What's more valuable to the U.S. economy: a Twinkie or an Apple? It depends on who you ask. Ask a nutritionist and you're likely to hear how the 37 highly processed ingredients that make up a Twinkie's 150 empty calories have absolutely no value at all, and are more likely to be a drain on the economy in the form of higher health care costs due to diet-related problems like obesity and diabetes. By contrast, a nutritionist would probably say an apple, with its abundance of fiber and Vitamin C is a pretty good source of healthy energy for the average working man or woman, and therefore contributes to national productivity.
But ask a congressman, and — if he puts his mouth where taxpayers' money is — you'll get a different story altogether. That's because as far as the U.S. government is concerned, the main ingredients in a Twinkie are worth quite a bit more than the lowly apple. How much more? According to a new report from PennPIRG, the differences are staggering.
Between 1995 and 2011, the report found, a total of $277 billion in taxpayer dollars were funneled to the agricultural sector in the form of federal subsidies, 75 percent of which went to support a handful of crops — namely corn, soybeans and wheat. Only 1 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. actually makes it to the consumer while still on the cob. The remainder is shipped overseas, turned into fuel and animal feed, or processed into profitable food additives like high-fructose corn syrup or corn starch, which eventually find their way into products like soda and Twinkies. The majority of soybeans are turned into oil, primarily the partially hydrogenated kind, which is found in a variety of processed foods and has been shown to cause high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.
According to PennPIRG, four common junk food additives — corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils — benefited from $18.2 billion in federal largesse over the past 15 years, while a paltry $637 million went to support the production and distribution of apples.
Thanks in large part to an increasing abundance of cheap, high-calorie foods, more Americans are obese today than at any time in our country’s history. And healthy food advocates point a big fat finger at government agricultural policy — specifically subsidies to “Big Ag” — as one of the main culprits. Between 1985 and 2000, the real price of soft drinks — which are made almost entirely of high-fructose corn syrup — declined by 23 percent thanks to subsidies for the corn industry, while the cost of healthy fruits and vegetables increased by nearly 40 percent, according to the journalist Michael Pollan, who writes on food policy.
“At a time when childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, it’s absurd that we’re spending billions of taxpayer dollars to make the problem worse,” said Laura Etherton, a health care policy analyst for U.S. PIRG, PennPIRG's national umbrella, which launched a broad-based campaign this summer to draw attention to the issue in the hopes of influencing policy.
In a matter of weeks Congress will face the deadline for considering the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, also known as the “farm bill” – a whopping $500 billion piece of legislation that funds everything from food stamps to school lunches. It also happens to be the conduit for billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. The bill passed the Senate at the end of July, and House lawmakers have until September 30 to enact the legislation or seek an extension. While the current version of the bill cuts subsidies and land conservation spending by $2 billion a year and eliminates direct payments to farmers whether they plant crops or not, it leaves in billions of dollars of lopsided support for agribusiness.
According to an analysis by the group Civil Eats, the 2012 farm bill “leaves untouched a bloated $9-billion-a-year crop insurance program that pays about 60 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premiums, no matter how large the farm, and sends billions to crop insurance companies and their agents. Most of the benefits of these proposed programs would flow to the ‘big five’ commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice, and wheat.)”
Prior to the 1930s, American farmers received few if any financial incentives from the government; but the passage of the Agricultural Adjustment Act during the New Deal inaugurated a new era of farm subsidies that continues to this day. Things changed radically during the Cold War, when pressure to undercut Soviet influence overseas prompted the government to enact policies to greatly increase grain production. Since then, the subsidies have gotten bigger and the effects on the nation's waistline more profound. The average American eats 25 percent more calories today than in 1970, mostly in the form of added fats, sugars and grains, according to a tally by Civil Eats.
PennPIRG is hoping its campaign will compel lawmakers to address the disparities in the bill.
“Our strategy is to make sure there is an amendment dealing specifically with these subsidies and to find some champions who will draft an amendment so there can be an up or down vote on these subsidies,” said Angela Lee, a policy associate at PennPIRG.
That may be an uphill battle in a presidential election year, but Lee says several lawmakers are already on board — including Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., who introduced amendments to curb subsidies to big agriculture in 2001 and 2007, and penned a letter this year to colleagues seeking support for subsidy reform.
“These are huge taxpayer subsidies, most of the time going to big agribusiness, and it’s not helping our family farmers,” Kind told Wisconsin's La Crosse Tribune in January. “We’ve got to stop this nonsense in light of the huge budget deficits we’re facing.”
Lee calls farm subsidies “the perfect bipartisan issue.” Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan supports cutting farm subsidies, as does President Obama.
“What we have been telling people is America is facing a huge deficit problem and meanwhile childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing while billions in taxpayer dollars are subsidizing junk food ingredients,” Lee said. “That seems like a pretty logical issue to get behind.”
The massive agricultural lobby is doing everything in its power to keep the money flowing. Lee says that in 2008, the last time a farm bill was considered, “Big Ag” spent $200 million in campaign contributions, lobbying and television advertising to keep subsidies in place. Food and Water Watch ranked that version of the bill the most heavily lobbied piece of legislation of the past decade, exceeding even the Affordable Care Act.
“We can't ignore the fact that these big agricultural companies like Cargill and Monsanto have pumped millions into lobbying,” said Lee. “So we do have quite an opposition, but we have gotten strong public support across the country. That's why we do have a fighting chance this year.”