Correction: An earlier version of this report contained a quote attributed to the wrong person. This version has been corrected.
On Myplate, the federal food diagram published in June to show Americans a healthful diet, half of the plate contains fruits and vegetables, while roughly a third is made up of grains and about a fifth is reserved for “protein”: meat, eggs, beans and nuts. A separate, smaller circle is designated “dairy.”
The designers of Myplate hope it will help lower obesity and such related illnesses as diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer. Animal fats contribute to these diseases and make up a much larger percentage of the diet in America than in other countries. “The chart, thankfully, shows very clearly what people should aim for,” says Marion Nestle, a professor of food science and public health at New York University.
The food plate looks healthful enough, but federal incentives to farmers reflect an entirely different agenda. In large part, the government pays farmers who grow food for animals that become meat.
U.S. farm policy grew out of the economic hardships suffered by Midwestern farmers in the 1930s due to unpredictable swings in agricultural markets and the desire to protect the national food supply. Many critics feel the policy is no longer relevant and should be redesigned to promote healthful eating.
Of the roughly $200 billion spent to subsidize U.S. commodity crops from 1995 to 2010 (commodity crops are interchangeable, storable foods such as grains and certain beans, and cotton), roughly two-thirds went to animal-feed crops, tobacco and cotton. Roughly $50 billion went to human-food crops, including wheat, peanuts, rice, oil seeds and other crops that become sweeteners, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy group. About $12 billion went to crops that were turned into ethanol, a use that is consuming a growing share of the harvest.
Farmers who grow fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, on the other hand, receive no regular direct subsidies, though there are some small programs that aid apple farmers and other growers. The government sometimes buys excess canned produce and uses it in school lunch programs and emergency food banks.
In addition to the subsidies that USDA pays for commodity crops each year, it pays about $5 billion directly to commodity-crop farmers. You don’t have to till the land to get these direct payments. In fact, all you have to do to qualify for the payments is to own land on which commodity crops were growing in 1985.
The direct subsidy payments seem to have little to do with the original justification for farm subsidies, which was to help keep family farms from going out of business. Three-quarters of the direct subsidies go to the top 10 percent of commodity-cropland owners; $400 million of the total in 2010 went to individuals who live in cities with populations over 100,000 and hold the land as an investment. Millions more went to land-owning corporations, including real estate firms.
Although you don’t have to grow anything on these lands to get a subsidy, there are some restrictions on how you use the acreage: Growing fruits and veggies for the market on such lands automatically disqualifies them for direct subsidy payments. This restricts competition for produce growers but limits acreage available for such crops.
“We’ve locked up food production with a policy that says, ‘Thou shalt not grow fruits and vegetables,’ ” says Ferdinand Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a group that lobbies for small- and mid-size farms.
By one estimate, if Americans followed the new USDA diet guidelines, an additional 13 million acres of fruit and vegetable crops would have to be planted each year to provide the food.
Direct payments aren’t the only subsidies for commodity farmers. Since the 1930s, the federal government has attempted to guarantee floor prices for such crops as wheat, soy and corn, and paid farmers for any difference between the floor price and market price.
These payments have fallen in recent years because of the record-high prices farmers are receiving for most commodity crops. The federal government’s subsidy of ethanol has driven up corn prices. Other commodity prices have increased, too.
There have been calls for years to cut the subsidies. But Congress this year again avoided taking an ax to the payments. “Everybody agrees that direct subsidies to big farmers ought to be stopped, but nobody wants to say he was against subsidies if he’s campaigning in Iowa,” says Nestle. “It’s a locked-in system.”
USDA subsidies aren’t about food security, because they do little to lower the price of most of what people put in their mouths, said Ben Lilliston of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a group that opposes subsidies on the grounds that they promote the production of unhealthful food by big business.
Subsidies affect only a few human foods: Peanut butter, rice and bread are indirectly subsidized, as is high-fructose corn syrup, whose cheap ubiquity in the U.S. diet has been described as a cause of the obesity epidemic. A special program helps apple growers, and since 2008 about $50 million a year goes to other fruit and vegetable growers.
Debate on the subsidies sharpened this year amid growing concern over federal government spending. A House Appropriations subcommittee defeated an amendment by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) to cap direct payments at $125,000 per individual. Opposition to the measure was bipartisan.
The amendment was denounced by representatives from states where subsidies are common. “We cannot get safe food if we don’t allow our farmers to have the capacity to earn a living and to produce the highest quality, the safest and most economical food and fiber anywhere in the industrialized world,” said Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.), standing up for his peanut farmers.
Democrat Sam Farr, whose coastal California district includes some of the most productive vegetable-growing farms in the world, noted that the farmers he represents “don’t get a dime of support from the federal government. If the market falls, they eat it. If a disaster comes in, they eat it. . . . They grow what they call ‘specialty crops’ — that’s the stuff you eat all the time.”
Automatic cuts to the direct payments and other subsidy programs could kick in next year if the congressional “supercommittee” created under the debt-ceiling deal fails to make specific recommendations, say those who follow the farm budget.
For critics, the subsidy program is fundamentally flawed because of which farmers it supports as well as the kind of eating it encourages.
USDA officials see the Myplate recommendations and the subsidy programs as different issues. “Myplate doesn’t promote any kind of food,” says Robert Post, USDA’s deputy director for nutrition policy and promotion, whose office designed the graphic. “It helps people make healthier decisions at mealtimes. It’s not supposed to be a prescription, but it gives you tools to allow you to assess your own intakes within these guidelines.”
Though commodity subsidies may seem to be incompatible with USDA’s eating recommendations, Post says basic commodity prices are a tiny percentage of what consumers pay at a restaurant or grocery store, where most of the expense lies in packaging, processing and marketing.
It is possible to eat healthfully on a limited budget, Post said. “You can eat more whole grains and fruits and vegetables without great expense.” Americans on average eat only 42 percent of the recommended two cups of fruit each day and 59 percent of the 2½ cups of vegetables, he said, adding that consumer habits have a much bigger impact than price subsidies.
“Still,” Post said, “we can do more to facilitate behavioral change in eating through government strategies, and those include making these nutritious foods more available.” One of the programs intended to stimulate healthful eating, he noted, is the Farmers Market Promotion Program. It provides grants of up to $100,000 to organizations setting up farmers’ markets.
The program’s budget for 2011: $5 million.
Allen is a freelance writer and author of “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato.”