The Situation of Our Food – Part II
Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 29, 2007
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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 pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?
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This Part excerpts (immediately below) another section of Pollan’s article, which examines one of the answers – not the market, but the laws and regulations that govern the market – and suggests its connection to the still-ballooning national girth.
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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 some $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 corn) 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 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages 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 U.S.D.A. 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 overproduce.
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.
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Part III of this series will pick up there, but there is more to say about the connection of corn subsidies to the obesity epidemic. The fact that the link between our laws the harms that those laws have contributed to requires explantion is itself a function of our general failure to see situation and to focus on disposition. That is a point that several Situationist contributors have made in other work as follows:
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Lobbying by corn processors has had an undoubted effect on the expansion of corn subsidies, but it is only the most obvious part of the story. When asked about whether he saw any link between the subsidy programs and obesity, Tommy Thompson answered as if the question were silly: “I really don’t . . . [b]ecause the subsidy programs are things that are done through Congress, much more so than trying to come up with an overall strategy as, as fars as nutrition is concerned.”
The point seems to be that because Congress did not have a disposition to contribute to the obesity epidemic, Congressional policies are not at all responsible. This dispositionism stems in part, we believe from the fact that subsidies were not “intended” to influence public health – rather, they were intended as a means of helping certain farmers – and in part because the connections to our health are situational. Farm subsidies embody especially hard-to-see situation not only because they have been around so long that they feel natural and are accepted as given, but also because understanding how they increase health problems in the United States requires dealing with a long explanation. Marching down the causal chain is hard work, and given our resistance to explanations that do not comport with our dispositionist tendencies, few regulators make the trek.