Lying Media Bastards

May 6, 2007

Arcane Agricultural Subsidies and World Domination

Once upon a time, America was a land of farmers who raised crops to feed their families, and sold or traded away their supluses to other farmers and merchants for other needed goods*. But in present day America, I’d say roughly 95% of Americans don’t produce any of their own food, and might even have trouble preparing meals that didn’t come out of a box. That change wouldn’t necessarily be bad, but frequently where we find ignorance, we find someone screwing someone else for money. With regards to American food, this ignorance results in foods with lower nutritional value, high amounts of harmful ingredients, and higher prices for most of the food we eat.

Part of the increase in American concern and knowledge about food comes from the books and movies that have made an impact. This began with the popular Fast Food Nation book which told America where its burgers and fries came from. It was a nauseating, eye-opener about chemical flavorings, slaughterhouses, meat-packing plants, and the unintended consequences of industrialized meal production for an entire nation. This book was soon followed by the film Super Size Me which again confronted the harmful impact of fast food industries and a fast food culture. In my own research, this book was then followed up by Marion Nestle’s Food Politics, about how the lobbying arms of the food industry shape policy and commonly accepted nutritional standards, and then Christopher Cook’s Diet for a Dead Planet, which I can’t recommend enough. Cook’s book is amazingly broad and amazingly deep in its analysis of the way food is produced, and its shattering consequences. And finally, I’ve read some excellent articles by Michael Pollan, although I haven’t gotten around to reading his best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

But to tighten our focus slightly, I want to highlight a recent Pollan article about a topic that seems crushingly boring at first: government subsidies for farmers. But as American farm subsidies play a huge role in the ongoing catastrophes of both the American obesity epidemic and global poverty in general, we really need to pay attention.

In his article, Pollan points out that there are five crops which receive huge, huge payouts from the US government: corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton. None of these five are all that nutritious (particularly the cotton), while healthier produce like broccoli and carrots and such get almost no subsidies. Look at the ingredient label of your nearest foodstuff and you’ll see how this plays out. I randomly grabbed four items out of my cupboard to check:

- box of crackers, includes wheat flour, soybean oil, high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, and wheat germ
- ketchup, includes high fructose corn syrup and regular corn syrup
- can of chili, includes soy flour
- Hamburger Helper**, includes wheat flour, corn starch, corn protein, soybean oil, soy sauce, and corn syrup

Of course, all of these products have many more ingredients than that, but it’s downright eerie how often the corn/wheat/soy shows up, and how rarely any derivatives of other veggies show up. No carrot flour. No broccoli syrup. No mango juice. Just a lot of subsidized, derivatized goodness.

The result? According to Pollan, “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) [he means corn syrup] declined by 23 percent.” Calories are cheap and nutrients are ’spensive.

So you’ve got your fucked up health priorities there. Obviously the situation’s a lot more complicated and there are a lot of other factors involved, but there’s a start.

The second catastrophe that these food subsidies is the destruction of foreign agriculture. If you get a jillion dollars in free government money for growing soybeans, you can sell them for much cheaper than the amount it cost to produce those soybeans. And if those subsidies encourage you to grow more soybeans than you can sell domestically (and they do), then you’ve got extra to sell abroad. And if your exported soybeans are competing with local farmers who do not get a jillion dollars in free government money, then your soybeans will sell over your competitors. Then your competitors go bankrupt, and whee, global poverty.

This is happening in Mexico right now, where thanks to the NAFTA free trade treaty, American-grown, American-subsidized, tariff-free corn is driving Mexican corn farmers out of business. About 2 million farmers thrown out of work since 1994. And while some of those ex-farmers found work in the lovely maquiladora sweatshops corporate America thoughtfully set up along the border, many didn’t. And many of those folks decided to risk the border crossing to find some sort of employment in the US. Tell your local Minutemen friends that US farm policy and American tax dollars are the direct cause of illegal immigration and watch their heads explode.

