Agricultural policies in the US are contributing to the poor health of Americans, and, specifically, government-issued agricultural subsidies are worsening the US obesity epidemic, concluded a new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.1
At the root of the issue?
“Government-issued payments have skewed agricultural markets toward the overproduction of commodities that are the basic ingredients of processed, energy-dense foods,” the researchers wrote.
This includes corn, wheat, soybeans and rice, which are the top four most heavily subsidized foods.
By subsidizing these, particularly corn and soy, the US government is actively supporting a diet that consists of these grains in their processed form, namely high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), soybean oil, and grain-fed cattle – all of which are now well-known contributors to obesity and chronic diseases.
Despite this widespread knowledge, public health officials have had little to say about this agricultural practice, yet it seems quite clear that they should. With the 2013 Farm Bill set to be finalized by the end of September 2013, this could be a key time to implement important policy changes in the near future.
The Farm Subsidy Program Is Junk — Literally
The US farm subsidy program is upside down, subsidizing junk food in one federal office, while across the hall another department is funding an anti-obesity campaign. This hypocrisy shows just how broken and wasteful our regulatory system really is.
Farm subsidies bring you high-fructose corn syrup, fast food, junk food, CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations), monoculture, and a host of other contributors to our unhealthful contemporary diet.
Why would a farmer choose to plant lettuce or Swiss chard when the government will essentially “insure” their corn crops, paying them back if the market prices fall below a set floor price? Likewise with wheat and soybeans, the second and third most heavily subsidized crops, respectively.
Most of them wouldn’t… and that’s why the US diet is so heavily loaded with foods based on the surplus, nutritionally devoid crops of corn, wheat and soy. One of the effects of the farm bill is creating a negative feedback loop that perpetuates the highly profitable standard American diet. The US government is, in essence, subsidizing obesity and chronic disease!
As the new study reported:2
“American agricultural policy has traditionally failed to offer incentives or support for fruit and vegetable production. Farmers are penalized for growing specialty crops (such as fruits and vegetables)
If they have received federal farm payments to grow other crops. In other words, federal farm subsidies promote unsustainable agriculture while also failing to reward good stewardship.
Further, although farmers may generate higher marketplace revenue from fresh produce, substantially lower economic security makes growing fruits and vegetables a risky proposition in an already risky industry.”
Just Eight Crops Make Up Virtually All of US Cropland
If you’ve ever wondered why corn and soy products are so ubiquitous not only in US processed foods but as feed for livestock, including cattle, you need look no further than the makeup of US cropland. It’s reported:3
“In 2004, 96% of U.S. cropland was dominated by the eight main commodity crops: corn (30%); soybeans (29%); wheat (23%); cotton (5%); sorghum (3%); barley (2%); oats (2%); and rice (1%).
According to the American Soybean Association, 70% of the fats and oils consumed by Americans are soy oil, found primarily in cooking oils, baking, and frying fats. A large percentage of cropland is cultivated on a 2-year rotation that favors soy one year and corn the next, another purported contributor to obesity.
A conservative estimate of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) consumption suggests a daily average of 132 calories for all Americans aged > 2 years, with the top 20% of consumers ingesting an average of 316 calories from HFCS per day.
Another important contribution of grains and oilseeds to the prevalence of obesity is their use as feed for livestock… As grain-fed livestock contribute to the oversupply of the commodities required to feed them, the harmful effects of grain and oilseed production are as widespread as they are indirect.”
Farm Subsidies Favor Large Corporate Farms, Force Small Farms Out of Business
Many are under the mistaken impression that farm subsidies are beneficial to small farmers, allowing them to stay afloat in years of poor harvests. Yet commodity subsidies are overwhelmingly going out to a select few mega farms — not to the small farmers who need them most! In fact, the broken farm subsidy system is responsible for not only encouraging monoculture but also for putting many small farmers out of business — while corporate-owned mega-farms grow ever larger.
“Subsidies also have resulted in fewer farms and diminished agricultural diversity. Large farms often devote their entire capital and experience to producing one or two commodities, leaving smaller players to be regularly winnowed out at the profit of corporate farms and contractors. In 2001, large farms, which constitute 7% of the total, received 45% of federal subsidies, whereas small farms, constituting 76% of the total, received 14% of total payments.
