Is the farm bill making us fat?

Does current U.S. farm policy deserve part of the blame for the nation’s spiking obesity rates?

Some of the nation’s leading public intellectuals apparently think so.

Writing in the April 22 edition of the New York Times Magazine, Michael Pollan contends the current farm bill’s heavy emphasis on supporting commodities such as wheat, corn and soybeans is a major contributor to ballooning levels of obesity.

The heavy emphasis on these commodities, Pollen maintains, has begotten a diet rich in all of the ingredients that are making Americans, particularly poor Americans, heavier. He cites an Archie Bunker favorite — Twinkies — as one of the more notorious examples.

“Like most processed foods,” Pollan writes, “the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fat 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.”

In fact, he contends, current farm legislation actually promotes the over-production of these commodities, providing a bonanza of cheap ingredients for food processors.

The end result, Pollan maintains, is “a food system awash with added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both).”

Why, he asks, can’t more of these subsidies go for producing healthier foods, namely fresh fruits and vegetables? Equally bad, he says, is that the current farm bill determines the kinds of school lunches our children eat. Indeed, Pollan blames the U.S. Department of Agriculture for turning the nation’s children into human disposals for the immense over-production of high-calorie, high-fat foods encouraged by the current farm bill.

If this isn’t bad enough, Pollan blames the current farm bill for driving down the cost of several staple commodities worldwide and, in the process, many developing world farmers out of business.

What’s needed, Pollan contends, is a farm bill written in the interest of eaters — “people like you and me, increasingly concerned, if not restive, about the quality of food on offer in America.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Quite a lot, says James Novak, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and Auburn University professor of agricultural economics.

For one thing, the argument is vastly over-simplified, Novak says.

For starters, farm legislation encompasses more than simply paying farmers to produce or not to produce crops, he says, adding that the food stamp program is the largest single spending component of the farm bill.

Moreover, Novak says, the nutrition and commodity components of the farm bill are entirely distinct. Simply put, there is not some ulterior motive by the Department of Agriculture to turn U.S. children into human disposals. Food stamp and school lunch provisions outlined in the farm bill were put there with the sole intention of providing meals to hungry Americans, children in particular, he says

“The fact remains there still are hungry children in America,” Novak says. “Programs to provide breakfasts and lunches to children who might not get them at home aren’t a bad thing, in my opinion.”

“Likewise, food stamps provide much needed nutrition for the poor.”

Indeed, Novak says, the problem isn’t so much in the food provided through these programs as it is in the kinds of food choices we make.

On a couple of points, Novak agrees with Pollan. Not enough is being done to educate Americans, particularly limited income Americans, about healthy food choices, he says. Likewise, more money should be provided for poor people to buy healthier foods.

Nevertheless, Novak says that before fingering USDA as a primary culprit behind ballooning obesity rates, Pollan should remember that many USDA-supported commodities also are used to make healthy food.

Soybeans are a prime example, he says — used to make tofu, soy burgers and soy milk.

Aside from that, Novak says, Pollan is wrong to imply that the planting of more corn and soybeans was hatched in some shadowy corporate boardroom. Indeed, it is the growing desire among producers to capitalize on bioenergy, rather than some shady corporate plot, that led to this year’s vast corn and soybean plantings.

Is current farm policy perfect? Absolutely not, Novak says. Even so, he says assigning all or even some of the blame to farm legislation is a vast over-simplification.

Should we be eating more healthily? Absolutely, he says.

“But it’s the desire for convenience, processing and the need to cram into our bodies concentrated calories to continue the pace of our hectic lives that figures most prominently into the problem,” Novak says.

That, he believes, is a challenge better left to the nation’s nutrition and health educators, who deserve more funding from the Nutrition, Research and Education titles of the farm bill, he says.

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