As I write this, a single piece of legislation with the greatest potential to improve America’s health sits in limbo in our nation’s capital. As soon as a few weeks from today, the government will release its final decision on a bill with roots in the beginning of the 20th century.
Contrary to popular opinion, this legislative harbinger is not Obama’s healthcare bill. As important as Obama’s plans for overhauling the U.S. health system have been, the legislation about which I write, in fact, will begin on our nation’s plates rather than in America’s hospitals or clinics (though these changes will, no doubt, have significant impacts there as well). This legislation is the U.S. Farm Bill.
Admittedly, few of us are intimately familiar with the details of the 2012 U.S. Farm Bill. The initial legislation for the bill was introduced during the Great Depression, as farmers struggled to insure themselves against financial losses in conditions where people had little or no money to buy food. Even when some Americans were lucky enough to have access to food, the aftermath of the Dust Bowl left hundreds of millions of acres of American farmland completely arid. The Farm Bill legislation, updated by Congress every five years, grew to include nutritional programs such as food stamps (now SNAP) and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Interest groups also added rural development programs and land conservation to the original bill.
The bill took its most significant turn in the 1970s, when it began to reflect the interests of a burgeoning agribusiness industry. Agricultural corporations saw in the Farm Bill a new opportunity to profit from a direct payment system (as opposed to the safety net system used for Depression-era farmers). These corporations found an ideologue in President Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. To Butz’s credit, he was a genuine product of the Great Depression and worked for an administration whose motto was “Let them eat cake, if it shuts them up.” Butz quickly warmed to demands from agribusiness to incentivize overproduction with direct payments. Today, nearly 90 percent of the $42 billion subsidy package Butz and his agribusiness friends created covers only five crops. These commodity-crops, by definition, are not meant to be food, and include corn, wheat, soy, rice, and cotton.
Of course, it seems contradictory that non-food agriculture should affect our health. So how do these five single crops have such a large impact on American bodies?
High-fructose corn-syrup (HFCS) is one of the major culprits. Derived from corn, HFCS is a key contributor to diabetes and diabetic emergencies in the United States, and has also been implicated in the development of kidney disease. Hydrogenated soybean oil, like HFCS, is another hidden staple of the American diet. While the majority of Americans think of soy as largely absent from their diets, these same individuals would be hard-pressed to go a day without digesting it in the form of hydrogenated soybean oil. Consumed in excess, any kind of oil can lead to high blood pressure, contributing to kidney disease or cardiovascular disease. This particular type of oil, however, also contributes to LDL cholesterol, further increasing the risk of cardiovascular complications.
Soy and corn, along with other “commodity crops” listed above, are also processed into feed for livestock. As a natural function of biology, about 90% of the calories these animals consume is burned up as energy, meaning that only one out of every 10 calories is transformed into the meat that we eventually consume. Therefore, ranchers feed their animals ten times more calories than they can “harvest” from them. As a matter of straightforward economics, therefore, meat is thus strikingly more expensive (and inefficient) to produce and sell than, say, plain ole’ fruits and veggies. If you’ve ever been to the grocery store, however, what you will find is the opposite – meat is far cheaper than fresh produce. This economic dissonance is a result of a Farm Bill-induced conundrum: subsidized grains are being fed to subsidized animals, to produce a subsidized product that is neither healthier nor more “nutritious.” In fact, those who consume this industrial meat are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. New to the subsidies program this year is dairy – specifically cow’s milk. This addition seems to be in total ignorance of the vast pool of Americans who cannot consume it as a result of lactose intolerance. Among Latin@s in the U.S., 50 percent are lactose intolerant; 75 percent or higher of Black Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans cannot consume milk, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Overall, more a quarter of Americans will pay taxes to subsidize foods they cannot eat. These statistics, however, may not be of concern to a Congress who is 83 percent white.
These facts indicate that Farm Bill subsidies lower the price of calories, not of food. With payments from the Bill, agribusinesses pump out unhealthy commodities at prices as low as 60 percent of the cost of producing them. These “foods” find their way into so much of what we eat primarily as cheap filling (no pun intended). In a sense, the Bill spends tens of billions of dollars to feed us diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes.
Just as commodity-crop subsidies artificially lower the prices of corn and soybeans in the U.S., they also lower the prices of wheat, rice, and cotton across the globe, flooding international markets. While the U.S. has written trade laws blocking the use of such protectionist subsidies, the Farm Bill leads to illegal American inundation of Mexican corn markets with corn, Haitian rice markets with rice, and West African cotton markets with cotton, outselling the world’s poorest people and blocking their best way to a better livelihood. Before Afghanistan was priced out of the market by U.S. growers, its poppy fields were fields of wheat. Research from Oxfam estimates that, without American subsidies, West African cotton farmers could immediately earn 50 percent more on the international market. While this may not affect American health directly, the Bill unnecessarily impedes the health of other countries.
If the above ramifications weren’t enough to keep the U.S. Congress from eating and selling these crops, the environmental effects should be. While the Farm Bill has minor components which attempt to promote environmental stewardship, the commodity farming aspect of the Bill directly incentivizes the use of artificially-produced pesticides and fertilizers. The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) has found connections between these often petroleum-based additives and cancer rates in the workers applying them as well as in consumers. The Center has also discovered evidence linking consumption of these pesticides with harmful hormone disruptions.
It is not too late to change the Farm Bill and protect American families. Baby-steps indicating healthy progress already exist in the Senate – among these is a proposal to eliminate direct payments (one of the main factors encouraging the industry to overproduce in the first place). Additionally, the safety nets inherent in the Great Depression-era Farm Bill legislation are being expanded to also protect farmers who produce our fresh fruits and vegetables. Some are also proposing helpful changes to reduce U.S. violations of international trade laws, many of which were thought-up and composed initially on American soil.
Still, we can do better. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, America needs more than double the land currently committed to fruits and vegetables to meet the country’s dietary needs. This represents only three percent of total U.S. agricultural terrain. Such an expansion in the availability of fresh produce would require an investment equal to only two percent of today’s corn and soybean subsidies. Additionally, the Senate is currently reviewing plans to cut SNAP, the federal food stamps program, by $4 billion dollars; in a bill that distributes $42 billion to wealthy agribusiness owners, is it wise to cut funding from the neediest target population, particularly in a recession?
The Supreme Court’s decision on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) later this month will, without a doubt, carry enormous weight for our nation’s health. However, the doctors, hospitals, insurers, pharmaceuticals affected by the decision – that is to say, the entire health system – await the announcement because it will determine how they respond to the health crisis caused by the Farm Bill, whether or not they know the root cause. The cost-containment problem that lead to PPACA isn’t so much a discussion of the price of a hospital stay, but the collateral price of an agricultural corporate subsidy. We can begin the next health revolution when we commit to an American Farm Bill that encourages the accessibility of fresh fruits and vegetables instead of overproduced, nutritionally void commodity-calories.