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.
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