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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Why Is There Such a Big Difference Between USDA Recommendations and Subsidies?

Posted By on Wed, Oct 5, 2011 at 7:30 AM

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The Washington Post ran a blistering article yesterday comparing what the USDA wants Americans put on their plates and what foods are on the agency's plate in terms of crop subsidies and price guarantees.

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.
Much of those subsidized commodity crops feed animals raised for meat and dairy. Under the current system, which few politicians want to touch within 20 years of an election, fruits and vegetables -- which are supposed to make up close to 50 percent of our food intake -- are called "specialty crops," and farmers growing them receive only a few million dollars. (Also: tobacco? The thing the government has spent billions of dollars trying to convince us to stop buying?)

This issue is not a new one, as this 2007 graphic deconstructing the USDA's food pyramid illustrates (this one, too). Public consciousness about the discrepancy between the agency's divergent agendas -- promoting American agriculture around the world vs. helping Americans eat more healthfully -- has been growing since Marion Nestle published Food Politics in 2002.

As Congress looks for ways to cut the federal budget, and the next Farm Bill comes up for reauthorization in 2012, it seems like the time is ripe to challenge the current subsidy structure. "USDA subsidies aren't about food security, because they do little to lower the price of most of what people put in their mouths," argues one activist quoted in the article. Nestle and other food-policy writers have been arguing for years that the way to change the perception that organic, locally grown fruits and vegetables are elitist is to force the government to put its money where our mouths are.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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