THE RHETORIC OF SAFETY NETS
Recently Tom Vilsack, the current Secretary of Agriculture and head of the USDA (and former governor of my home state, Iowa) appeared on the comic pundit Stephen Colbert’s show The Colbert Report. During this rather humorous tete-a-tete Colbert asked Vilsack about the new nutrition programs that are being implemented in American schools. Vilsack noted the sad reality that many schools have served our children too much fat, too much sugar and sodium and not enough whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. Colbert responded with the fact that the US government subsidizes the agricultural industry that produces those same fatty, sugary foods that are having poor effects on our children’s health. He then asks the question, “Shouldn’t we just not subsidize those foods?” Vilsack responded with a rhetorical line that subsidies are safety nets to farmers protecting them from bad weather events and volatile markets.
This rhetorical device of designating crop subsidies as “safety nets” is a way of creating a sense of food anxiety in the listener. One can imagine the average consumer being filled with fear about their food supply if the farmer’s “safety nets” are pulled. Surely we don’t want to gamble on our food with weather and the market!
Safety nets are not a bad thing to provide for farmers. But unfortunately, subsidies are being used more as direct give-aways to huge agribusinesses rather than functioning as safety nets for smaller farms. According to the Environmental Work Group, an incredibly valuable resource in following subsidy recipients, in 2009, 10% of all American farmers received 74% of all the subsidies doled out by the government. Contrast that with the fact that 62% of American farmers collected 0% of the subsidies and you have a stark image of a system drastically out of balance. Compound these numbers with the often ridiculous recipients of subsidies like Scotty Pippin and the Prince of Lichtenstein that have no involvement in farming and one begins to understand the lack of regulation in the current subsidy system.