Let them Eat Twinkies

Growing fat is big business, and until today, I didn’t really think much about how farming subsidies contribute to that reality. In other words, growing fat is also government business (though I’m inclined to ‘gubmint’ as some of the country folks I know do). Two articles that mention the current farm bill (“What farm bill?” most of America would say) show how the ignorance of American taxpayers (and the politicians who count on that ignorance) helps prop up a food system that not only contributes to obesity but undermines the agrarian way of life it purports to shore up.

The farm bill is way over my head (and way over most people’s heads, frankly), but Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma posted an excellent article of his from the New York Times Magazine. As an example of how farm subsidies can affect “regular” (i.e., non-farming) people, he writes:
“The farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where 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.”

Americans, meanwhile, are obsessed with plenty that really doesn’t affect them. No one is asking the presidential candidates what they intend to do to about farming and land-use. For as Pollan notes, our subsidies effect a land-use policy even though we don’t have an explicit one.

Again, I don’t know a lot about this stuff (though I’m getting more and more interested), but it seems like big business as usual in Washington. Jonathan Alter claims (in an article about recent Congressional Gold Medal winner Norman Borlaug) that

“The octopus-like farm bill does little to curb the ridiculous corporate welfare payments to a tiny number of wealthy (and often absentee) “farmers” who get more than $1 million a year each for subsidized commodities that make our children obese. (Did you ever wonder why junk food is cheaper than nutritious food? Because it’s taxpayer-funded).”

Now, I’m a big fan of personal liberty, which is why “make our children obese” gets my goat. Food doesn’t make our children obese. On the other hand, if the growing poverty and indebtedness of Americans, combined with worship at the altar of convenience, increases the likelihood that junk food will be on the dinner table rather than food with actual nutritional value, that makes me angry.

I also wonder how much land is being used to grow corn for biodiesel and ethanol. Our obsession with fuel alternatives to ensure that we’re able to drive our SUVs borders on psychosis. And ethanol’s a costly hallucination: “In a recent article in Foreign Affairs titled “How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor,” University of Minnesota economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer point out that filling the gas tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn — roughly enough calories to feed one person for a year.” (From an article in Rolling Stone.) As author Jeff Goodell concludes, “In the end, the ethanol boom is another manifestation of America’s blind faith that technology will solve all our problems. Thirty years ago, nuclear power was the answer. Then it was hydrogen. Biofuels may work out better, especially if mandates are coupled with tough caps on greenhouse-gas emissions. Still, biofuels are, at best, a huge gamble. They may help cushion the fall when cheap oil vanishes, but if we rely on ethanol to save the day, we could soon find ourselves forced to make a choice between feeding our SUVs and feeding children in the Third World. And we all know how that decision will go.”

My second question is how much land is being used to grow corn for high fructose corn syrup? Without the subsidies, could that land be put to better use and help end both hunger and obesity in America? It makes me think of Marie Antoinette. She’s famously accused of saying, “Let them eat cake” when told that the peasants had no bread.

I guess we’re saying: “Let them eat Twinkies.”


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