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Wenonah Hauter--One of Seven Women Working to Change the Food System

Food Tank: The Food Think Tank
March 26th, 2007

The Farm Bill and Your Health

When Congress debates the farm bill this year, they are not just talking about the fate of U.S. farmers. The legislation also determines what food farmers grow, how healthy (or unhealthy) it is, and who can afford to eat it. The public health problems of obesity, malnourishment, antibiotic-resistance and food-borne illness could be eased or worsened depending on the direction of the 2007 farm bill.

The Causes

Cheap Fats and Sweets

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Corn, soybeans and other commodity crops form the basis of our industrial food system. For example, think of the corn syrup sweetening the soda and the oil cooking the fries. These crops form the bulk of the feed for the cows, pigs and chickens in factory farms. Current farm policy encourages overproduction, which means that food corporations can purchase these raw materials from farmers for less than the cost of growing them.1

In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan reveals that more than 25 percent of the 45,000 products in the average supermarket contain corn.2 Soybeans, found in more than 60 percent of processed food, can be converted to partially hydrogenated “vegetable” oil (a leading culprit of trans fat consumption) and other oils used in French fries, snacks and cookies.3

Because corn and soybeans are cheap, food companies purchase lots of them to turn into the processed foods – basically all the bagged, boxed and canned stuff – that line supermarket shelves everywhere.4 Pollan explains: “The game is in figuring out how to transform a penny’s worth of corn and additives into a $3 bag of ginkgo biloba-fortified brain-function enhancing puffs.” 5 Additionally, as crop prices dropped over decades, food companies increased portion sizes. For example, soda grew from an 8-oz to a 20-oz bottle, with the low-cost addition of some water, dyes, and extra-cheap corn syrup.

Farm Policy for Agribusiness

How did corn, soybeans and the other commodity crop inputs get to be so cheap? Beginning in the 1970’s and culminating in the 1996 farm bill, the federal government implemented a series of farm policies to drive down the price that farmers get for these crops. Instead of managing the supply – and thus stabilizing the prices farmers receive – by keeping some land idle and putting a portion of the crop aside in storage during surplus years, government policy encourages farmers to plant “fence-row to fence-row” and put all of the commodity crops on the market every year.

The issue of farm payments, or “subsidies,” is a highly contentious one. However, often overlooked in the debate is the fact that the main beneficiaries of the current farm policies are not farmers, but rather the agribusiness companies that purchase crops at such a low price. Essentially, government payments make up the difference between the low prices agribusiness pays to farmers and their cost of producing the crop, thus preventing a widespread failure of farms during low-price years. Even with significant payments to farmers, which reached $20 billion in 1999, U.S. net farm income declined by 16.5 percent from 1996 to 2001.6

These lower crop prices do not mean savings for consumers. In the past 20 years, the real price (adjusted for inflation) of food for consumers has actually increased by 2.8 percent, while the real price paid to farmers for their crops has decreased by 35.7 percent.7

Corn-fed Factory Farms

Along with food processing companies, factory farms are major beneficiaries of U.S. farm policy. About 55-65 percent of corn and 40-50 percent of soybeans are converted to feed for the livestock industry.8 Traditionally, farmers raised livestock in grass pastures on their farms (thus grasses and, in the winter, hay were the primary feed). Factory farms, on the other hand, purchase corn and soybeans to feed the thousands of animals they cram together on one site. One effect of farm policy is that livestock producers can purchase corn and soybeans at a discount. If livestock producers actually had to buy feed at the cost of production, their overall costs would increase by 7-10 percent, and the factory farm system would not be as economically viable.9 Taxpayer dollars kick in to pay corn growers what livestock producers do not. Therefore, the government payments are really an indirect subsidy to factory farm operators.

The Consequences

Obesity and Malnutrition

Concurrent with the changes in farm policy, obesity has been on the rise in the United States since the 1970’s.10 As of 2003, three-fifths of Americans areoverweight, and life expectancy is actually decreasing.11 Health problems caused by obesity – including diabetes, heart problems, stroke and some forms of cancer – cost consumers $92.6 billion in 2002, which is about equal to the cost of smoking-related health problems.12 Every year, approximately 300,000 people in the United States die from obesity-related diseases.13

The surge in fat and sweetener consumption over the past three decades is contributing to increased obesity rates. For example, in 1997 U.S. consumers ate about 25 percent more added (not naturally-present) fats and oils than in 1970.14 From 1982 to 1997, consumption of sweeteners increased by 28 percent. 15

Obesity and poverty often go hand-in-hand. Produce is simply more expensive per calorie than junk food, in part because fruits and vegetables are not governed by the same farm policies that encourage the overproduction of corn and soybeans.16 Therefore, low-income consumers
often purchase processed foods as opposed to the relatively more expensive fruits and vegetables. The real price (adjusted for inflation) of fresh fruits and vegetables increased by nearly 40 percent from 1985-2000, while the price of fats and sweets decreased.17 When fast food and sweetened beverages are all that consumers can access and afford, they miss out on the nutrients their bodies need, which means that they can become both overweight and malnourished.18

