Earlier this month, I summarized the agriculture positions of the candidates for President on both sides of the aisle. You can read that column here.
Since that time, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who is running for the Democratic nomination, (“Bernie” as he prefers) has released a position paper on agriculture entitled “Improving the Rural Economy”.
When it comes to rural development, Bernie is right on target. He supports biofuels, wind energy, the Renewable Fuel Standard, broadband, improving the electric grid and improving our dams and levees. Excellent!
As to agriculture, however, Bernie misses the mark. Bernie supports “small farms and mid-size farms” as well as regional food systems. Pointedly, Bernie withholds support for larger “factory farms” and our national food system. In short, he is at odds with the traditional Democratic support for American agriculture.
The 2012 Democratic National Platform on agriculture states:
“An agricultural economy built to last is integral to the affordability of our food, the independence of our energy supply, and the security of America's middle class. Democrats support agriculture from the small farms that feed the community to the large farms that feed the world. President Obama has expanded markets for American goods that help support more than a million agriculture jobs here at home. And in the past few years, agriculture has been one of the fastest-growing parts of our economy, creating one out of every 12 American jobs.”
“Democrats appreciate agriculture's role in securing America's food security and making our country an ambassador of food aid to countries across the world. That's why Democrats support a strong farm safety net, with increased availability of crop insurance and emergency disaster assistance to help farmers and ranchers keep their farms in business after natural disasters and crop loss. Democrats are also planning for a strong agricultural future, and President Obama has proposed increasing funding for research and development to improve agricultural productivity and continue to pursue global food security.”
Farms in Vermont are small, averaging just 177 acres. Dairy accounts for 70-80 percent of Vermont’s agricultural sales overall but cow numbers have dropped to a population of 135,000 producing just 1.3% of the national milk supply, according to Dr. Parsons at the University of Vermont. And the Sanders’ agriculture issue paper emphasizes small-scale farming.
This contrasts with the U.S. farm belt where farms are frequently over 1,000 acres and even a family farm can reach 5,000 acres or more. It is the efficiency of these large farms that benefits all American consumers, and low income consumers in particular. Americans spend less on food than any other country in the world, improving the quality of live for all.
The Sanders issue paper says “It is unacceptable that the top 10% of farms collect 75% of farm subsidies.” Yet the top 10% of the farms in the U.S. are the ones that feed America. Indeed, only a few hundred thousand farmers can feed the country.
Finally, while it may be logical for Bernie, who represents Vermont, to support Vermont’s statute that calls for labeling foods that are genetically modified foods (GE), it is at odds with the larger needs of the country. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and many of the stakeholders in the food chain are working together to try and develop a national system for providing information to consumers on how their foods are produced. It is critical that there be one national system as fifty different state labeling schemes will totally disrupt interstate commerce. There is just one national, nutrition labeling system and there can be only one system for providing consistent information about what is in our food and how it is produced.
The net impact of Sanders’ agriculture policies would be to drive up the cost of food for all Americans, hurt U.S. competitiveness in the world market and undercut the UN goal of global food security.
Over the next few weeks and months, Americans will begin the process of selecting the nominees of the Republican and Democratic political parties. In November we will elect the 45th President of the United States. It is an extraordinary process that would make the founding fathers very proud.
Our obligation as citizens is to learn as much as we can about the candidates before voting. The stakes could not be higher on a range of issues, including agriculture. Our economy and our national security depend on a strong agriculture economy. Whether the next president is a Republican or a Democrat, agriculture deserves the support of the next Administration…. from the small farms that feed the community to the large farms that feed the world.
Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture at OFW Law in Washington. He was Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture and chaired the Obama for President, Committee on Agriculture.