that if -- when we're talking with a lot of the farm groups and we're talking about the Congress and they're talking about cutting conservation programs or limiting conservation programs, the one thing that we don't talk about is what's the alternative. The only alternative is regulation. And as we've seen, that farmers in the Midwest and in the -- or in Chesapeake Bay are not that interested in regulation from the federal government. So it may be in their best interest to really try and get behind fully funding these conservation programs.
NNAMDII was about to say, Alan Bjerga, regulation probably isn't very popular in the Congress right now either.
BJERGAThere tends to be historical distrust between the Environmental Protection Agency and a lot of your farmers and farm groups.
NNAMDIWe got this e-mail from Karen, Alan. "I read of two concurrent Department of Agriculture programs concerning cheese. On one side, the department is spending money on hiring employees to discourage the eating of too much cheese for nutritional reasons. In another program, the Department of Agriculture had employees whose job it was to promote the use and sale of cheese.
NNAMDIThe latter program was instrumental in getting cheese added to salad, sandwiches, et cetera, in fast food restaurants. Is this really how we should be spending money even if the numbers are relatively small?" Is Karen correct?
BJERGAWhat Karen is really getting to is sort of an existential question at the United States Department of Agriculture and you see this with some other federal agencies, too. There is a twin mission at the USDA and one of it is to promote American agriculture and then there is also that stewardship toward the consumer to have the best research and the best science.
BJERGAAnd when you're dealing with the fourth largest department in the U.S. government in terms of spending, with more than 100,000 employees, you certainly can see examples like those that Karen are putting out where you would seem to think that there are agencies and employees that are working across purposes toward one another. They have their constituencies and those are I'm sure some of the questions that will be asked in the next farm bill.
NNAMDIWe have a lot of questions from callers on the line. I will start with Joel in Gaithersburg, Md. Joel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOELHi, Kojo. I'd like to make a comment on the international relations aspect of the farm bill where it's my understanding as your guest said that we subsidize five main crops and one of those is corn. And in subsidizing corn, one of the things we agreed to under NAFTA in 1994 is for our neighbors, Mexico and Canada, we would not be subsidizing crops and commodities, that we put everybody on a level playing field.
JOELBut, in fact, we do subsidize corn and other commodities and we send them over to Mexico and Canada, but we tell Mexico and Canada and now other South American countries, you can't do that to us. So we're putting ourselves on an inequitable playing field and that's not good because it harbors ill will with those other countries and also, it causes, you know, wings of immigration when you wipe out the Mexican commodity system for growing corn and all those farmers are going to come to us, so I'd like to hear a comment.
NNAMDIAlan Bjerga, other countries have accused us of protectionism.
BJERGAIn agriculture, you'll find that essentially every nation on earth, except maybe New Zealand, has some form of crop subsidy and it makes international trade disputes very, very thorny. The Doha Round was held up several times because of trade. In talking specifically of NAFTA, that was an interesting historical moment in American agriculture because there was a push in the mid-'90s, especially with the 1996 farm bill, to really move farmers away from subsidies.
BJERGAThere was a succession of bad harvest in the late '90s, there were large congressional bailouts of the agriculture industry and after that, there was sort of a retreat from that and that has helped contribute to a lot of these disputes that we see today.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. It's my understanding, Alan, that direct payments go to farmers no matter the price of crops?
NNAMDIDo direct payments distort the market?
BJERGAThat is an interesting point that actually relates to international trade. Once again with the complexity of global agriculture. One of the arguments that direct payments -- one of the things that advocates of direct payments set note is that under the WTO, that is actually the one form of payment that isn't considered trade distorting. Countercyclical payments that go to farmers during times of low prices, the argument is those payments encourage farmers to stay in business who otherwise wouldn't.
BJERGAWhereas a direct payment, because it's a regular payment that's made every year that's the same amount of money, shouldn't affect a farmer's planting decision and thus does not distort world markets.
NNAMDIWell, Don, one reform that passed in 2008 involved direct payments which are supposed to be limited to something like $40,000 per person, but there are a number of loopholes, aren't there?
CARRYeah. And what you find, especially like in the South, you find these folks that create what's called a Mississippi Christmas tree and you bring a lot of entities underneath one umbrella to maximize the amount of payments. And that's what we were talking about earlier, our ability to look at these payments. These folks hide behind these corporate entities, these corporate shields and use them to really take in the --- to maximize their government haul.
CARRAnd also, you know, on Alan's point about international stuff, too, you know, we have Brazil, you know, won this case against us based on our farm subsidy, so now we actually have to pay, I think it's around $180 million a year.
BJERGAOne hundred forty-seven.
CARR$147 million a year to Brazil, so we're essentially subsidizing our farmers so we can keep subsidizing our cotton farmers.
NNAMDIHere is Lil in Charlottesville, Va. Lil, your turn.
LILYes, hi. I'm -- this is a fascinating subject here. I'm very curious about since we provide -- the government pays so much in subsidies to these big agra businesses, how much money -- how much of that is going -- what percentage do you think is going to big corporations like Monsanto, which is cornering the market and putting a lot of small businesses out because of their genetically modified seeds and et cetera.
