Tag Archives: food

Corn Subsidies: How Congress is shortchanging our health

At dinner Sunday night, I asked my friend Prasad if he knew about the new farm bill and what it means for average Americans. He didn’t.

I wasn’t surprised. With the election, the war, and rising prices to fret about, not many people are pondering legislation about farms. But they should, because it has huge implications for the country’s nutrition, environment, and health. Here are three reasons why we all should pay closer attention to the 2007 farm bill: food, fuel, and fat.

First, some background.

The farm bill, which is renewed every five or six years, is a vast set of laws and policies that governs how our food is produced and priced. Recently, it has included conservation programs aimed at setting aside land to aid ecosystem recovery and improve water quality, but historically it has provided huge payments to just a handful of crops including wheat, soybeans, cotton, and corn.

The first farm bill, passed during the Depression, established price supports to protect farmers and rural communities. The Agricultural Act of 1938 mandated price supports for corn, cotton, and wheat; the Agricultural Act of 1949 established supports for other commodities including wool, mohair, honey, and milk. These two laws form the backbone of today’s farm bill, and this is part of the problem. A system established in an agricultural landscape vastly different from today’s is still in place, and the effects are profound.

Let’s look at how one particular crop has helped change American life and how retooling government supports for it could be a boon for all Americans.

The problem with corn: How the fat of the land is helping make us fatter

Corn is so prevalent in American food that you’re likely to be eating it even if you don’t know it. Chug a Coke, chomp on a chicken nugget, bite into a burger, and most likely you’re ingesting processed corn.

Why is corn everywhere? Part of the reason is a subsidy system that has helped glut the marketplace with corn and left the government to find ways to use it. Nowadays, ranchers feed corn to their cows and chickens, and food companies sweeten their foodstuffs with it. This not only affects the price of strawberries and broccoli at your local farmers market; thanks to recent government mandates for ethanol, corn affects what you pay at the pump.

Some nutritionists and researchers are even starting to trace a link between the high prevalence of corn in our diet and our weight problems — and, by extension, a host of health issues stemming from being overweight.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 64.5 percent of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. That’s up from just 25-45 percent of Americans in 1992, according to the International Journal of Obesity. A number of conditions of our modern lifestyle contribute to our weight problem: sedentary jobs make us less physically active, we eat out more than in, and portion size has ballooned. But corn may also play a role.

Government subsidies make sweet food very cheap, says Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University and author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, pointing to one of the most prevalent sweeteners: high fructose corn syrup, which sweetens most soda pop while upping the calories. (Read a PBS interview with Nestle.)

In a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives, Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the Carolina Population Center of the University of North Carolina, argued that an artificial price gap created by subsidies makes nutritionally valuable foods more expensive than nutritionally poor food and thus more attractive to penny-pinched consumers.

Writer Michael Pollan is blunt about the problem: “We’re subsidizing obesity,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.

How corn is skewing the marketplace and abetting environmental problems

One might conclude that corn growers and other beneficiaries of government subsidies have been playing on an uneven playing field for more than five decades. What happened to free markets?

Because government subsidies have kept corn prices low, farmers need to plant more of it to make money. In his compelling book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan tells the history of how America made the move from rich, diverse farmlands to a monoculture of corn, and how this has perverted the marketplace. Pollan writes:

Government farm programs, once designed to limit production and support prices (and therefore farmers), were quietly rejiggered to increase production and drive down prices. Put another way, instead of supporting farmers, during the Nixon administration the government began supporting corn at the expense of farmers. Corn, already the recipient of a biological subsidy in the form of synthetic nitrogen, would now receive an economic subsidy too, ensuring its final triumph over the land and the food system.

The farm bill, like other New Deal public-support systems, grew out of needs tied to difficult conditions, but as farming and economic circumstances have changed, the law has not kept pace with evolving needs of lands and the people who work them.

Meanwhile, lobbying around the crops getting the subsidies has strengthened. Those on the receiving ends of the monies don’t want to give them up. The system stays largely stuck in the past.

Some major changes did occur in the 1980s, though. As scientists and politicians saw increasing environmental degradation of agricultural lands, conservation programs were designed to protect natural resources and to reward farmers. The 2002 farm bill ramped up conservation payments.

But corn threatens to throw a wrench into this progress. With farmers growing more and more corn, land formerly cultivated in soybeans or set aside as conservation reserves is now being cultivated for corn.

Why? In part because after years of slumping prices, the price of corn is now growing by leaps and bounds. You see, our representatives in Washington, D.C. have mandated a huge increase in the amount of ethanol in our gasoline. They have also made it all but impossible to import sugarcane-based ethanol from countries like Brazil. So our only viable source is corn. Demand for corn as food and corn as energy has helped its price skyrocket. (Some believe this is contributing to a world food shortage that threatens political stability throughout the developing world — but that is another story.)

Less corn means more conservation and better health

The rush to corn is exacting a serious environmental toll. One of the country’s most resource-intensive crops, corn requires huge amounts of fertilizers and water. As Pollan put it, “Hybrid corn is the greediest of plants, consuming more fertilizer than any other crop.” Nitrogen from fertilizers applied to cornfields eventually finds its way to our waterways, degrading water quality and choking out fish.

Eventually that nitrogen finds its way to the ocean where it can cause huge dead zones — large patches of the ocean depleted of oxygen and virtually all life.

[The “Dead Zone” at the mouth of the MIssissippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. The area’s aquatic life has been unable to survive due to rising fertilizer run off from farms in the Midwest. Source: NASA]

The need for irrigation is also of concern. While most crops need irrigation, corn is particularly thirsty. Consider the Ogallala Aquifer, the huge underground reservoir underlying eight states from Texas to South Dakota. According to the USGS, the Ogallala supplies about 30 percent of all our water used for irrigation. Corn-based biofuels draw even more — anywhere from three to six gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, according to Environmental Defense Fund.

