9.14.2015

Shifting Agricultural Coalitions
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 4

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 4:
Shifting Agricultural Coalitions - Sliding Back toward the Free Market, 1945-1975

Summary:

The slow retrenchment of federal agricultural supports for the 30 years post-WWII was driven by "dynamics within agriculture," but politics also played a role.  Republicans took the White House in 1952 for the first time in 20 years, and policies shifted slowly back toward deregulation.  "With Republicans in control of the executive branch, the USDA, and the House and Senate agricultural committees, a dramatic policy shift might have seemed imminent."  Opposition from both parties, though, slowed change.  Congress, it seemed, could not reach a consensus on the direction of agricultural policy, nor could presidential administrations.

Several waves of change occurred in the decades after WWII:
 "The period from 1945 to 1975 can be divided into three shorter periods, each marked by an important change in agricultural policy.  First, price supports were reduced and made flexible between 1945 and 1954.  Second, production controls were weakened between 1954 and 1964.  Third, both price supports and production controls were significantly changed in the early 1970s."
PL 480 created the Office of Food for Peace.
During WWII, price supports had been raised to 90% parity.  Though legislative intention was that supports would revert to 52-75% parity two years after the war, extensions in 1948, 1949, and 1952 kept parity at 90% until 1954.  Small reductions at last came in the 1954 Farm Bill under Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Benson, which reduced supports to 75-90% parity.  In the same year, the Agriculture Trade Development and Assistance Act, also known as Public Law 480 or PL 480, was passed.  The act "aimed to create new markets for U.S. agricultural commodities in the periphery of the world economy through the use of international food aid."

By the late 1940s, the corn segment of the farm bloc had begun opposing acreage restrictions.  Additionally, the Farm Bureau began calling for flexible price supports that would change with market prices.  "In its official policy statement, the Farm Bureau stated, 'we do not consider it the responsibility of the Government to generate profitable prices to any group.'"  Such flexibility was opposed by wheat and cotton segments, which continued to champion price supports and supply management.  The cotton-wheat coalition prevailed until 1954.

The corn sector fought production controls across the board, not just for itself, due to both a desire to keep livestock feed prices low, and because it feared competition from other feed crops.  Cotton producers, for instance, were turning to growing soybeans on the land from which it was restricted from growing cotton.  Soybeans are a feed crop that could compete with corn.  Without limits on cotton production, such alternate production would be unnecessary for cotton growers.  It must be noted that the Corn Belt was also home to 64-70% of U.S. hog production.  As is the case today, corn was grown primarily for livestock, not human, consumption.  Use as hog feed combined with increasing meat consumption prevented for corn the surpluses that wheat and cotton were experiencing.  "Coupled with the emerging livestock complex, which rested on intensive and industrial production methods, this increasing consumption of animals made supply management policy less necessary for feed grains, especially corn."

Corn production in the U.S.

Hog production in the U.S.  Notice any correlation?
In contrast, wheat continued to support production controls as its global demand lessened.  The cotton segment, which frequently grew corn on acreage disallowed for cotton growth by production restrictions, naturally desired high fixed corn price supports.  "The cotton segment's embeddedness within the Democratic Party and Congress virtually ensured the protection of its interests whenever this party held Congress or the White House."  The shift in 1954 to a Republican White House and Congress allowed the corn segment to become the more influential interest, and policies began to change to align to the benefit of corn.  However, strong representation of the wheat and cotton segments in the House and Senate agricultural committees prevented the shift toward free-market policies from happening too quickly.  "With southern planters so influential in Congress and the wheat segment splitting the Republican Party, the cotton-wheat coalition exerted substantial influence over agricultural policy."

Wheat and cotton segments' support of production controls, however, waned after 1954, ultimately resulting in further retrenchment by the mid-1960s.  Wheat interests moved away from rigid and toward flexible production controls as a result of PL 480, which had created a market for wheat surpluses by increasing export opportunities.  "Food aid secured markets for U.S. wheat by changing diets and agricultural production in periphery nations.  With exports expanding, U.S. wheat growers could increase production rather than trying to control it."  Likewise, the cotton segment's interests shifted when it moved away from cotton and toward soybeans.  By the time of the 1964 Cotton-Wheat Act, corn, wheat, and cotton were once again aligned in policy preference - this time in wanting to move away from the support and control policies each previously promoted.

The next significant policy change came in 1973 with the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), which "removed parity from price supports and dropped acreage reduction requirements."  The bill received strong support from all agricultural regions.  Some segments - particularly corn, which had experienced an explosion in export rates - opposed the bill because it did not completely eliminate supports and restrictions (which had become voluntary).  But this opposition was not strong or ubiquitous enough to prevent the bill's passage.  Wheat supported the bill due to its still-increasing exports.  Cotton remained in favor of price supports but opposed strict controls as synthetic fibers became cheaper and more prevalent than cotton, cotton imports increased, and soybean sales continued to grow, but ultimately supported the bill.

Two primary factors made the passage of the ACPA in 1973 possible:
"First, the world economic context reduced the need for production controls or price supports, at least in the short term.  Exports of cotton, wheat, corn, and soybeans flourished [as a result of PL 480].  Second, the cotton-wheat coalition suffered from a decrease in power.  Southern planters had become large commercial farmers, losing their hold over regional politics and the Democratic Party.  This made it much less likely that the cotton segment, even in an alliance with wheat, could get the farm program of their choice as they had in the past."
Ironically, the supply management policies so long supported by southern Democrats ultimately undermined their political power.

Discussion:

That corn producers gained prominence in determining the direction of U.S. agricultural policy in the 1960s, and have not yet let go, is evident in our supermarkets.  Corn's superiority strikingly clear in this setting.  One aisle offers all fresh produce and dairy products, another half an aisle offers meats, and one more presents wheat in its various forms.  And in the ten to fifteen aisles in between, corn reigns supreme.  Even those products not made of corn contain it in some form.  Staters who eat processed foods eat a lot of corn.  Even the meats offered are arguably corn products, given that most livestock animals are fed corn-based diets.  Meat, then, could really be said to be processed corn.

Corn.

Corn. (And, yes, a lil rice and wheat.  But there's corn in there, pretty much always.)
King Corn, if you haven't seen it yet, is worth watching.

I am keen to learn more about PL 480 and its use of food aid to bolster U.S. exports.  It should be noted that U.S. food aid, so frequently touted as a great humanitarian effort, was embarked upon not out of some expression of generosity and caring but to support the profitability of U.S. crops.  While I too would love to believe that we, as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, provide food and other aid to "developing" countries out of the goodness of our hearts, this has simply never been the case.

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