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Farm Bill Sets Americans’ Tables for Ill Health
6/4/2007
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Law up for 5-year renewal makes inferior food artificially cheap while hurting small farmers here and abroad

by Craig Weatherby


When it comes to reporting on nutrition and health, it’s all too to easy to miss the forest for the trees – and we’ve been guilty of that ourselves.


We tend to focus on the impacts of particular foods nutrients, and, conversely, the ills of core elements of the standard American diet. These are the trees, and they are important indeed.


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The 2007 Farm Bill is moving through Congress fast. This law is highly consequential to the health of the nation and the survival of small, sustainable farms, since it sets crop subsidy, land conservation, anti-hunger, and school lunch program priorities for the next five years, through 2012.  

The bill usually slides through Congress shaped entirely by organized lobbies, because legislators never hear much about it from regular constituents.


Please forward this article to friends and family, and ask them to join you them in contacting their Congresspersons to demand the changes described under “Contact your Congresspersons!” below.


Together, we can have a tremendous impact on the collective health of Americans… especially the youngest and poorest among us.

The forest consists of the myriad influences on American’s diets, and the US Farm Bill is a major one. The $20 billion-plus worth of crop subsidies in the bill make nutritionally inferior, health-damaging foods much cheaper than they would be otherwise.


This critical legislation is rushing through Congress now, and can be influenced. To see what we suggest, see “Contact your Congresspersons!” below.


It used to be that poor Americans were thin, because they could not afford to purchase as many calories as wealthier Americans did.


Bestselling author and UC Berkeley professor Michael Pollan made this point in an April 22 article he wrote for The New York Times Magazine, whose subject was the upcoming US Farm Bill, which will set funding priorities for the next five years.


We met with him at Dr. Andrew Weil’s 2007 Nutrition & Health conference in San Diego.


Mr. Pollan was there to speak about the issues raised in his recent bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he examined the various ways in which Americans eat, and how these choices impact their health as well as our society and environment.


(For an excellent review of the Farm Bill and its consequences, we recommend the book Food Fight, by widely respected expert Daniel Imhoff, which includes a foreword by Michael Pollan. You'll see the book's Grant Wood-ish cover at upper left.)


The Farm Bill was one of the topics he addressed in San Diego, and Professor Pollan asked us to add our voice on the subject of the Farm Bill: a topic that, as it happened, was already on our schedule.


He graciously allowed and encouraged us to quote from his New York Times Magazine article.


When it comes to reporting on nutrition and health, it’s all too to easy to miss the forest for the trees
and we’ve been guilty of that ourselves.


We tend to focus on the impacts of particular foods nutrients, and, conversely, the ills of core elements of the standard American diet. These are the trees, and they are important indeed.


The forest consists of the myriad influences on American’s diets, and the US Farm Bill is a major one. The $20 billion-plus worth of crop subsidies in the bill make nutritionally inferior, health-damaging foods much cheaper than they would be otherwise.


The following excerpts from that essay summarize how the farm bill affects prices of America’s foods (Pollan M 2007). Because his words are out of their original context, we added some clarifying comments between brackets:


“A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth. [Americans with lower incomes are at higher risk of being overweight.]


“Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could … Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots.


“As a rule, processed foods are more ‘energy dense’ than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening.


“For the last several decadesindeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooningU.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.


“…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.”


The risks of diabetes and heart disease rise as someone becomes increasingly overweight.


Overweight and obesity are on the rise among all income groups, but lower income Americans are at greatest risk of being overweight or obese, which gives them the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease.


From time to time, a politician or reporter will try living on the official US poverty level income ($13,690 for a household of two, $20,650 for a family of four). Invariably, they find themselves forced to choose junky packaged foods over fresh, lower-calorie, nutrient-dense fare.


Folks who are even modestly affluent can afford foods that rank high in “nutrient-density” … that is, colorful, fibrous fruits and vegetables, whole grains, pasture-fed meats, and fish, which offer beneficially high ratios of healthful nutritional factors to calories.


And higher income correlates with greater awareness of which foods are more healthful.


Subsidized export crops ruin poor foreign farmers

Americans invariably overestimate the amount of foreign aid in the US budget, which is only about one percent or less. (When asked by pollsters, Americans typically guess it accounts for five to 25 percent of federal spending.)