The aquifer was formed millions of years ago, and the water there today has been around for thousands of years. However, we are pumping water out of so fast that we are in danger of pumping it dry. By some estimates, the Ogallala could be used up in as little as 25 years. From a water point of view alone, our rush to corn does not seem sustainable.

Now, eating and growing corn are not bad in and of themselves, but producing too much corn has wide-ranging negative effects. So we should take note of how our tax dollars are helping flood and pervert the marketplace with easy corn, because we’re paying a really high price in terms of nutrition and environmental problems. This is where the farm bill comes in.

As farmers naturally look to boost profits, Congress should take the long view of our country’s health. Rather than supporting subsidies that create a kind of gold rush for corn, perhaps the government should consider diversifying its support for a whole range of crops that not only need help but would also provide across-the-board benefits for Americans.

Boosting conservation programs and evening the playing field among growers of different crops — like broccoli, carrots, apples, almonds, and spinach — could lead to trimmer, healthier bodies and an environment that provides good water quality and promotes affordable food. Next time you sit down to dinner with friends, ask them what they think they’re eating. Whatever it is, the chances are, it contains corn. Maybe we should think about changing that.

– Originally posted by Bill Chameides, a guest contributor on Grist.org

 

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The World According to Monsanto

On March 11, this documentary was aired on French television (ARTE – French-German cultural tv channel) by French journalist and film maker Marie-Monique Robin. The in-depth film depicts how Monsanto, a gigantic biotech/agriculture corporation based in St. Louis, is destroying plant biodiversity around the world with genetically engineered seeds and, basically, endangering our future as a human race … I know that statement may seem a bit dramatic and paranoid, but the amount of control this corporation has gained over global food production should be illegal – oh, I forgot, why would the government make laws against itself? Monsanto is the government:

Former Monsanto employees currently hold positions in US government agencies such as the Food and Drug Adminstration and Environmental Protection Agency and even the Supreme Court. These include Clarence Thomas, Michael Taylor, Ann Veneman and Linda Fisher. Fisher has been back and forth between positions at Monsanto and the EPA.

Also note that Donald Rumsfeld earned $12 million from increased stock value when G.D. Searle & Company was sold to Monsanto in 1985.

If you feel as disgusted as I did after watching this movie do not hesitate to take action:

http://www.organicconsumers.org/monlink.cfm

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Fishing industry on the verge of collapse

Ever since humans picked up their first fishing poles (or spears) the state of the world’s marine life has been in decline. The damage started slowly, but our technology evolved as we learned to use radar and scrape the sea floors with huge nets, yielding fantastic catches from the plentiful ocean.

Now, armed with unimaginable accuracy and efficiency, commercial fishing fleets are coming back to the docks with smaller catches. The reason: fish stocks have been plummeting worldwide for more than a decade.

The widespread use of unsustainable fishing practices is catching up to us and scientists are calling on world’s governments to take action before international fish stocks are completely diminished.

Here are a few key statistics to ponder:

  1. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, More than 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are now overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted or recovering from overexploitation.
  2. Ninety percent of all the “big fish” – large-bodied sharks, tuna, marlin and swordfish – have disappeared as a result of industrialized fishing according to this study.
  3. A study by a team of leading fishery scientists, published in 2006 in the journal Science, concluded that the world’s fisheries are in collapse and if current trends continue they will be beyond repair by 2048.

Declining fish stocks even have pushed European nations to make controversial deals with African nations, enabling them to fish in the waters of Northwest Africa, taking away jobs and food from the locals. The New York Times also reported that Europe’s insatiable appetite for seafood is promoting illegal trade.

But Europeans are only the beginning of the problem when you consider that fish serves as the primary source of protein for nearly a billion people, according to Oceana, an environmental group that focuses on marine life.

The Solution

In May 2007, 125 scientist from 25 countries, warned World Trade Organization Director Pascal Lamy in a letter that unless the WTO acts to significantly reduce worldwide subsidies to the fishing sector, destructive fishing practices will result in permanent damage of the ocean ecosystem and the entire fishing economy.

Global fisheries subsidies amount to an estimated $30-$34 billion annually, and at least $20 billion go directly towards supporting fishing capacity, such as boats, fuel, equipment and other operating costs, according to a recent report by the University of British Columbia. These subsidies equal about 25 percent of worldwide fishing revenue and have helped produce a global fishing fleet that is up to 250 percent larger than what is need to fish at sustainable levels, said Courtney Sakai, campaign director for Oceana.

“We are not anti-fishing, but the kind of commercial fishing that is taking place today just make sense ecologically and it doesn’t make sense economically,” Sakai said. “We need a more sustainable approach to fishing, one that allows fish stocks to regenerate themselves.”

In their letter to Lamy the scientists wrote:

“Fisheries subsidies are not only a major driver of overfishing, but promote other destructive fishing practices. For example, high seas bottom trawling, a practice so environmentally-destructive that the United Nations has called on nations to severely restrict it, would not be profitable without its large subsidies on fuel. Subsidies have also been documented to support illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing – a serious impediment to achieving sustainable fisheries.”

As Sakai works on Oceana’s campaign against these subsides, she still believes the marine life can recover from its dismal state.

“We may have reduced international fish stocks to horrible conditions, but they can rebound pretty quickly if we just give them a chance,” Sakai said.

The fishing industry is heading full speed into its own demise. It is clear that a broad prohibition of fisheries subsidies is the best way to reduce global overfishing.

[images from Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts]

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