Farm subsidies under fire - activists argue policies help promote obesity

US - The farm bill, often derided as a pork-laden affair of interest only to farmers, lobbyists and outraged activists, is generating more buzz than usual this year as Congress sets about divvying up $33 billion in subsidies for the next five years.
calendar icon 16 July 2007
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Pushing the debate into the mainstream is a growing sentiment that Uncle Sam's handouts - favoring growers of corn, soybeans and other foods requiring processing before consumption - warp what the nation puts on its dinner table. Spend more on fresh fruits and vegetables, which get little or no money in the status quo, critics contend, and the fight against obesity gets easier.

But the debate is not limited to what we eat. Growers of biofuels are major players for the first time. Last week, the non-profit group Environmental Defense released the results of a study showing that shifting subsidies earmarked for Midwest corn growers to conservation programs would benefit farmers in the districts of 36 out of 55 freshman lawmakers, including Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton.

"There are many parts of agriculture, especially fruit and vegetable growers, who are being poorly served by farm subsidies," said Scott Faber, Environmental Defense's farm and food policy campaign director. "There are many Americans who are frustrated with their energy choices and food choices who would be better served by a better farm bill."

The farm bill is a gargantuan piece of legislation, drafted every five years or so, that sets the nation's nutrition and agricultural policies. It details how meat is produced, what children eat in school lunches, what crops the government subsidizes and, by extension, what food sits inexpensive and plentiful on the nation's grocery shelves. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to begin debating the bill this week.

The bulk of the $90 billion bill - about 65 percent - underwrites the nation's food stamp and other nutrition programs for the next five years. The remaining 35 percent, or about $33 billion, pays for agriculture programs. Historically, those payments have gone to so-called commodity crops: Corn, wheat, rice, soy, cotton.

Fruits and vegetables - California's mainstay - get a small slice of the pie. This year's House version, for instance, earmarks from $465 million to $685 million, depending on who's counting, for the next five years for such crops - 2 percent of agriculture spending.

But activists this year are drawing a brighter line connecting farm policies with a number of social ills, such as obesity, diabetes and poor nutrition. Spending priorities, they say, need to change.

"We have adopted this high-calorie, low-nutrition diet," said Daniel Imhoff, author of Food Fight: A Citizen's Guide to the Food and Farm Bill. "Maybe advertising is part of it. Maybe TV is part of it. Maybe it's our sedentary lifestyle. But you can't ignore that these subsidies make cheap the ingredients for the refined and processed food industry."

Source: Contra Costa Times

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