And sadly, any good done by US foreign aid is almost certainly outweighed by the ruin that cheap US exports wreaks on poor farmers abroad.


Low corn, wheat, and soy prices help American agribusinesses sell these commodities overseas. This further impoverishes the world’s many subsistence farming families and drives Mexican farmers north, forced off their small farms by competition from subsidized American corn.

Faustian food bargain supports senseless subsidies

About 85 percent of commodity price-support spendingabout $25 billion per yeargoes to subsidize low prices for corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybeans.


More than two-thirds of those payments go to the richest 10 percent of farm-subsidy recipients, many of whom are corporations and absentee landowners.


Recipients are supposed to be “actively engaged” in growing crops: a status whose spirit seems clearly violated by the looking at who actually gets most of the subsidy dollars.


Despite the unhealthful effects of its subsidy priorities, the Farm Bill’s been hard to change, for two main reasons.


First, there’s the structure of our government, which allots every state two Senators, regardless of population. Senators from a few thinly populated farm states trade their votes on other laws so that urban/suburban Senators will support price subsidies for mostly Midwestern growers of corn, soybeans, and wheat.


Even though the population of vegetable-and-fruit growing California rivals that of the Midwestern corn, wheat, and soy states, that huge state has far fewer votes in the Senate.


(This power disparity also explains the mindless persistence of the Mining Law of 1871, which gives companies access to federal lands at fire sale prices, with few environmental constraints.)


The second problem is that the Farm Bill brings two odd bedfellows together behind the goal of ensuring cheap corn, wheat, and soybeans:

  • Urban politicians, anti-hunger, and social welfare groups lobby for food stamps, school lunch, and other nutrition programs that constitute about half of Farm Bill spending: some $44 billion per year between 2000 and 2006.
  • Agribusinesses and big farmers alike lobby for income and price supports that combine to cost another 35 percent of total Farm Bill costs.

In other words, advocates for the Farm Bill’s anti-hunger programs lend their political support to policies that subsidize surplus production of corn, soy, and wheat.


Ironically, this political bargain also induces lower-income people to eat less-healthful fare made artificially cheap thanks to the soy and grain subsidies in the law.


These two political dealsbetween farm belt Senators and urban/suburban Senators, and between urban politicians and agribusiness companieskeep foods containing some of the least nutritious and healthful calories artificially cheap.


Were the bill’s priorities to changefrom subsidizing corn, wheat, and soy to subsidizing vegetables, fruits, fish, and grass-fed meatswe’d likely see declining rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.


We might also see declines in depression, which is promoted both by these diet-driven health conditions and by the omega-3 shortages inherent to the diets Americans eat, partly in response to the unhealthful, price-driven food choices encouraged by the current Farm Bill (see “Cheap corn yields meat that’s much less healthful” below).


Cheap corn and soy = unhealthful meat and unhappy livestock

Writing in an earlier article in the New York Times magazine Michael Pollan affirmed what we’ve said many times about the dietary shifts that started during America’s industrial revolution, and accelerated greatly after World War II. They are inserted below (clarifying comments between brackets [ ]):


“Industrial meat, raised on seeds [corn] rather than leaves [pasture grasses], has fewer omega-3s and more omega-6s than pre-industrial meat used to have. And official dietary advice since the 1970s has promoted the consumption of polyunsaturated vegetable oils, most of which are high in omega-6s (corn and soy, especially).


“…without realizing what we were doing, we significantly altered the ratio of these two essential fats in our diets and bodies, with the result that the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 in the typical American today stands at more than 10 to 1; before the widespread introduction of seed oils at the turn of the last century, it was closer to 1 to 1.


“…many researchers say that these historically low levels of omega-3 (or, conversely, high levels of omega-6) bear responsibility for many of the chronic diseases associated with the Western diet, especially heart disease and diabetes. (Some researchers implicate omega-3 deficiency in rising rates of depression and learning disabilities as well.)”


Cheap corn and soy also fueled the rise and supports the sudden predominance of enormous, water- and air-polluting, confinement pig and poultry farms, and big, corn-fueled cattle feedlots, which degrade animals’ living conditions and the healthfulness of America’s most popular protein foods.


For a thorough discussion of the impact of meat eating on the environment and sustainable agriculture, we recommend an excellent article from the folks at Farm Aid, in which they explain how supporting mixed use farms that include pasture-fed livestock, can to paraphrase their essay, “support the creation of a solution, not just boycott a problem.”


