US Foods Holding Corporation and Sysco, the two top American food distribution giants, are laying off thousands of workers. Wal-Mart is closing stores and terminating employees. As the price of eggs, beef, cheese, and almost all agricultural products have dropped, farmers across the United States are facing financial ruin.
The ongoing glut in agricultural products is not merely the natural cycle of the market at work. Policies of the US federal government are directly linked to the low food prices. While it is clear that the ongoing agricultural surplus is very bad for the US public, the government seems to have other priorities.
Broken Promises From Politicians
The agricultural prowess of the United States is known across the planet. The current president of China first visited the United States in 1985. He didn’t come to see the Statue of Liberty, or the Washington Monument. Rather, Xi Jinping visited Iowa in order to study the technology and farming techniques employed by some of the most advanced and efficient farmers in the world.
Love for the small farmers is voiced by almost all sectors of US political establishment, and almost always has been. The writings of Thomas Jefferson spoke at length about the “yeoman” and his role in an ideal republic. The left-wing folk singer Pete Seeger sang about how “the farmer is man who feeds them all.” Right-wing Radio host Paul Harvey plucked the heart strings of the American public with his “So God Made a Farmer” speech in 1978.
Each election year, American politicians devote special attention to the Iowa caucuses, the first vote in determining who will be the major parties’ respective nominees. As they travel across the Midwestern agricultural state, the presidential hopefuls routinely make all kinds of speeches championing “the hard working farmers.”
While politicians are known to make promises to the farmers, and seem to recognize that agriculture is essential to the US economy, the policies of recent years, most of them having bipartisan support, have been anything but beneficial to those who work the land. In the current presidential race, Iowa is hotly contested, with Trump and Clinton very close in the polls. The farm glut, spawned by federal policies, is undoubtedly a big factor.
In the first 8 months of 2016, 43 million gallons of milk were poured out due to the glut. According to the Wall Street Journal: “Farmers across the US are pouring out tens of millions of gallons of milk amid massive over glut that has reduced prices and filled warehouses with cheese.”
Meanwhile, another WSJ article reports: “Cattle and hog prices hover near the lowest levels in years as U.S. meatpackers produce the largest volume of meat in history.” Between July of 2016 and July of 2017, the price of milk has decreased by 11%. The price of eggs has decreased by 40%.
The overproduction and under-consumption of agricultural products can be directly linked to federal policies. Throughout his administration, Barack Obama has repeatedly cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and reduced the amount of food that low income families are able to purchase. The cutting of this federal program directly takes food from the mouths of low-income Americans. Despite the fact that according to the US Department of Agriculture, 13% of American households are now food insecure, the cuts have continued, and hunger is rising among America’s poor. (l)
In addition to the obvious impact on low-income Americans, the cuts in food stamps have also cut into food sales. Food producing corporations and small farmers have seen a decrease in their sales. Wal-Mart has laid off thousands of workers and closed thousands of stores. These losses and layoffs can be linked directly to the SNAP cuts.
Congress has recently discussed a plan that would eventually take $150 billion out of the federal food assistance program, a move that would undoubtedly push a lot of food producers, retail employees, and meat packers over the edge, along with many others.
The reductions in food assistance are not the only factor. The economic sanctions against Russia have played a dramatic role in creating the current food glut. The collapse and breaking up of the Soviet Union’s collective farm system during the Yeltsin era of the 1990s dramatically reduced Russia’s domestic food production. This opened up new markets for American farmers, who greatly increased their exports to the former USSR.
However, the new sanctions imposed in 2014, which restrict US and EU agricultural sales to Russia, have dramatically changed the landscape of the global food market. American farmers have been deprived of 143.5 million potential customers due to the ban on selling to those living in the Russian Federation.
Austerity & Fascism Leave Farmers Behind
Why is food assistance to low income families being cut? The claim is that the US federal budget is too large, and that hard economic times mandate austerity. However, the United States still has the largest military budget on the planet. When it comes time to reduce spending, rather than cutting the amount of money spent on tanks, bombs, and drones, the politicians have opted to cut into the nutrition of low-income Americans, along with the livelihoods of farmers and agricultural workers. The thousands of military bases around the world, along with the billions given in foreign military aid to countries like Israel, all seem be far more important to US leaders.