Which brings us back to The Farm Bill. It comes up for a Congressional vote once every five years. 2007 is a five year. Pollan seems to think that this year’s farm bill might be a bit different, as new voices are making themselves heard:

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… And then there are the eaters, people like you and me, increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of the food on offer in America.

I wish I had more to say on the subject, or suggestions for how these subsidies should be altered for maximum benefit, but it’s still all fairly new to me. I’ll work on it and get back to you.


* Even before that, America was a land that was vastly uninhabited by humans. And the humans who did live there tended towards more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle than a farm one.
** For the record, the Hamburger Helper isn’t mine. It’s my roommate’s. Really.

Posted by Jake on May 6, 2007 11:01 pm

7 Comments »

  1. Someone needs a lesson in economics.

    ECON 101: It’s called supply and demand.

    America does not want carrot flower or broccoli syrup. In-fact I can’t even easily research WTF those ARE! If you Google them you cant even *easily find an explanation of what they are/how they are made. (It’s obvious to someone with reasoning ability but that’s not most Americans)

    Obviously they would work just as well as food additives like HFCS, but America wants its coca-cola and other syrup-ie drinks, so that is the crop in the most demand. Its that simple. Unless we all suddenly decide as a nation to only drink wheat grass, I don’t see a change coming.

    Obviously, these subsidies are something that major food processors most likely bribed/lobbied government officials to allow and that’s not cool. Then again that’s business as usual in the good ol’ U-S-of-A and I don’t see it changing until we have passed “the point of no return” and can’t feed ourselves at all as a nation. Go ahead write your congressmen. I am shure he will understand and reply telling you the “government of the people” cavalry is on the way - to wage justice and the American way!

    *Cue trumpet fanfare

    Farmers get subsidies for corn in particular because of the ethanol hoopla and how it’s the “salvation of America” (Never mind the fact that we don’t have enough farmland to even come close to supporting this nation’s demand for fuel AND food).

    The idea of us growing THE ENTIRITY of our food supply is just fucking crazy and it will never happen unless we all live off tofu and carrot flower . It’s just not realistic.

    Americans do not want to sacrifice anything. EVER. (Esp. with food)

    Is this ok? - NO.

    Will America get what it deserves in the near future? - YES!

    :::Also:::

    Obesity is a choice and so is your diet. No one forces a double whopper w/ bacon down someone’s throat, they CHOOSE to super size themselves. Why should we bother to tell people how to eat/live? It’s not our call. Nor should we change a damn thing in the nations food processing. YOU HAVE CHOICES PEOPLE!!!

    LET THE FAT IDIOTS KILL THEMSELVES AS FAST AS POSSIBLE SO I DON’T HAVE TO PAY FOR THEIR MEDICAL CARE THORUGH MEDICARE LATER!

    You cant save everyone, or even a few. Just let people do what they do.

    Comment by Matt H — May 7, 2007 @ 7:58 am

  2. * for the record hamburger helper is fucking good.

    Comment by Matt H — May 7, 2007 @ 7:59 am

  3. Um, to my knowledge carrot flour and broccoli syrup don’t exist. I was trying to make the point that processed extracts of subsidized crops end up in our food while the unsubsidized crops appear much less frequently, in either processed or unprocessed form. I was also attempting to be funny, but I guess I blew that one.

    Basically, your argument is that all Americans are identical to a caricature, and that there is no changing them from this image you made up. You also seem to think that supply and demand are the only forces involved in food choice, ignoring the subsidies I wrote about in the first place, corporate collusion, billions of marketing dollars, governmental corruption, an incredible lack of coherent health education in this country, and a few dozen other factors. It’s all insanely complicated, and your analysis is “d00d, Americans are fat pigs cuz they like it!”

    Comment by Jake — May 7, 2007 @ 10:51 pm

  4. This is a complicated issue, but one HUGE component of this complex web of policies (and so on) is supply and demand. This is the basis of the American economy and the foundation of the glorious system of raping the poor and underprivileged called “capitalism”. If people don’t want it - it wont be sold. Period. That means that control of the market is in the hands of the moronic masses. that means that positive change is v-e-r-y s-l-o-w to come, if it comes at all!!!

