Sunday, November 04, 2007

eaters speak: commodity farmers are welfare queens

Weed It and Reap - New York Times -- The politics of food are becoming more apparent, thank goodness, as we begin to question how subsidies affect the public health and ask why we pay so much to enable being porky and diabetic. This op-ed piece provides a very useful perspective on what we subsidize, and how it costs us in so many other ways as well. Our MTB talk with Phil Nabors of The Mustard Seed Market touched on this last fall, and we've talked with Maurice Small and Niki Gilotta since, about what it takes to be healthy and sensible about food.

The op-ed contributor, Michael Pollan, is a very good writer who skewers with wit and garnishes with wisdom. As the NYT briefly points out, Michael Pollan, a contributing writer at The Times Magazine and a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and the forthcoming “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” Here are some samples, but read the whole piece:

Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water. Also for the first time, the international development community has weighed in on the debate, arguing that subsidized American exports are hobbling cotton farmers in Nigeria and corn farmers in Mexico. . . .

. . . . But as important as these programs are, they are just programs — mere fleas on the elephant in the room. The name of that elephant is the commodity title, the all-important subsidy section of the bill. It dictates the rules of the entire food system. As long as the commodity title remains untouched, the way we eat will remain unchanged.

The explanation for this is straightforward. We would not need all these nutrition programs if the commodity title didn’t do such a good job making junk food and fast food so ubiquitous and cheap. Food stamps are crucial, surely, but they will be spent on processed rather than real food as long as the commodity title makes calories of fat and sugar the best deal in the supermarket. We would not need all these conservation programs if the commodity title, by paying farmers by the bushel, didn’t encourage them to maximize production with agrochemicals and plant their farms with just one crop fence row to fence row.

And the government would not need to pay feedlots to clean up the water or upgrade their manure pits if subsidized grain didn’t make rearing animals on feedlots more economical than keeping them on farms. Why does the farm bill pay feedlots to install waste treatment systems rather than simply pay ranchers to keep their animals on grass, where the soil would be only too happy to treat their waste at no cost?

However many worthwhile programs get tacked onto the farm bill to buy off its critics, they won’t bring meaningful reform to the American food system until the subsidies are addressed — until the underlying rules of the food game are rewritten. This is a conversation that the Old Guard on the agriculture committees simply does not want to have, at least not with us.

1 comment:

  1. This is the core of the biofuel debate. I hear a lot about taking food sources and making fuel, but was it really food? Transfat, High fructose is all crap, the human physiology never meant to ingest it.