Dear USDA: Stop squeezing the food industry with outdated subsidies

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Soybeans are poured into a tractor trailer.

Our SDGs Letter Project is a call to action. Over a year ago, the U.N. adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which collectively represent millions of dreams and aspirations. GreenBiz, in partnership with the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, is publishing 17 letters by Yale University students that highlight the ideas of youth regarding the 2030 developmental agenda. This series seeks to drive forward the collective will to translate the SDGs into reality.

Dear U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and esteemed members of Congress,

American’s food and fiber come almost exclusively from agricultural giants (PDF): 89 percent of agricultural sales come from about 12 percent of farms. The largest 15 percent of farm businesses receive over 85 percent of farm subsidies. To remain competitive with one another and global imports, farms compete on the margin through expensive capital investments. The Environmental Working Group identified 50 multi-billionaires that received government handouts through farm subsidies.

But farm subsidies, which began as a safety net meant to protect farmer incomes and improve consumer nourishment during the hungry times of the Great Depression, no longer serve these admirable goals. They should be reset to do so.

The goal of Sustainable Development Goal 2 is to "end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture." The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can aid in this mission by fixing agriculture subsidies, refocusing economic forces to grow food that is more affordable, healthy and sustainable.

The first goal is to stop distributing wealth to a disproportionate minority of large farms and instead support medium-sized firms. By dissociating subsidies from protected crops requiring huge capital investments and granting market and capital access to those people that need it, thousands of farmers can become competitive. This competition will lead to more nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Increasing the familiarity, diversity and taste of specialty crops likely will create demand, leading to healthier food choices. Moreover, with technology enabling urban farms, inner city food deserts can participate in the coming agricultural renaissance. In fact, such farms have been linked to increased feelings of community and lower levels of violence.

Sustainable soils

Commercial row crop farming requires large upfront capital investment for agricultural machinery, storage structures and processing equipment. Thus, each additional farmed acre decreases the average cost as the investment is spread across a larger base.

Seeking subsidy eligibility, farmers have cultivated marginal lands with poorer soils and climates. These soils provide less nutrients for crops, requiring additional fertilizers.

Cultivating marginal lands increases soil erosion, leading to sedimentation of lakes and streams, as well as subjugation of the native ecosystems and reduction of wildlife habitat diversity. The combination of erosion and increased fertilizer use has been documented to wreck environments such as the Florida Everglades. Instead of realigning subsidies to incentivize high-value, specialty crops over intensive farming, current USDA conservation programs dispense about $3 billion annually to millions of acres of idle farmland.

Moreover, farmers moved away from crop rotation towards mono-cropping, the practice of planting the same crop year after year. Mono-cropping efficiently allows farmers to specialize, developing only specific skills and market relations and investing in known equipment and inputs. However, this prevents the natural soil nutrient replacement that crop rotation and periodic fallowing encourage.

The practices of mono-cropping and farming on marginal land not only wreck soil ecology but also enable parasitic species, such as insects, fungi, microorganisms and weeds, to flourish at the expense of biodiversity (PDF). Already weakened plants are vulnerable food sources that offer little resistance. Farmers have been fighting parasites with pesticides ranging from insecticides to herbicides such as RoundUp, but natural selection has allowed resistant species to thrive.

These pest-killing efforts have damaged populations of beneficial species. Bees have been dying in huge numbers from exposure to insecticides — not only are they crucial in ecosystems across the country but their value as commercial pollinators is more than $15 billion annually. Pesticide runoff into lakes, rivers and oceans has been surveyed (PDF) at concentrations deemed harmful to aquatic life and fish-eating wildlife, generating annual environmental and health costs of at least $10 billion. Finally, humans exposed to pesticides through farming, runoff and possibly unwashed foods face higher risks of cancer and lower IQ.

Nutrition and affordability

Between 2008 and 2012, less than 0.5 percent of USDA subsidies went toward specialty crops (vegetable, fruit and nut growers), while 80 percent went to corn, soy, grain and other oil crops — with the rest going to livestock, dairy, cotton and tobacco. Subsidies create artificially low prices for USDA staple crops, distorting economic incentives for consumers and creating an unsustainable market. Furthermore, they undermine free market approaches internationally and dampen international trade. The Congressional Budget Office found that both the U.S. and global economies would gain from the repeal of U.S. and foreign agricultural subsidies.

Current methods of agriculture are unsustainable for human nutritional needs: Because of subsidies, America does not produce nearly enough fruits and vegetables domestically to satisfy national health recommendations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) researchers found that nationally, 87 percent of adults do not meet the federally recommended fruit and vegetable consumption. These foods provide a variety of nutrients, from vitamins and minerals to dietary fiber, a deficiency of which increases rates of certain cancers, heart disease and autoimmune diseases.

After evaluating current food consumption and retail prices, the USDA found that Americans would need to spend 40 percent of our food budgets to satisfy these health guidelines, but the typical household spends only a quarter of food budgets on fruits and vegetables — and that percentage is cut in half for lower-income households.

The economic incentives put in place by our government were developed during the Great Depression, but now directly cost over $20 billion per year and create market imbalances that profit huge farms planting corn and soya beans.

Moreover, by supplying local supermarkets, farming becomes more environmentally sustainable as less fuel is used for transport.

Farmers aren’t to blame, with the clear majority simply working for secure livelihoods. Large investments and an ever-increasing need for fertilizer and pesticides continue to squeeze their profits. Ending subsidies saves ecosystems, tax dollars and human health without destroying livelihoods or our food security. On the other hand, liberalizing our food system and encouraging new market entrants strengthens us as a country by helping end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.