Government-sponsored obesity?

The God's Politics blog today had a quick post highlighting the Food Bill coming up for consideration. The New York Times also is highlighting it.
What is the farm bill?
This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.
Obesity, which the US surgeon general has called an 'epidemic' is well-known to hit the poor the hardest. Historically, the poor have struggled to buy food, and worried if dinner would be on the table. In today's world, the most calories for the dollar (thanks to government subsidies) comes in the form of 'junk' food, full of corn- and soy-derived sugars and fats. A salad at a restaurant costs more than a burger and fries. Healthy food shouldn't be a luxury of the upper class.

People are starting to realize the impact of the government subsidies, though:
The public-health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as we have a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean water will remain a pipe dream. The development community has woken up to the fact that global poverty can’t be fought without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop prices. They got a boost from a 2004 ruling by the World Trade Organization that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal; most observers think that challenges to similar subsidies for corn, soy, wheat or rice would also prevail.
Not to say farm subsidies are bad. Once upon a time, the farm bill's purpose was to support prices and limit production, rather than paying the farms based on how many bushels they can grow. I don't know enough about it to know if the current bill helps small farms at all, but it appears that food production is now an economy of scale- the bigger the better. Somehow this surely can be re-thought, to support crops that keep Americans healthy and farmers that treat the land responsibly.


Matt said...

My current opinion is that farm subsidies should go away. My impression is that the current subsidy (and tariff) situation in the US produces the following: (1) an environment in which large ag conglomerates win almost everything, (2) almost no support for small, sustainable farms, (3) higher prices for ethanol (i.e. Brazil can make it much more efficiently from sugar than the US can from corn, but corn is so stinkin' cheap because of the subsidies), (4) almost all food has corn in it (animals are fed corn, which changes the types of fat they grow, gives some of them indigestion, and changes the pH of their bodies which lets pathogens prosper more easily; almost every processed food in the US has high-fructose corn syrup in it, whereas most of the rest of the world uses more sugar), (5) farmers in some other countries (like Mexico) have a hard time making a living because we overproduce and then dump super-cheap food onto the world market.

Calandra said...

Well written article.