By Dr. Mercola
I believe many of our country's chronic health problems would simply disappear if attention was paid, at the highest levels of government, to the root problem—our agricultural subsidies.
We are subsidizing junk food in one federal office, while across the hall another department is funding an anti-obesity campaign.
This hypocrisy shows just how broken and wasteful our regulatory system really is.
The recently published report called "Apples to Twinkies," discussed in the news video above, compares federal subsidies of fresh produce and junk food.
It was prepared by U.S. PIRG, a non-profit organization that takes on special interests on behalf of the public.The report is part of their Stop Subsidizing Obesity campaign. The report's findings reveal where your tax dollars are really going, and it's quite shocking.
If you were to receive an annual federal subsidy directly, you would receive $7.36 to spend on junk food and just 11 cents to buy apples. In other words, every year, your tax dollars pay for enough corn syrup and other junk food additives to buy 19 Twinkies, but only enough fresh fruit to buy less than a quarter of one red delicious apple.
This is what the government's priorities REALLY are with respect to your health.
With all of the current focus on deficit reduction and wasteful government spending, you would think there would be pretty much universal agreement that there are far better uses for your tax money than subsidizing the ingredients of a Twinkie. Yet, this practice goes on year after year, and whatever feeble efforts emerge to change the status quo end up filed in the "circular file" at the end of the day.
But why is progress so impeded in this area when common sense would suggest practically everyone would be in favor of eliminating such an egregious waste of resources?
Agribusiness and Pharmaceutical Lobbies Are Formidable Forces in Public Health
The Department of Agriculture is deeply entrenched with agribusiness, and current legislations protect the profits of these large industries at the expense of your health. According to PIRG:
"Our tax dollars should only go to things that serve the public good, yet we're handing out taxpayer subsidies to big agribusinesses to help subsidize junk food. Huge, profitable corporations like Cargill and Monsanto are pocketing tens of billions in taxpayer dollars, and turning subsidized crops into junk food ingredients—including high fructose corn syrup. These taxpayer giveaways are all the more absurd at a time when one in three kids is overweight or obese, and obesity-related diseases like diabetes are turning into an epidemic."
You don't hear about it as often, but the political influence of agribusiness is just as hazardous to your health as that of Big Pharma. They may not write checks quite as large as those issued by the pharmaceutical industry, but the fact that they are controlling something as basic and essential as your food supply gives them a great deal of influence over your health.
U.S. PIRG reports that agribusiness spent 200 million dollars in lobbying and campaign contributions in 2008. However, OpenSecrets.org reports 142 million dollars for that year. According to sector rankings, the agribusiness lobby ranks tenth among the most powerful, in terms of dollars spent, with the pharmaceutical lobby occupying the number one position. Agricultural industry agenda, plus the agenda of Big Pharma, add up to one gigantic obstacle between you and optimal health.
Sadly, you also see the influence of Big Ag in nutrition science. Current policy is actually not designed to help you make sound dietary choices but rather to allow food companies to make health claims to increase profits, and this is a primary reason why you cannot get sound dietary advice from your government. Take the New Food Pyramid, for example. Back in 2005, when the updated food pyramid was unveiled, nutritionist Luise Light, a former USDA insider and contributing architect of the original version of the Food Guide Pyramid, exposed how the US government bows to industry interests and plays a key role in the obesity epidemic.
According to the California PIRG (CALPIRG), more than 50 percent of farm subsidies went to only four percent of American farms. Since 1995, 90 percent of the $245 billion in agricultural subsidies went to producers of just five crops—and 30 percent went to corn. This is why high fructose corn syrup is found in nearly every single processed food on the shelf.
Didn't You Know? Pizza is a Vegetable
Presently, the tomato sauce on a slice of pizza counts as a serving of vegetables in your child's school cafeteria lunch. Absurd, but true! The USDA proposed guidelines that would have raised the amount of tomato sauce required to qualify for vegetable status. Provisions to limit the use of starchy vegetables (such as French fries and tater tots) in school lunches were also proposed. Of course, food companies, including those that manufacture frozen pizzas for school lunches, as well as potato growers, lobbied against the proposed changes, complaining that the new standards were too strict.
Congress caved under the pressure of the lobbyists and vetoed the bill.
Making matters worse, manufacturers of sugar-laden processed foods pay "rebates" (aka "kickbacks") to food service companies that serve school districts across the United States, which likely contributes to their reliance on heavily processed foods like muffins, pizza, tater tots and flavored milk in lieu of fresh produce. It's been established that when kids eat more nutritious lunches, they behave better, are less likely to be obese, and it may improve their grades. So, malnourished kids are not only at risk of chronic disease, but their performance in school inevitably suffers.