CARRYes. It's an interesting question, you know. What -- a lot of times, if you talk to the farm lobby, they really don't like the idea that we talk about corporate agriculture because the truth is, most of these operations that even get the big checks, they are family owned and run. The thing is, is modern technology has enabled us to have a family of five or 10 people and maybe a couple other folks help them out, farm 10, 20,000 acres. And then when you're farming that big of an operation, you're getting a big government check because a lot of the payments are based on acreage.
CARRIn terms of -- and I get asked this question a lot, the Monsantos and the Cargills and such of the world, they don't really get any direct subsidies. What happens is, they buy this raw product from farmers who then have had the product cheapened by the subsidies.
LILInteresting, thank you.
NNAMDILil, thank you very much for your call. Alan, for many people, direct payments are symbolic of what does not work about farm subsidies. Could that mean they're likely to be cut?
BJERGAThere's been an acceptance among a lot of lawmakers on Capitol Hill that I've spoken to that when cuts occur, and everyone believes that it is some form of a when, that the direct payment program is the one that is most vulnerable because frankly, it's the one that to the general public, is going to have the least political sympathy. The concept of paying a farmer, regardless of what a crop price is, just doesn't sit well with a lot of folks in the general public, (laugh) even if it is the one ironically that is easiest to defend before the WTO.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones again. Here is Morgan in Centerville, Va. Morgan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MORGANGood afternoon, how are you?
MORGANHi, I'm just calling to make a small point. After they recently toured the Missouri River and the flooded areas, representative Steve King of Iowa and (word?) representative, Michele Bachmann, were talking about the Pigford case, which is named for farmer Timothy Pigford. Him and about 40 others from North Carolina filed a lawsuit against USDA a number of years ago which was finally settled in 1999.
MORGANThey sued because they were feeling that they had been discriminated against as...
NNAMDIThese are black farmers.
MORGAN…African-Americans. I'm sorry?
NNAMDIWe're talking about African-American farmers?
MORGANYes. And the case was settled in 1999 and it is now finally just being paid out after President Obama signed into legislation late last year about $1.2 billion for people who were denied payments earlier. Representative King from Iowa said that it was modern day reparations for African-Americans and Michele Bachmann seconded it and she called it -- she calling it all fraudulent -- all fraudulent payments for all of these people.
MORGANAnd there's a large portion of disparity of the treatment of women minorities, such as African-American and Latinos, in the farming industry by the USDA. And I'm kind of wondering how the USDA can explain for that, how that all settles up in all of this. I mean, this is also...
NNAMDIWell, I gotta tell you, I spent half of my career covering that issue in one way or another. It's been going on for that long. And I know that Alan Bjerga can't speak for the USDA on this issue, but care to comment at all?
BJERGAWhat I would note, other than that politician say interesting things and that's what keeps us all employed and interested in what we do out here, is that the USDA certainly has -- had admittedly, and they will be quite frank about this, issues with Civil Rights and treatment of different groups in the past and there has been an effort made to deal with that legacy that you see through these settlements and it is striking that it's been happening all in the last couple years.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Morgan. Here is Monica in Baltimore, Md. Monica, your turn.
MONICAHi Kojo. I just had a quick comment to Mr. Johnson's statement from the farmers' union that the U.S. has the most efficient food production system and that we're able to produce more food more cheaply and consumers pay less for their food, but a lot of those cheap calories flow to the consumer in the form of starches and sugars and our overconsumption of those nutrients is contributing directly to a lot of disease and disability.
MONICASo I think when you consider the costs of our food supply, our cheap food supply, you have to factor in our staggering health and medical costs, at least as part of that equation.
NNAMDIHere is Don Carr.
CARRYeah, it's a -- and it's an interesting question. And first of all, talking about what Roger Johnson was talking about, let's take example for corn. It's the most highly subsidized crop in our program and it's also the largest crop that we have in America. One percent of the corn that we grow in America is what's eaten by humans. The rest is either fed to animals or put in the gas tanks. Fruits and vegetables, food, is really not necessarily subsidized.
CARRSo the idea that these subsidies help a safe and abundant and cheap food supply doesn't really hold water when you look at the actual food that we eat and how much government support it has.
NNAMDIAnd tomorrow on Food Wednesday, we'll be talking about some of the corn that we do consume. We'll be talking about sweet corn tomorrow. We're running out of time very quickly, Alan, but in 20 seconds or less, can you tell me, will we really be seeing drought proof crops in the near future?
BJERGAIt depends on who you talk to. Certainly the folks at Monsanto and DuPont are very excited about some of the stuff that they have coming in the pipeline in the next few years. You'll see what happens on that. It is certainly eye-opening, though, that no matter what advances there are in agriculture, it always seems like Mother Nature has another trick up her sleeve.
NNAMDISo it would appear. Alan Bjerga is a reporter at Bloomberg News covering agricultural policy and author of the upcoming book "Endless Appetites" for Bloomberg News. He's also the immediate past president of the National Press Club. Alan, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIDon Carr is the Senior Communications and Policy Advisor for the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy and research organization focused on the environment and health issues. Don, thank you for joining us.
CARRThanks Kojo, I appreciate it.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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