The North Coast times-eagle. (Wheeler, Oregon) 1971-2007, May 01, 2007, Page 2, Image 2

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A few years ago, an obesity researcher at the University
of Washington named Adam Drewnowski ventured into the
supermarket to solve a mystery. He wanted to figure out why
it is that the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today
is a person’s wealth. For most of history, after all, the poor have
typically suffered from a shortage of calories, not a surfeit So
how is it that today the people with the least amount of money
to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?
Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend,
using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He
discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the
middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons
of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American super­
market, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line
the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods
dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy
1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories
of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he
discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only
170 calories or orange juice.
As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense"
than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more
added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and
more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the
least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the
foods that contain them “junk." Drewnowski concluded that the
rules of the food game in America are organized is such a way
that if you are eating on a budget, the most rational economic
strategy is to eat badly — and get fat.
This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think,
the inevitable result of the free market. 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 psuedocakes for less than a bunch of roots?
For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm
bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated
piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years
and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food
system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food
system. 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
$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 com) 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% while the real price of soft drinks
(aka liquid corn) declined by 23%. The reason the least healthful
calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the
ones the farm bill encourages the farmers to grow.
A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately
wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has
called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in
the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn
syrup. But such is the perversity of the farm bill: the nation’s
agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-
health objectives. And the subsidies are only part of the problem.
The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will
have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program
began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s
children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural
commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the
problem is overnutrition, but a school lunch lady trying to prepare
healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by USDA inspectors for
failing to serve enough calories; if she dishes up a lunch that
includes chicken nuggets and Tater Tots, however, the inspector
smiles and the reimbursements flow. The farm bill essentially
treats our children as a human Disposall for all the unhealthful
calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to
To speak of the farm bill’s influence on the American
food system does not begin to describe its full impact — on the
environment, on global poverty, even on immigration. By making
it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for
considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps
determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton
in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will
survive or be forced off the land, to migrate to the cities — or
to the United States. The flow of immigrants north from Mexico
since NAFTA is inextricably linked to the flow of American corn
in the opposite direction, a flood of subsidized grain that the
Mexican government estimates has thrown two million Mexican
farmers and other agricultural workers off the land since the
mid-'90s. (More recently, the ethanol boom has led to a spike
in corn prices that has left that country reeling from soaring
tortilla prices; linking its corn economy to ours has been a
unalloyed disaster for Mexico’s eaters as well as its farmers.)
You can’t fully comprehend the pressures driving immigration
without comprehending what U.S. agricultural policy is doing
to rural agriculture in Mexico.
And though we don’t ordinarily think of the farm bill
in these terms, few pieces of legislation have as profound an
impact on the American landscape and environment. Americans
may tell themselves they don’t have a national landuse policy,
that the market by and large decides what happens on private
property in America, but that’s not exactly true. The smorgas­
bord of incentives and disincentives built into the farm bill
helps decide what happens on nearly half of the private land
in America: whether it will be farmed or left wild, whether it will
be managed to maximize productivity (and therefore doused
with chemicals) or to promote environmental stewardship. The
health of the American soil, the purity of its water, the biodiversity
and the very look of its landscape owe in no part to impenetrable
titles, programs and formulae buried deep in the farm bill.
Given all this, you would think the farm-bill debate would
engage the nation's political passions every five years, but that
hasn’t been the case. If the quintennial antidrama of the “farm
bill debate" holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state
legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed
doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the
media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us
assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about "farming,"
an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know
and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our
own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a
parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwest­
ern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no
political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes.
The fact that the bill is deeply encrusted with incomprehensible
jargon and prehensile programs dating back to the 1930s makes
it almost impossible for the average legislator to understand the
bill should he or she try to, much less the average citizen. It’s
doubtful this is an accident.
But there are signs this year will be different. The public-
health community has come to recognize it can’t hope to address
obesity and diabetes without addressing the farm bill. The
environmental community recognizes that as long as we have
a farm bill that promotes chemical and feedlot agriculture, clean
water will remain a pipe dream. The development community
has woken up to the fact that global poverty cannot be fought
without confronting the ways the farm bill depresses world crop
prices. They got a boost from a 2004 ruling by the World Trade
Organization that U.S. cotton subsidies are illegal; most obser­
vers think that challenges to similar subsidies for corn, soy,
wheat or rice would also prevail.
And then there are the eaters, people like you and me,
increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of the
food on offer in America. A grassroots social movement is
gathering around food issues, and while it is still somewhat
inchoate, the manifestations are everywhere: in local efforts
to get vending machines out of the schools and to improve
school lunch; in local campaigns to fight feedlots and to force
food companies to better the lives of animals in agriculture; in
the spectacular growth of the market for organic food and the
revival of local food systems. In great and growing numbers,
people are voting with their forks for a different sort of food
system. But as powerful as the food consumer is — it was that
consumer, after all, who built a $15 billion organic-food industry
and more than doubled the number of farmer’s markets in the
last few years — voting with our forks can advance reform only
so far. It can’t, for example, change the fact that the system is
rigged to make the most unhealthful calories in the marketplace
the only ones the poor can afford. To change that, people will
have to vote with their votes as well — which is to say, they
will have to wade into the muddy political waters of agricultural
Doing so starts with the recognition that the “farm bill" is
a misnomer; in truth, if is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten
with the interests of eaters placed first. Yes, there are eaters who
think it in their interest that food just be as cheap as possible,
no matter how poor the quality. But there are many more who
recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food — to their health,
to the land, to the animals, to the public purse. At a minimum,
these eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our
public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to
produce food cleanly, sustainably and humanely. Eaters want a
bill that makes the healthful calories in the supermarket compet­
itive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds
schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed
surplus commodities from far away. Enlightened eaters also
recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would
support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not
subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a
country that can still produce its own food and doesn't hurt the
world’s farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets.
The devil is in the details, no doubt. Simply eliminating
support for fanners won't solve these problems; overproduction
has afflicted agriculture since long before modern subsidies. It
will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how to
encourage farmers to focus on taking care of the land rather than
all-out production, on growing real food for eaters rather than
industrial raw materials for food processors and on rebuilding
local food economies, which the current food bill hobbles. But
the guiding principle behind an eater's farm bill could not be
more straightforward: it’s one that changes the rules of the game
so as to promote the quality of our food (and farming) over and
above its quantity.
Such changes are radical only by the standards of past
farm bills, which have faithfully reflected the priorities of the
agribusiness interests that wrote them. One of these years, the
eaters of America are going to demand a place at the table, and
we will have the political debate over food policy we need and
deserve. This could prove to be that year: the year when the
farm bill became a food bill, and the eaters at last had their say.
Michael Pollan is the Knight professor of journalism at
the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is
The Omnivore's Dilemma. He wrote this article for The New York
Times Sunday Magazine.
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