Contact your Congresspersons!

The 2007 Farm Bill will set policy through 2012, so it is critical to ensure that it is improved radically.


The Farm Bill is moving fast in Congress, but can still be influenced. Letters and calls may have more impact than emails, but any contact helps.


We like Michael Pollan’s roster of Farm Bill information resources, to which we would add Oxfam America.


We’ve contacted our US Senator and US Representatives to tell them we want a 2007 Farm Bill that does four key things, for the reasons listed below each:


1) Makes fruits and vegetables much more affordable for consumers of all income levels.

  • The USDA’s Food Pyramid emphasizes the nutritional advantages of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
  • Provide incentives to produce colorful foods identified as being the richest in nutrients per calorie; that is, green and yellow-red-orange-purple plant foods, not potatoes.

2) Eliminates or sharply reduces subsidies for corn, soy, and wheat.

  • These make high-calorie, nutrient-poor processed foods—and meats from confinement-raised, soy- and grain-fed animals—artificially cheap.
  • Corn is a water-intensive crop that is rapidly depleting irreplaceable aquifers, and corn producers have a profitable new ethanol market.
  • Artificially cheap American corn exports are driving Mexicans off their land and over the border in a dangerous flight from poverty.
  • Plant and animal foods produced with these commodities tend to be low in nutrients and high in the omega-6 fatty acids in which all nutrition experts say the American diet is far too rich.

3) Makes the school lunch program a subsidized market for the most healthful foods.

  • We should be subsidizing fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods of high nutrient-density and low calorie-density.
  • The school lunch part of the Farm Bill provides a dumping ground for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods made from surplus, subsidized commodities.
  • Nutrition experts agree that the growing childhood obesity epidemic stems in part from the highly caloric, non-nutritious, disease-promoting foods served them at school.

4) Rewards soil conservation and sustainable farming (organic and mixed-use).

  • Large, mono-culture farms, in which thousands of acres are planted in one crop deplete soil nutrients and often require intensive pesticide use.
  • Organic farms eliminate reliance on imported-oil-based fertilizers and toxic, imported-oil-based pesticides and can reduce water requirements.
  • Mixed use farms take advantage of the synergies created by raising crops and livestock together and using manure from the latter to fertilize the former.

Let your Congresspersons know that you realize that the Farm Bill is also America’s Food Policy Bill.


The Farm Bill is now being worked on in the House of Representatives, and is titled the Farm Bill Extension Act of 2007 (H.R. 2419). Once passed there, it will go to the Senate.


To contact your Congresspersons, go to each chamber’s web site to find yours and his or her web site or contact information:

Doing four things will lend your letter or email more impact:

  1. Include your full name and address.
  2. State your purpose for writing or e-mailing in the first paragraph, and include the number of the bill (H.R. 2419 for the current, House version of the Farm Bill).
  3. Address only one issue and keep the letter to one page.
  4. Ask for a response to your letter, so you know where they stand.

Address your letters as follows:


The Honorable (Senator’s full name)

United States Senate

Washington, DC  20510


The Honorable (Representative’s full name)

House of Representatives

Washington, DC  20515


You can also call your Congresspersons by calling the Capitol Hill Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and asking to be connected to their offices.



Sources

  • Pollan M. You Are What You Grow. The New York Times Magazine. April 22, 2007. Accessed online May 31, 2007 at http://www.michaelpollan.com/article.php?id=88
  • Steenland K, Johnson J, Nowlin S. A follow-up study of job strain and heart disease among males in the NHANES1 population. Am J Ind Med. 1997 Feb;31(2):256-60.
  • Tsutsumi A, Kayaba K, Tsutsumi K, Igarashi M; Jichi Medical School Cohort Study Group. Association between job strain and prevalence of hypertension: a cross sectional analysis in a Japanese working population with a wide range of occupations: the Jichi Medical School cohort study. Occup Environ Med. 2001 Jun;58(6):367-73. Erratum in: Occup Environ Med. 2003 Feb;60(2):149.
  • Alley DE, Seeman TE, Ki Kim J, Karlamangla A, Hu P, Crimmins EM. Socioeconomic status and C-reactive protein levels in the US population: NHANES IV. Brain Behav Immun. 2006 Sep;20(5):498-504. Epub 2005 Dec 2.

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