    It also means that a MINORITY of buyers in a market has little if any control over commodity selection, price, and origin.

    long story short; when you say that unsubsidized food items are not in a lot of products, your stating the only rational outcome of a capitalist system and its not gonna’ change EVER.

    Does it suck - YES.
    Can we realistically hope to change it - NO FUCKIN’ WAY!
    Did we do this to ourselves - YES! Through inaction by the people, long before most of us were born today.

    however as a person who grew up in a yuppie paradise (Royal Oak, Michigan) I can tell you that you DO have options for uber healthy foods that are priced so high no one but rich yuppie’s can afford it on a regular basis! Whole Foods inc. for instance is a nation wide chain that has all the wheat grass smoothies and tofu turkey you can handle!

    So why complain? Its not gonna’ change until the “shit hits the fan” and it’s too late to go back. That is how America works.

    I’d say this statement is 100% true; Americans are pigs, this is not debatable.
    We are the swine of swine; we throw away more food than we donate to starving people!

    Our main concern as Americans is diversion - TV, sex, violence, and gluttony. As a nation we could care less about anything truly important. Our actions speak for us, no matter what we SAY we care about, what we DO do not reflect it.

    Most people are more concernded about the show “Lost” or “American Idol” then the goddamn WAR, or the slow death of healthcare, or the fact that millions of young adults are FORCED to indebt themselves to become educated and “succeed” - whatever the fuck “succeed” means.

    America is a nation of pacified fools, drooling as they stare into space.

    America is like a morbidly obese person who can’t leave the house anymore because they are THAT HUGE! We have done every single detrimental thing to ourselves and we deserve to suffer the consequences. ONLY THEN will America change in a positive way.

    America needs a reality check, and it’s gonna’ kick our fucking teeth in when it arrives. Then you might* see positive change.

    Comment by Matt H — May 8, 2007 @ 7:09 am

  5. subsides are involded in S&D as well. as with all things popular, the government in america will do its best to “lubricate” the flow of those items (through subsidies) because they are in DEAMND. they must keep the SUPPLY avalible.

    conversly, they will ignore the unpopular items.

    supply and demand

    Comment by Matt H — May 8, 2007 @ 7:12 am

  6. What an amazing article.

    Thank you for it!!

    PS: One is hard pressed to find a jar of
    spaghetti sause that does not contain added
    sugar as well. Luckily it’s still relatively
    easy to grow your own tomatoes and smash them
    up in a bowl with some oregano (which grows
    not unlike a week actually).

    Comment by Christine Taylor — May 9, 2007 @ 9:50 am

  7. It’s not just the subsidies but the geneticly modified material involved in those largest food crops. Corn has been thoroughly adulturated and it’s progeny of corn starch into fructose syrups and dextrose means we’re exposing ourselves to a grand experiment. Corn took thousands of years of human selection to become what it is now and we think we can poke and prod it with tiny needles, bacterial and virii in order to alter it’s genetic code. We think we can do so without consequence. The same way we think we can control every symptom of disease with medicine, without incurring side effects.

    What we are looking at is a thinning down of all true ingredients in order to create volume. Most Peanut butter is full of partially hydrogenated vegetable oils where the peanuts used to be. If it looks like the real stuff and smells like the real stuff then people imagine it to be so, unless they read the labels. It’s like a frog in a pot brought to a slow boil. The changes happen incrementally, so as not to worry anyone in an immediate way.

    To top it all off, MSG used to be considered a bit of a curse. But if you start taking a peek at the bag of chips or goldfish crackers, you’ll realize it’s making more than a comeback. Autolyzed Yeast Extract is msg. Yeast extract is msg.

    from wiki :
    “MSG could spike blood plasma levels of glutamate.[8][9][10] Glutamic acid is in a class of chemicals known as excitotoxins, high levels of which have been shown in animal studies to cause damage to areas of the brain unprotected by the blood-brain barrier and that a variety of chronic diseases can arise out of this neurotoxicity.”

    Comment by mrb — June 8, 2007 @ 9:16 am

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