Industrial Meat

Processed food is not the only contributor to obesity. Factory-farmed, corn-fed beef also has detrimental health effects. Meat from feedlot-raised cattle is higher in total fat than meat from grass-fed cattle.19 Beef and milk produced from grass-fed cattle have higher levels of beneficial fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, which may prevent heart disease and strengthen the immune system.20

Food-borne illness

Factory meat production also increases consumers’ risk of food-borne illness. The highly toxic E.coli 0157:H7 is often the source of food poisoning caused by beef and, more recently, in vegetables such as spinach. E. coli live in cattle’s intestinal tract, so if feces escapes this organ during slaughter, meat can become contaminated with E.coli. The cattle’s hide coming into contact with the meat also can spread the bacteria. However, cattle fed hay before slaughter have dramatically lower levels of acid resistant E. coli in their feces than do those fed corn or soybeans.21

Antibiotic Resistance

To promote the growth of animals and to preempt outbreaks of disease in the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions on factory farms, operators put antibiotics in the animal feed. In fact, 70 percent of all antimicrobials used in the United States are fed to livestock.22 Bacteria exposed to continuous, low level use of antibiotics can adapt and become resistant. When these antibiotic resistant bacteria reproduce, they spread this trait. Almost all strains of Staphylococcal (Staph) infections in the United States. are resistant to penicillin, and many are resistant Diabetes and other obesity-related health problems are on the to newer drugs as well.23

A Farm Bill for Consumers

Current farm policy is promoting the production of unhealthy and unsafe food. With obesity and antibiotic resistance on the rise, it is time to let Congress know that the 2007 farm bill must be designed to increase consumers’ access to wholesome, sustainably produced food. In particular, the next farm bill should:

  • Establish policies to manage the supply of agricultural commodities.
  • Provide funding for farm to cafeteria programs, organic transition and public research on food safety
  • Increase funding and access to farmers markets, especially for senior citizens and for participants in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program.

For More Information

Footnotes
1 Ray, Daryll E. “Current commodity programs: Are they for the producers or the users?” MidAmerica Farmer Grower, 21(44), October 31
2003.
2 Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006, p. 19.
3 Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press, 2006, p. 35; “Revealing Trans Fats.” FDA Consumer Magazine,
September-October 2003, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
4 Schoonover, Heather and Muller, Mark. “Food Without Thought: How U.S. Farm Policy Contributes to Obesity.” Institute for Agriculture and
Trade Policy
, Minneapolis Minnesota, March 2006.
5 Pollan, Michael. “The Way We Live Now: The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity.” The New York Times Magazine, Oct 12 2003.
6 Ray, Darrell et al. “Rethinking US Agricultural Policy: Changing Course to Secure Farmer Livelihoods Worldwide,” Agricultural Policy
Analysis Center, University of Tennessee, September 2003, p. 9.
7 Murphy, Sophia. “Concentrated Market Power and Agricultural Trade.” EcoFair Trade Dialogue, August 2006.
8 Wise, Timothy A. “Identifying the Real Winners from U.S. Agricultural Policies.” Working Paper No. 05-07, Global Development and Environment
Institute, Tufts University, Medford MA, December 2005.
9 Wise, Timothy A. “Identifying the Real Winners from U.S. Agricultural Policies.” Working Paper No. 05-07, Global Development and Environment
Institute, Tufts University, Medford MA, December 2005.
10 Pollan, Michael. “The Way We Live Now: The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity.” The New York Times Magazine, Oct 12 2003.
11 Pollan, Michael. “The Way We Live Now: The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity.” The New York Times Magazine, Oct 12 2003.
12 Fields, Scott. “The Fat of the Land: Do Agricultural Subsidies Foster Poor Health?” Environmental Health Perspectives, 112(14), October
2004; “Public Health and the 2007 Farm Bill.” American Farmland Trust.
13 “Overweight and Obesity: At a Glance.” United Status Department of Health and Human Services.
14 Putnam, Judy and Gerrior, Shirley. “Trends in the U.S. Food Supply, 1970-97.” America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences. U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Food and Rural Economics Division.
15 Putnam, Judy and Gerrior, Shirley. “Trends in the U.S. Food Supply, 1970-97.” America’s Eating Habits: Changes and Consequences. U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, Food and Rural Economics Division.
16 Winne, Mark. “A New Idea Grows in Alabama.” The Nation, November, 27 2006.
17 Schoonover, Heather and Muller, Mark. “Food Without Thought: How U.S. Farm Policy Contributes to Obesity.” Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis Minnesota, March 2006.
18 Pollan, Michael. As quoted in Azab Powell, Bonnie “Journalism professor Michael Pollan’s new book on the U.S. food chain provides few
sound bites—but much to chew on.” NewsCenter, UC Berkeley, April 11 2006.
19 “Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating.” Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA, 2006.
20 “Greener Pastures: How grass-fed beef and milk contribute to healthy eating.” Union of Concerned Scientists, Cambridge, MA, 2006.
21 Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, Todd R. Callaway, Menas G. Kizoulis, James B. Russell. “Grain Feeding and the Dissemination of Acid-Resistant
Escherichia coli from Cattle” Science, 281 (5383):1666-1668, September 11, 1998.
22 Union of Concerned Scientists, “Hogging it!: Estimates of Antibiotic Abuse in Livestock”. UCS, 2001
23 Keep Antibiotics Working. “The Health Threat.”