4.18.2015

Farm Insurance Whaaaaat?
Food Issues Book Club - Weighing In, Chapter 6

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Weighing In, Chapter 6: Does Farm Policy make you Fat?

Summary:

It is taken for granted that farm subsidies fuel the production of cheap commodity crops, and are therefore to blame for the prevalence of cheap, low-nutrition food - which is in turn blamed for rising obesity rates.  While there is some truth in it, other factors and policies are at play in the cheapening of these foods.  We should also consider why it is that we need food to be cheap to start with.

Corn that people eat, a.k.a.
not the kind that most subsidies go to
Applying capitalism to food, needed by all for basic survival, is inherently problematic for two reasons: First, increased food supply leads to price drops, which leads farmers to grow even more food to make ends meet, which then leads to further price drops, on and on, et cetera, ad naseaum.  Second, the market for food only genuinely grows via population growth, so in order to sell more product food sellers must market foods for which there is no real need.

The first problem led to a system of agricultural loans in the 1930s to allow farmers to store excess goods rather than cause a glut on the market and drop prices.  However, because acreage was limited to prevent overproduction, farmers had an incentive to increase yields per acre and overproduce anyway.  It should be noted, then, that overproduction was the cause rather than the result of subsidy programs, which simply failed to fix that problem.

Then, in 1972, US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz sold 30 million metric tons of grain to the USSR, a sale that caused a shortage of both grain and meat in the US.  In response, Butz then directed farmers to plant "fence row to fence row" to produce as much food as possible.  This brought land fallowed by previous policies back into production and, when supply once again outstripped demand, caused prices to bottom out.  Thus, modern farm subsidy policy was born.

"Although the role of subsidies in overproduction is debatable, it is patently false that subsidies make junk food more affordable" than produce.  While it's true that junk food made of corn and wheat is in fact cheaper than fruits and vegetables, that is largely because of growing and processing costs.  Produce by and large is still harvested by hand rather than by machine, and is much more difficult and costly to store and ship.  Subsidies may play some role in cheap junk food and increasing obesity, but it's a stretch to single them out as a driving force.  Interestingly, one could argue that "lack of regulation itself is a huge subsidy to the food industry."

Strike in New Orleans, December 2014
It is important to note that fast food restaurants in general, and McDonald's in particular, have been frontrunners in simplifying and specializing jobs within their restaurants and, later, in meat processing, so that few job skills are necessary to perform each task.  This is an intentional cost-saving measure: unskilled labor is paid less.  The US food industry at every step of production has also always relied on the presence of a vulnerable work force, such as the undocumented workers currently found in agricultural fields and meatpacking plants.  Such vulnerable laborers are unlikely to take action against employers for low wages, wage theft, or unsafe working conditions.  It could be argued, then, that immigration policies and inadequate labor laws are as influential on cheap food as subsidy policies.  After all, if food companies were held accountable to pay a living wage and providing a safe working environment to employees, they would likely charge more for their products.

Discussion:

Image from WashingtonPost.com
First, some basic info on farm subsidies.  They come out of the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation that is revised about every six years and is always the subject of heated and even virulent debate.  It is important to note that about 80% of the funding allotted in the Farm Bill is for so-called "entitlement" programs - namely the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, aka food stamps) and the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC).  It is this 80%, and not the 20% that goes to farm subsidies / insurance and elsewhere, that hogs media and public attention.  You pretty much have to be a food policy dork to keep up with what's happening with subsidies.  Ahem.

Which is why it's not common knowledge that with the 2014 Farm Bill, "subsidies" by that name went away, being replaced entirely with "crop insurance" programs.  (Note that many of the sources on crop insurance come from the insurers... which you'd think would be the government, but like all things it's outsourced / privatized.)  So what's the difference?  If you can figure it out please let me know, because I'm at a loss.

Here's an anomaly I'm butting up against with this chapter.  Fast food is cheap because its workers are paid next to nothing; same with meat.  By that logic, wouldn't produce be cheap as well?  Its workers are certainly paid almost nothing and subjected to terrible working conditions.  Perhaps it's the storage and transportation costs, and the short shelf life?  Or perhaps it's a matter of relativity.  Produce isn't expensive per se; many fruits and vegetables are quite cheap.  It's expensive per calorie.  A few bucks can get you 1000 calories of fast food without even trying, whereas it would be next to impossible to get 1000 calories of produce for the same money.  So really, the very thing that makes these foods "better" and more healthy - their low caloric density - is what prevents them from being practical for people of lower income.

So, do subsides make us fat?  I think this chapter argues pretty compellingly that they do not.  I would argue that it's food companies always figuring out new and better "value added" junk food to sell us that's a bigger player.  This is the second problem I mentioned in that second paragraph of the post: when food is a capitalist enterprise, and people don't really need more food, those selling it have to get innovative to get more food into our shopping carts.  Once those foods get home they are more likely than not going to go into our mouths.  And so, to the extent that eating too much is what's making us fatter, it's capitalism itself that's holding the bag.

Delicious capitalism.



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