An Issue The Food Party Can Cotton To

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack remains wisely unswayed by House Agriculture Committee pleas to reclassify cottonseeds. According to the cotton industry, low prices and loss of acreage have put American cotton farmers in a tough spot. They believe salvation lies with the reclassification, which would allow $1 billion more a year in federal farm subsidies paid out to cotton growers.

One would think the bruising boom bust cycle most U.S. commodity farmers have been riding would finally be reason enough for a soup to nuts overhaul of our entire food and farm system, but alas, that is always a bridge too far.

Vilsack and House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway (whose district is third nationally in cotton subsidies) have been jousting back and forth whether Vilsack has the legal authority to do so. Regardless of who is right, why won’t Chairman Conaway use his significant power to help cotton farmers? That is his job and core constituency after all.

One reason may be that Congress is beyond dysfunction. The House is in the grasp of the “Freedom Caucus” that would surely balk at more spending. There is little guarantee they would be successful in adding a new subsidy. And tinkering with the farm bill to authorize writing more checks to cotton growers invites farm subsidy cutting barbarians at the gates inside the castle to feast on other crop programs.

Perhaps the real reticence behind House Aggies doing their jobs is a desperate need for election year political cover. Used to be GOP members could vote for farm subsides and still retain “conservative” bona fides. House Agriculture Committee member Scott Desjarlais (R-TN) is in a particularly tight primary race where farm bill spending is an issue. He signed onto this letter begging Vilsack to add the cotton subsidy along with dozens of other GOP colleagues.

What Desjarlais, Conaway and other House GOPers are essentially asking for is executive branch action, as opposed to Congress acting. Which if it was anything other than subsidies for their farmers would be doused with white-hot rhetorical fire.

President Obama’s decision to act unilaterally on immigration shows a blatant disregard for the constitutional checks and balances upon which our government was founded and sets a troubling precedent for the use of executive power. Congress has the sole authority to create and amend laws, with the president’s duty being to faithfully execute those laws. Although he might wish otherwise, the Constitution does not give President Obama the authority to circumvent Congress simply because existing immigration laws conflict with his particular ideology. Scott Desjarlais 11-21-14

Since 1995 taxpayers have paid out 35.7 billion in subsidies to U.S. cotton growers. Retiring GOP congressman Stephen Fincher of Tennessee, famous for trying to cut food stamps while hoovering up farm subsidies, received $3.4 million in cotton payments. At one point cotton farmers were so subsidized that Brazil won a WTO trade dispute that forced taxpayers to subsidize Brazilian farmers by $150 million a year to balance it out. The current quandary stems from how a whole new program created in the farm bill by Congress for the cotton industry — STAX — hasn’t proved helpful to cotton growers.

All this federal support has demonstrably done little to create a stable market for cotton farmers to thrive. To that end, does anyone think another billion-dollar a year subsidy is going to be anything but a short-term Band-Aid?

Clearly Washington DC has huge influence over how agriculture works. That’s why coordinated political efforts like Plate of the Union and Food Policy Action see a need to influence elections in order to change the badly broken parts of our food and farm system.

As far as I know, you can’t eat cotton. That’s likely a reason it hasn’t been on the broader “good food” movement’s radar, except for its genetically modified attributes. There’s a plausible scenario where concerned urban eaters rise up and demand change ala the Tea Party. I’m convinced that if such a thing as a national Food Party is going to create real change in our food and farm policy, it’s going to get there faster and with greater credibility if it includes farmer voices that don’t grow for niche markets.

There are bushels of American cotton growers out there looking for a lifeline. Right now even their historic champions are hanging them out to dry for political reasons. So what could a nascent Food Party offer chronically struggling cotton farmers?

Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott wrote last year about options for U.S. fruit and vegetable production through the lens of California’s epic drought. With drought threatening the home of 40% of our produce, Tom cast about for other regions to shift production to.

Decades of low prices have already put a squeeze on Southern cotton acres, and the fiber has recently slumped anew in global trading. Why not transition at least some acres into crops with a robust domestic market? I bounced my idea of a Cotton Belt fruit-and-vegetable renaissance off a few experts to see if it was nuts. Ferd Hoefner, policy director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, called it “noncrazy.” He pointed out that, as in most other parts of the United States, small-scale farms that sell directly to consumers are “already gearing up down there,” and added that the region “seems ripe for entrepreneurial companies to come in, buy land, grow farmers, introduce a whole new vegetable supply chain on a bigger scale, especially with California’s woes.”

I’m not talking about a fantasy in which everyone eats from within 20 miles (although such locavore networks, which have thrived nationwide over the last two decades, certainly add diversification and resilience to the overall food system). I’m simply pushing a more regionalized, widely distributed scheme for filling our salad and fruit bowls, one less dependent on California and its overtaxed water resources.

An extra $1 billion a year is a lot of federal cheddar. What if some of that money was instead used to help cotton farmers transition to fruit and vegetable production? Or put into a fund to pay farmers who want to farm carbon?

Seems like an issue the Food Party can get behind.

About the author

For over fifteen years I’ve investigated and written about America’s worst polluters from the gas fields of North Dakota to the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. I’ve been a Senior Advisor for the Environmental Working Group and a Senior Manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. As a freelance journalist, I’ve written for Politico, the Washington DC City Paper, the Huffington Post, Grist, Civil Eats and the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

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