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.
‘Thou shalt not’
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.