And why has the US drastically restricted the exporting agricultural products to Russia? The sanctions were enacted in 2014, in response to the Ukraine crisis. The elected President of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovich, was toppled in orgy of street violence. The new government, with a base of support only in the western regions of the country, has within its ranks many open admirers of Adolf Hitler, and is very hostile to Russia.
Since 2014, the people of Eastern Ukraine have taken up arms to resist the new regime. The people in the region of Crimea voted to become apart of the Russian Federation, whose military they had been hosting since the collapse of the USSR. Sanctions were imposed on Russia and continue, based on allegations that Russia is supporting the resistance of people in the Eastern regions against the new, pro-Western regime. US leaders tell us the sanctions are intended to punish Russia for “meddling” in Ukraine.
Since the passing of the sanctions, Russia has revived its own domestic agricultural programs. Small farmers across Russia are producing beef, wheat, and other products no longer sold to them by the US and the EU. Russian agriculture has experienced a boom since 2014, and Russian President Vladimir Putin is even more popular than prior to the crisis.
The decision of US leaders to wage economic warfare against Russia in support of Ukrainian fascists, while at the same time cutting assistance to low-income American families, is contrary to values often displayed throughout American history. Both Lincoln and Roosevelt saw prosperity for the agricultural heartland of the United States and the millions who lived in it as vitally important for the entire country. These two most beloved Presidents in US history both worked closely in alliance with small farmers, often in opposition to Wall Street bankers with different interests.
The rallying cry of the Republican Party in its early years, was “Free Land, Free Labor, Free Men!” The “Free Soilers,” farmers who wanted to halt the expansion of slavery in new US territories were an essential part of it. While slavery found support in the financial districts of London and New York, the small farmers had a material interest in ending the barbaric practice, and anti-slavery militias appeared in Iowa and Kansas years before the Civil War broke out.
It was a broad coalition of small farmers, religious abolitionists, and organized labor that eventually put Abraham Lincoln into the White House where he was forced to battle the slaveholders. The process that unfolded recreated the country, in what is widely called “The Second American Revolution.”
“An American Government Cannot Allow Americans To Starve”
The programs that preceded the currently existing Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) were the brainchild of Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, who eventually became the Vice President. When the first “food stamps” were issued in 1939, the director of the program, Milo Perkins described it this way: “We got a picture of a gorge, with farm surpluses on one cliff and under-nourished city folks with outstretched hands on the other. We set out to find a practical way to build a bridge across that chasm.”
While Roosevelt was universally hated by Wall Street bankers, he was very popular with organized labor, artists and musicians, as well as small farmers. As the unemployment councils and labor unions fought for a better life across the country, Roosevelt aligned himself with the mass movement in the streets. Essential in Roosevelt’s progressive coalition was the US Communist Party, an organization that sought to build a “Workers and Farmer’s Government.” When big business objected to Roosevelt’s dramatic economic reforms, he defended them by saying “An American government cannot allow Americans to Starve.”
Roosevelt later aligned with the Russian people in order to defeat Adolf Hitler. FDR’s opposition to fascism and his policies of feeding of hungry Americans while subsidizing farmers were not isolated from each other. They corresponded with his overall view of the world, expressed in 1944: “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth- is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill housed, and insecure….We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence….People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
Children across the United States are hungry, as 13% of households are food insecure, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Farm workers and those who work for food distributors and supermarkets are losing their jobs. Gallons of milk are at this moment being dumped out in hopes of raising the prices, while food warehouses sit filled with rotting, unsold cheese.
Meanwhile, US and NATO forces are increasing their presence in Eastern Europe, threatening Russia. As agricultural sanctions on Russia continue, weapons and training are being provided to a Ukrainian military that is known to contain a number fascist sympathizers, including the infamous Azov Battalion.
As discontent rises in the United States, it is largely centered in the agricultural and de-industrialized mid-western heartland. It is clear that many Americans desperately want something to change. A government that prioritizes fascism in Ukraine over farmers in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Ohio, is clearly out of touch.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.