Between 2003 and 2007, the top 10% of subsidized farmers received an annual average of $68,030, whereas the bottom 80% averaged $2312. Disproportionately allocated subsidies have contributed to forcing hundreds of small, biodiverse farms out of business at the profit of industrialized food processing.”
Farm Subsidies Are No Longer a Needs-Based System
While farm subsidies initially were created to protect staple crops during times of war, reduce crop surpluses and provide monetary support to farmers when crop prices fell, today mega-farms receive subsidies whether they need them or not. The transition away from a needs-based system came in 1996, when lawmakers developed a “market transition” payment system for farmers.
The idea was to phase out the subsidies over a seven-year transition period, during which farmers would receive an annual fixed cash payment based upon the number of acres on the farm (these direct payments were given as long as the land was not developed — even if nothing was planted). Of course, this ensures that the largest farms also receive the largest payments, and contrary to its original intent, the payments have not declined annually nor has the program gone away. As the Environmental Working Group (EWG) explained:5
“The industrial agriculture lobby has been defending the controversial “direct payment” form of taxpayer-funded subsidies ever since they were first authorized. These fixed, automatic checks go out every year to the largest growers of commodity crops, such as corn and cotton, whether farmers need them or not and despite the fact that farm household income has eclipsed average U.S. household income. Farm income for the largest operations, in particular, has soared sky high.”
And if you thought this all couldn’t get any more outrageous… it can, as it’s been revealed that under this absurd system, even dead farmers have received payments from the government. So have non-farmers who moved into residential areas that once were farmland, along with wealthy farmers who have received annual payments even when they are no longer growing the subsidized crop.
To Put It All in Perspective, Check Out Peter Jennings’ Classic Video
A classic video on the US government’s fatally flawed agricultural subsidy programs, and how they affect your nutritional choices and health, is “How to Get Fat Without Really Trying” with Peter Jennings. Although it’s several years old and Peter has passed away, the video still speaks the truth because virtually nothing has changed. If anything, the situation has, sadly, actually worsened.
Redesigning the System Could Help Fight Obesity and Protect the Environment
The time is ripe for change, and redesigning the system could help move us toward economic, and nutritional, recovery. The money is already there, but if we’re going to subsidize, let’s subsidize in a way that helps restore the health of our citizens and our land—programs that might just pay for themselves by the reduction in healthcare costs they bring about. The researchers noted:6
“A redesign of the subsidy system, rather than its elimination, is likely to yield more sustainable changes in the agricultural industry. Such revision could take the form of decoupling income supports from program-specific crops, and rewards for agricultural diversification.
The trickle-down effect of providing increased government support to farms growing sustainable, bio-diverse crops would not only help farmers reap greater economic benefits (as fruits and vegetables are among the products with the highest farm-retail value) but would contribute to large-scale efforts to address obesity by increasing the availability of fresh produce. Overall, government and public health activists should support policies that help disincentivize monocultural overproduction, not policies that fuel it.”
It sounds so logical, so obvious, doesn’t it? Yet it is the exact opposite of what is currently being done with farm subsidies. Mark Brittman of the New York Times similarly argued, back in 2011, that subsidy money, which is already IN the budget, could be redirected toward helping smaller farmers to compete in the marketplace.7 The money could be redirected, for example, in the following ways:
- Funding research and innovation in sustainable agriculture
- Providing incentives to attract new farmers
- Saving farmland from development
- Assisting farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits and vegetables, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers (corn, soy, wheat, rice) to convert some of their operations to more desirable foods
- Leveling the playing field so that medium-sized farms can more favorably compete with agribusiness as suppliers for local supermarkets
Help Support Small Farms with a Farm Bill That Works
If you don’t like the idea of your tax dollars lining the pockets of wealthy corporations that flood the market with sugary sodas, soybean oil and corn chips, now is the time to speak up. The Environmental Working Group has started a petition urging Congress to enact a Farm Bill that protects family farmers who help us protect the environment and public health, and you cansign it now.
But remember, you can also voice your opinion every day by voting with your wallet. Support small family farms in your area. Even if it means buying just one or two items at your local farmers market, instead of the big box store, those little purchases add up.
Return to a diet of real, whole foods—fresh organic produce, meats from animals raised sustainably on pasture, without cruelty, and raw organic milk and eggs. Say no to junk food producers by not buying it. Eating this way will earn you a long, healthy life—whereas the typical American diet may set you on the path toward obesity and chronic disease.