We’ve lived here for nearly six years now, surrounded by folks who grow corn and soybeans thousands of acres at a time. Just this week, the mammoth tractors have again begun rumbling into the fields, pulling implements that can plant upwards of 24 rows of corn with each pass. But six years later, I have yet to understand the complex web of subsidies that act as incentives for this kind of behavior. I do know that at harvest time, the mammoth grain elevator fills to overflowing—with a mountain of surplus grain outside that resembles the Great Pyramid of Giza. (I’ll post some pictures this fall; it’s a truly remarkable sight.)
I’ve had a sense that something was out of whack with federal farm policy, but couldn’t grasp the extent of how its various disparate effects interacted and contributed to reinforcing each other. That’s in large part because the Farm Bill itself is so complex, it is nearly impossible for anyone to understand.
In a recent New York Times piece, Michael Pollan provides an excellent — and clearly written — overview and discussion of how the Farm Bill has perverted not only American agriculture, but also American nutrition and even life in foreign countries. One small excerpt:
Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?
For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. … Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.
That’s because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, 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.
I don’t want federal support for what I do, and I don’t think most of us in sustainable agriculture do either. What we’d like to see is a playing field devoid of arbitrary subsidies, in which the marketplace can decide the value of what we produce — and what the commodity farmers produce.