When I began working as an accountant many years ago, I heard the expression that “figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”
There’s a lot of truth in Mark Twain’s quip. Take, for example, the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) use of statistics when speaking about U.S. farm policy.
Recently, I read EWG’s latest spin.
The first thing I noticed is that EWG included statistics from 30 years ago, never mind that five farm bills have been approved over that period that have changed farm policy dramatically.
To sensationalize things, EWG suggests that if all farm payments in a county in my home State went to the general public, each person would receive X amount of money. But the same could be said about any government expenditure used to further a public policy goal. Why not quit funding roads and bridges and just give everyone a per capita payment?
We have agriculture policy in this country for a reason. Among the lessons the pandemic taught us is not to take for granted full grocery shelves, safe food, and the fact that we as Americans pay less in disposable income on food than anyone else in the world.
I’d say that’s worth at least the one-quarter-of-one percent of the total federal budget we spend on U.S. farm policy so farm and ranch families have something as basic as insurance on their crops and livestock and so they are not left alone to face high and rising foreign subsidies and tariffs from countries like China.
Not long ago, China was found guilty of over-subsidizing three crops in a single year by $100 billion. The U.S. could never match that; nor would we want to. We have among the lowest tariffs and domestic support in the world because we are confident in our producers’ success if we simply have a level playing field.
Unfortunately, the EWG’s only answer to the predatory trade practices of China and other foreign countries and to the vagaries of Mother Nature is “tough luck.” But we cannot say that to our farm and ranch families who, by the way, are 98 percent family-owned and operated.
Farmers borrow more money every year to produce a crop than most Americans borrow in a lifetime, and they need insurance to secure loans to make it possible. But, without Federal Crop Insurance, multiple-peril insurance would not be available. The liability protection provided by crop insurance is what allows the farmer to produce a crop, invest in the farming operation, and to create economic activity that generates jobs on Main Street. Imagine not having property and casualty insurance for homes, autos, and businesses. The impact on the economy would be devastating.
Conservation programs in the farm bill promote cleaner air and water, wildlife and wildlife habitat, healthy soil, wetlands protection, protection against soil erosion, and even climate change mitigation. These programs are near-universally recognized as the most effective means of meeting these important goals. Moreover, these programs often benefit smaller producers. For example, 84 percent of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) dollars go to small producers. But, here again, the EWG is inexplicably the outlier, opposing conservation programs.
EWG also claims that farm benefits are tilted toward certain crops and are based on production. The truth is, farmers and ranchers of nearly all, if not all, commodities are helped in some way by U.S. farm policy. But it is not a one-size-fits-all approach because producers of different commodities from different regions face different challenges and have different needs – and they ask for different policy approaches in a farm bill.
In terms of basing benefits on production under the Commodity Title, if the goal of our policy is to ensure a safe, affordable, and abundant food supply, what other metric should be used? Would EWG have USDA provide benefits to producers for losses they did not suffer or deny producers help on losses they did suffer? That wouldn’t make sense.
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EWG also uses statistics to show that farm benefits go to a small percentage of “wealthy” farmers. To understand how EWG arrives at this conclusion, one has to understand USDA’s definition of “farmer,” which is anyone who produces $1,000 of agricultural goods per year. This includes a 4-H student who raises and sells prize livestock, or a retired couple that bought a small hobby farm to enjoy country life. In fact, a large percentage of “farmers” do not rely on farm income for a living and don’t regard themselves as farmers. The small percentage of “wealthy” farmers, then, consists of full-time farmers who make their living and support their families off the farm. These producers appear “wealthy” on a chart because their agricultural sales are high in comparison with that 4-H student or retired hobby farmer. Also, remember that agricultural sales should never be confused with actual income, though EWG always conflates the two. Sales do not equal income because sales do not account for expenses. Or think of it this way: your gross income on your paycheck is not the same as your take-home pay.
Here is another illustration of how EWG misuses statistics. EWG recently noted that farm payments in my home state are not fairly distributed geographically, observing that northeastern Minnesota receives far less support than southern and western Minnesota. Of course, those of us from Minnesota would respond by saying, yes, this is true because southern and western Minnesota are where most of the agriculture is located and there isn’t much farming on the Iron Range. Conversely, if we were discussing programs benefiting miners, we would expect very few dollars would go to southern or western Minnesota, with most bound for the northeastern part of our State.
Every five years, there is a conversation to be had about U.S. farm policy. This year, there will undoubtedly be a lot of input from all different perspectives and the end-product should benefit from the debate. But the misuse of statistics is not helpful to the process.
Collin C. Peterson is former Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and represented Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District as a Democrat from 1991-2021. He is President and Founder of The Peterson Group.
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