Subsidize to Supersize

Subsidies That Will Make You Sick

I've had multiple conversations over the last few weeks surrounding the topic of agricultural food subsidies- once during a group dinner with a few friends who were on a vegan documentary watching kick and another time as a friend was presenting her business idea for a social enterprise meant to improve the nutritional education and overall health of a particular community.  It's an important topic that few people know enough about and so one friend involved in said conversations asked me to write a blog post about it!

Photo cred: Jay Harrison

Photo cred: Jay Harrison

What are agricultural subsidies, you ask?

Well they are governmental grants paid to farmers and agribusinesses to supplement their income, manage the supply of agricultural commodities, and influence the cost and supply of such commodities. In other words, it's a sum of money meant to help an industry or business keep the cost of a certain commodity low- in this case certain crops.  Sounds great, right?  Well in theory, BUT (and it's a big 'ole but) agricultural subsidies have helped bring us high fructose corn syrup, fast food, factory farming, the obliteration of family farms, monoculture (cultivation of a single crop in one area which is terrible for biodiversity), a super-sized obesity problem and other chronic diseases.

Farming subsidies emerged in the 1930's during the Great Depression era in an attempt to dampen the effects of the depression and provide a stable domestic food supply for Americans.  Prices on certain commodities were fixed and certain farmers were actually paid to reduce crop yields.  As a result, land became concentrated in the hands of fewer farmers. What was meant to be a temporary stimulus measure gradually turned into something much more permanent and straight up cumbersome.

These days approximately $20 million taxpayer dollars a year (according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office) go towards subsidies- mostly to large farms (a whopping 90%) producing 5 main commodity 'staples': wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and cotton.  A large portion of these crops are intended for cattle feed and fuel, rather than human consumption.  Much of the corn intended for human consumption is turned into high fructose corn syrup (which has proven extremely detrimental to public health.  Get it out of your diet, STAT).  These 'staples' have allowed the fast food industry, soda and processed food makers to grow their empires, selling unhealthful 'food' for cheap prices.  Meanwhile, the cost of fresh produce has risen.  

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Very few Americans meet daily nutritional recommendations, but if the majority of Americans started to consume the recommended intake of 9 fruit and vegetable servings per day, we would quickly realize that our agricultural system is not set up to support these recos.  Here is a snapshot of the Standard American Diet (SAD). The SAD consists of:

  • 63% refined and processed foods: empty calories that actually injure the body.
  • 25% animal-based products, including meat, fish, chicken, dairy products and eggs- too often laden with saturated fat, cholesterol, and far more dietary protein than optimal.
  • 12% plant-based foods, with up to 6% of this total derived from processed plant foods (mainly ketchup and french fries!)
  • 185 pounds of added sugar and sweeteners per person each year
  • 3,400 milligrams of salt per person, PER DAY- more than double the recommended amount, with the majority derived from processed food

Our SAD food choices are influenced by the system and our food choices continue to support this system.  It's a vicious cycle in which agribusinesses (and their politician amigos) are the only real winners.

There has been a debate in congress about whether or not to end food subsidies.  Those for eliminating subsidies argue that farmers should learn to stand alone. The wealthiest of growers, after all, get paid even in good years and receive drought support even when there is no drought.  Those who support the subsidies argue that we need them for food security. The idea of food security is misleading though because the subsidies support our industrialized food system rather than the foods that are the staples of a healthy diet (an apple a day- plus 8 other servings of produce- keeps the doctor away). Our perception about what food should cost becomes distorted because junk food prices are artificially and unreasonably low.  And so we opt for the wallet friendly Pepsi, Big Macs and packaged foods at the expense of our health, agricultural innovation and the environment. 

In my humble opinion- the idea of a subsidy can be valuable in theory and I don't think immediately eradicating all agricultural subsidies is necessarily the right solution.  The problem lies in the types of crops that are subsidized.  Reallocating subsidy money (that is already built into the government budget/derived from taxpayer dollars) to support farmers growing non-subsidized crops (such as fruits and vegetables) and to level the playing field so that farmers who are passionate about what they grow and how they grow it (i.e. organically) can compete with agribusinesses will not only reduce prices of healthy food, but will likely improve the health of our nation, drive down health care spending, improve crop biodiversity and encourage more sustainable farming practices.  

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According to the True Health Initiative, 1 of every 5 dollars in the U.S. economy goes towards healthcare spending annually. That’s almost $1,000 each month for every man, woman and child in the country, exceeding most people’s budgets for food, gas, housing or other common necessities!  Right now policy makers are grappling about how to reduce healthcare spending by modifying the way care is delivered.  This battle is as misguided as the current subsidy system.  The focus should not be on healthcare delivery, but rather on eliminating THE CAUSE of the majority of disease in the U.S. (unhealthy food!).  Reallocate subsidy funds to support the growth of healthy crops and healthcare costs naturally fall.  Two birds, one stone.

So what is an educated consumer to do?

For starters recognize that you vote with your fork at every meal.  The concept of supply and demand doesn't stop with our food system.  It may be tempting to opt for cheaper food items in the short-term, but recognize that electing healthy and maybe slightly more expensive food will likely save you money in healthcare costs in the long-term.  The more we demand healthier food, the more likely an affordable food supply is to follow.  

The Let's Move Organization created under the Obama Administration also advocates for voters to reach out to their elected officials to encourage the following in their constituencies:

  • Establishment of a Food Policy Council
  • Increasing enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Supporting the sale of local foods across the community by offering incentives and encouraging the establishment of farmers’ markets.
  • Promoting policies that support and protect community gardens.
  • Passing food policies that require food and beverages purchased with government funds to meet certain nutrition standards.
  • Requiring access to free and safe drinking water in public places.
  • Ensuring that residents can access healthy and affordable food through public transportation—by realigning bus routes, providing free shuttles, or other means.

How about them apples?