by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
While much of the media has been covering how cold-hearted House Republicans are to cut off America’s needy by eliminating the food stamp program from their version of the Farm Bill, hardly anyone has mentioned that both parties leave in place the giant subsidies for corporate farming – subsidies that should actually be going to family farms, not colossal, mega-farms that grow GMO soy and corn.
In case you’re not familiar with the politics of the Farm Bill, it began as a way of stabilizing our food system after many farmers went broke after the devastating Dust Bowl and Great Depression. By subsidizing farms, prices would stay fairly constant and crops could be regulated enough so that we don’t have too much or too little of one crop or another. Of coarse, that was how it was supposed to work back when farms were owned by people and not corporations (sorry, corporations aren’t people). Nowadays, the Farm Bill works as a giant tax break for companies that grow Monsanto’s GMO crops like soy and corn that post record profits and have no need for the government to step in and help them regulate crop prices and yields. But thanks to lobbying and huge campaign contributions (especially to members of Congress from the Midwest farming states), these corporations have enjoyed so many tax breaks and other special favors that they have nearly destroyed the traditional family farm. The Farm Bill over the years has created so many road blocks for traditional farms while green-lighting the corporate agenda that the dream of buying a piece of land and growing food for yourself and your neighbors has almost completely died, unless of coarse you have an address on Wall Street.
And now for the real kicker. Not only are we giving our tax dollars to these mega corporations, the food produced by these companies is actually killing us. According to a report released this week by the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), U.S. taxpayers have spent $292.5 billion on agriculture subsidies since 1995, $19.2 billion of which have gone to subsidize soy and corn-derived junk food ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup. The only fruit or vegetable that gets a significant subsidy are apples which received only $689 million over the same period of time. Or to put another way, PIRG found that “had these subsidies gone directly to America’s 146 million taxpayers, the apple subsidies would enable each taxpayer to buy half an apple each year—but the annual junk food subsidies would add up to nearly 20 Twinkies each.”
Other key findings in the report include:
- Of the total $292.5 billion allotted in agriculture subsidies, 3.8 percent of farmers collected $178.5 billion, while 62 percent of farms did not receive any federal funds.
- Taxpayers spent $84.4 billion on corn production, $8.1 billion of which funded production of corn starch and sweeteners. Of the total domestic corn produced, 9.6 percent ended up in junk food and beverages as sweeteners or thickeners.
- Soy subsidies rank fifth on the list of subsidized crops, costing taxpayers $27.8 billion. Since 1995, soy oils have consumed approximately $11.1 billion in taxpayer subsidies.
- With the money used to subsidize corn and soy junk food ingredients, the government could buy almost 52 billion Twinkies—enough to circle the Earth 132 times when placed end to end, or meet the caloric needs of the entire U.S. population for 12 days.
“One factor is that Mexicans consume more soft drinks per person than any other country. That’s a lot of sugar,” said Katia Garcia, a nutritionist and researcher for the Power of the Consumer group. “[The Mexican] people have been abandoning the traditional diet, tortillas, beans and chili, which are rich in fiber and vitamins” and replacing it with more refined flour, sugar and other junk foods.
According to statistics from the Mexican Social Security Institute, more than 28 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 9 and 38 percent of teens between the ages of 10 and 19 are overweight or obese. On top of the childhood obesity problem, Mexico is still combating childhood malnutrition in many rural parts of the country. And as cheap junk food takes over the traditional Mexican diet, the malnourished are becoming fatter quicker because they have no access to more expensive whole foods.
“The same people who are malnourished are the ones who are becoming obese,”said Abelaro Avila, a physician with Mexico’s National Nutrition Institute in an interview with CBS News. “In the poor classes we have obese parents and malnourished children. The worst thing is the children are becoming programmed for obesity. It’s a very serious epidemic.”
All experts agree that the availability of cheap, processed junk foods is what is feeding Mexico’s obesity epidemic. Which brings us back to the Farm Bill. If America’s organic farmers could produce natural, whole foods that could compete in price with the unhealthy junk foods we currently subsidize, healthy choices would be easier to make. While some health experts think the solution is to tax soda and other junk food products at the register which would make them more expensive to consumers, it might be a better solution to first stop giving tax breaks to junk food producers and see if our farmers find incentive to grow better food. Banning large soft drinks or taxing candy bars may be an easy way to raise prices and revenue for the government to pay for the obesity epidemic’s cost, but fixing the problem at it’s source – the farms that grow our food – is a more permanent solution to this word wide problem.