April 22, 2007

Is the federal government making us fat?

Michael Pollan thinks so. Consume his tasty logic:
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.

That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.
Well, at least when you get very fat and blame the federal government, you will have to grudge it a little thanks for the cheapness of the voluminous cotton sweat shirts and pants you will need.


Tim said...

Special interest politics clearly distorts. Pollan is probably on safe ground disclaiming these effects, but that's not the full story, as federal subsidies for liver producers wouldn't turn us into a nation of liver over-eaters. Fat people are fat because they (we?) eat too damned much food and exercise too damned little. It's about the calories, both those going in, and those going out. Federal Ag policy may drive over-production of less healthy food, but it doesn't drive our mouths. That one's on us.

Bill Harshaw said...

Some of his facts are wrong. For example, the 2002 farm legislation provided for payments to growers of upland cotton, wheat, rice, corn, grain sorghum, oats, barley, soybeans, peanuts, canola, sunflowers, safflower, rapeseed, crambe, flax, sesame, and mustard according to this document at the Environmental Working Group site (http://www.ewg.org/farm/pdf/dcp06.pdf) . If he can't count, can we trust the rest of his argument, however well written it is?

Bruce Hayden said...

Why are we spending all this money on farm subsidies in the first place? A decade or two ago, I thought that we had gotten rid of most of them, but they are back, with a vengence.

It is horrible economics. If you want to justify a year or so of help when commodity prices crash, then fine. But a lot of these farmers essentially make their livings off these subsidies, etc. And a lot of the money is going to big corporate farmers any way.

Not that I can justify subsidizing the small farmers either. Sure, a lot of people would like to live on the land and never have to adapt a changing economy. All my grandparents had to move away from their families right after the 1st World War for similar reasons. Not having to move away is a luxury, and I see no reason that the American taxpayers should be paying for it.

I'm Full of Soup said...

It ain't the federal guvmint making us fat.

I credit (not blame) American businesses - they are just damn good at selling us stuff and it is generally full of sugar and carbs in big portions.

For instance, the Wawa's (our marvelous convenience store chain) here in Philly area always have a stock of delicious soft pretzels at the checkout counter. Almost irresistibly good...think I will have just one.

The boardwalk on any Jersey shore has funnel cakes, pizza, ice cream, cotton candy virtually every step of the way.

These are choices WE freely make every day and the feds have little to do with them. America is a land that a real Homer Simpson would love for its omnipresent food choices alone.

It would help far more if we went back and ate meals like our grandparents did. They did not have chips, soda, pretzels, etc to nosh on 247's. We have become fat, lazy and happy because it is so easy to do.

Ron said...

It brings a tear to my eye to think that every extra pound I gain makes me a Northrup, a Halliburton, an ADM even! I am a Defense Contractor of One!

Freder Frederson said...

Why are we spending all this money on farm subsidies in the first place? A decade or two ago, I thought that we had gotten rid of most of them, but they are back, with a vengence.

Ahh, the bill of goods that was the "Freedom to Farm Act" that was going to eliminate farm subsidies for once and for all, but was actually designed to finally kill the family farmer. That was a Republican bill that was specifically designed to shift farm subsidies from the family farmer to agribusiness. Then once the family farmers were gone, agribusiness pushed through the current system, after "Freedom to Farm" turned out to be the disaster that destroyed the family farm that everyone knew it would be.

Unknown said...

I blame Bush!

Joan said...

It's about the calories, both those going in, and those going out.

That would be true if fats, proteins, and carbohydrates all had the same effect on our metabolisms, but they don't. Non-fiber carbohydrates trigger an insulin response that fats and proteins don't -- and that's why low carbohydrate diets actually work.

There's nothing new here, but it's good to see the topic getting some attention again.

Pax Federatica said...

Given the growing demand for ethanol fuel from corn, why hasn't anyone proposed policies to encourage shifting some (if not all) of the corn usage from sugar to ethanol? Corn is corn, right? The growers still get their precious subsidies, we get more ethanol for fuel, and the cost of corn sugar goes up, hopefully enough to discourage its present overuse in foods. What's not to like?

Randy said...

"Dirt cheap meat and milk."

I guess the author never got the news about milk price supports. Like sugar, the price of milk is artificialy high in this country.

As for "dirt cheap meat:" If the meat is both cheap and good, I want to know where to buy it, because the price of meat around here, from chicken to filet mignon is NOT cheap and ges more expensive every year.

Randy said...

Joshua: We have mammoth ethanol subsidies already (to the tune of a billion or two per year). I haven't cheked lately, but I believe that the price of corn is going up because more of it is being diverted into ethanol production.

John said...

Well, our agricultural policies must be affecting the Europeans too, because they're having their own problems with obesity:


Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

I've gotta keep this way more brief than I'd like, because I actually farm for a living ... as in no off-farm income, and no government subsidies.

If you do a really good job, most farm operations will generate perhaps 15% net profit, provided debt burdens are low. What that means is that $100K gross farm income will generate about $15K to live on, if you're a very goad manager -- and most farmers are lousy managers -- for about 3000 hours of work from the principal and about 1000 hours from what is usually the wife.

In other words, something south of $4 per hour, and that is with absolutely zero return on investment and zero return on management.

The problem is that only 13% of all official 'farmers' gross $100K or higher. That is roughly a quarter million operations out of some two million officially designated as farms.

If the "family farm" is defined as these badly managed and economically unsustainable farms grossing under $100K ... we've got a problem.

There are very powerful reasons for abandoning farm subsidies completely -- for one the divorce planting decisions from market feedback -- but worrying about who actually receives them is not one.

May God help us is farm subsidies get anywhere near the vegetable business ... which has been part of my family since 1868. Government involvement is a big part of the problem, and cannot possibly offer any trace of a 'solution' to problems that simply do not exist on well-organized, well-managed farms.

Unknown said...

I knew America was rare for having fat poor people as a consequence of bad food, especially inferior pork products, and I knew sugar from corn syrup is the replacement sweetener in what passes for "Coca-Cola Classic" but I never thought about how much the staple crops covered by the farm bill contribute to this. Makes sense to me.

I'm with the people who say we should have no subsidies at all. If Brazilian sugarcane ethanol saves me money over the US corn-derived variety then that will be goes into my car. I shouldn't have to pay for a lack of competitiveness on anyone else's part.

amba said...

No kidding! You almost have to be rich to eat fresh fruits and veggies. I eat a lot of salad and apples, and actually feel guilty about it because it is quite expensive (though if it is in fact keeping doctors away, it may be cost-effective).

amba said...

IR -- crappy, cruel, industrially-produced chicken and pork are pretty cheap in the East. Some kind of Perdue or Tyson or house-brand chicken is on sale for well under a dollar a pound almost every week at any non-ritzy supermarket.

bearing said...

We observed last night that the USDA food pyramid pretty clearly says, "You should eat more bread than green vegetables."

This is not exactly good policy.

Galvanized said...

This info. is interesting. I did not know this. What a shame. And more produce is exactly what all of our diets need, and it IS getting harder and harder to afford. grrrr