Cost of Heart Disease to Approach a Trillion Dollars by 2030
Want to cut the federal budget? Have a country of healthy people. Stop subsidizing Happy Meals. Stop lying to children by telling them pizza is a vegetable. Medical costs are skyrocketing as average health is deteriorating, and as chronic illness appears earlier and earlier in people's lives. For the first time in history, your child may have a lifespan that is 10 years shorter than yours. Obesity now costs more than smoking, in terms of healthcare dollars spent. Diet-related disease is the number one killer in the U.S., and other countries are not far behind.
Heart disease is a direct reflection of poor dietary choices. Heart disease costs us $189.4 billion per year. However, statistics show that by 2030, these costs will triple, resulting in a mind-bending $818 billion!
A few famous chefs are leading movements to combat childhood obesity and malnutrition. For example, Chef Ann Cooper's National Food Challenge is a movement to make school lunches more healthful using practical strategies, such as increasing the availability of salad bars in schools. And well-known British chef Jamie Oliver has been leading a decade-long Food Revolution to battle childhood obesity and malnutrition, trying to revamp school lunches. In 2010, he launched a campaign to "save the health of America's next generation."
You can sign his petition here—his goal is one million signatures, and he has less than one quarter million to go. I also encourage you to watch Jamie's passionate, entertaining, and award-winning TED speech about food and childhood obesity.
An Argument For KEEPING Agricultural Subsidies
Mark Brittman of the New York Times wrote an interesting commentary in March of 2011 about fixing agricultural subsidies, as opposed to nixing them. He argues that reformed subsidies can be used to move us forward toward economic—and nutritional—recovery. He writes:
"Imagine support designed to encourage a resurgence of small- and medium-size farms producing not corn syrup and animal-feed but food we can touch, see, buy and eat — like apples and carrots — while diminishing handouts to agribusiness and its political cronies… Farm subsidies were created in an attempt to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression, which makes it ironic that in an era when more Americans are suffering financially than at any time since, these subsidies are mostly going to those who need them least."
Brittman argues that subsidy money, which is already IN the budget, could be redirected toward leveling the playing field and helping smaller farmers to compete in the marketplace. The money could be redirected, for example, in the following ways:
- Funding research and innovation in sustainable agriculture
- Providing incentives to attract new farmers
- Saving farmland from development
- Assisting farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits and vegetables, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers (corn, soy, wheat, rice) to convert some of their operations to more desirable foods
- Leveling the playing field so that medium sized farms can more favorably compete with agribusiness as suppliers for local supermarkets
If we're going to subsidize, let's subsidize in a way that helps restore the health of our citizens and our land—programs that might just pay for themselves by the reduction in healthcare costs they bring about. But these changes are not going to be an easy hill to climb, given the pressures to maintain the status quo. If you're curious about which farms and commodities are subsidized in your state, you can visit the Environmental Working Group's 2011 Farm Subsidy Database, which breaks down subsidies by category and by region.
The Secret Farm Bill of 2011
A 2011 farm bill designed to create a new handout that would guarantee income to the biggest farmers—despite their near-record profits—thankfully died, for the time being. EWG called it the "Secret Farm Bill" of 2011. Big agribusiness and their powerful Congressional allies tried to slip the bill into law through the top-secret Super Committee process without justification, open debate, or a single vote. Although the 2011 bill imploded under pressure from concerned representatives and a feeding frenzy of lobbyists, there is sure to be "episode two" of the saga in 2012.
According to US PIRG, Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona has introduced a bill for 2012 that would reform the worst of the agricultural subsidies—cutting $28 billion over the next 10 years.
If you don't like the idea of your tax dollars lining the pockets of wealthy corporations that flood the market with sugary sodas and corn chips, now is the time to speak up, as Congress is preparing to vote on the legislation that perpetuates this system. US PIRG provides a handy link on their website to help you send a letter to your state representatives.
But remember, you can also voice your opinion every day by voting with your checkbook. Support small family farms in your area. Even if it means buying just one or two items at your local farmers market, instead of the big box store, those little purchases add up.
Return to a diet of real, whole foods—fresh organic produce, meats from animals raised sustainably on pasture, without cruelty, and raw organic milk and eggs. Say no to junk food producers by not buying it. Eating this way will earn you a long, healthy life—whereas the typical American diet may set you on the path toward a triple bypass.