Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Government-Subsidized Pop-Tart

When I was pregnant with M and starting to get the queasies, my doctor told me to just eat. The important thing, he said, was to get in calories to feed the growing baby; we could work on nutritional needs after I was feeling less green. My ob/gyn was, in essence, doing for me what the farm bill does for all Americans -- finds a way to pack in the most calories, regardless of nutritional value or the dangerously expanding waistlines of many U.S. citizens.

Michael Pollan, one of my favorite food journalists, wrote a fabulous piece in last Sunday's New York Times, which you can find here, that breaks down the farm bill into language laypeople like me can understand. I'll give you the highlights as I understand them.

The farm bill, which is about to come back around as it does every five years or so, subsidizes farmers by paying them for the number of bushels of five main crops they produce; those crops are corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and rice.

The inevitable result is that farmers overproduce the fab five crops, and this subsidized product is then sold to consumers not only as the actual crops and recognizable derivatives. The surplus is also creatively processed into products like high-fructose corn syrup, McNugget breading, and added fats.

In its most basic terms, the bill encourages the processing and ultimate overprocessing of these key crops into "foods" (Twinkies, Pepsi, Pop-Tarts) that pack the most caloric punch per farm acre, making cheap, calorie- and fat-ridden product accessible even to those with limited incomes. This method was possibly admirable when the poor couldn't afford to purchase enough calories to sustain themselves; today, this method isn't so admirable. Carrots and lettuce, as you might expect, remain unsubsidized for farmers and for many consumers with very limited means, out of reach.

An interesting fact Pollan cited in his article is that between 1985 and 2000, the price of produce increased nearly 40 percent, but soda (made mostly from high-fructose corn syrup) decreased 23 percent. I know from Pollan's painstakingly well-researched book The Omnivore's Dilemma that there are about 45,000 products in the average supermarket, and more than 25% contain some form of corn. Corn is also the number-one ingredient at McDonald's, although you'd be hard-pressed to find an actual recognizable kernel save for a sprinkling on one or two of the company's premium salads.

The sad thing is that this bill isn't just making Americans pudgy. The cheap product is being sold to other countries, undermining local farmers' ability to earn a living wage. Mexican farmers, for example, are finding themselves hard-pressed to compete with the government-subsidized price of cheap corn from the U.S.

Phil and I have been making an effort to be conscientious of what products contain high-fructose corn syrup because it's so unhealthy physically. But it's unhealthy in a million other ways, including environmentally, ethically, and socially. And the system is now wired to produce oceans of high-fructose corn syrup as well as a plethora of unrecognizable key-crop derivatives.

All this talk is depressing me, so in my next post I'll include the accidental best banana bread recipe I sort of made up this weekend. Added bonus: it's corn-free!



Anonymous Julie K. said...

Very interesting. And scary!

5:42 AM  
Blogger Jose said...

Pollan is one of my favorite food activists. Some of the connections we makes come across as revelations, kind of like freakonomics of food. Good post, but a bit depressing :)

6:58 AM  
Blogger Cindy K said...

Yeah, it's rough to see how the system is rigged to make us unhealthy and fat. The good news is that the bill is coming up, and there is room to make changes both legislatively and in personal choices. And I agree; Michael Pollan is amazing. His smartness makes my head hurt. :)

7:09 AM  
Blogger Jose said...

oops.. my last comment: should be 'he', not 'we'

7:59 AM  
Blogger davitydave said...

Be sure to write your representatives and let them know where you stand, what legislation you'd like them to send to the floor and how you want them to vote. It does make a difference.

*steps off soapbox*

6:46 PM  
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