Many of us in agriculture have stated on occasion that government crop subsidies are being blamed for all the ills of mankind. And, at the time, we probably meant it as a slight exaggeration. That is, until I saw the following headline in my local newspaper: “Expert: Obesity is linked to subsidies.”
I remember enough from my college days to recognize this as faulty logic or, more specifically, a false analogy. It goes something like this: The U.S. government provides subsidies to farmers. Farmers grow soybeans and corn. Soybeans and corn are used to manufacture fattening foods. People who eat an excess of fattening foods become obese. Therefore, government farm subsidies are causing obesity.
Of course, you don't need a freshman-level philosophy course to recognize this for what it is. You only need what the great writer Ernest Hemingway once called a “built-in, shockproof crap detector.” Such a device is especially handy in today's world of information overload, when truly logical thinking and writing are hard to come by.
But back to that newspaper article. It's not surprising — especially in the midst of farm bill negotiations — to find such claims among the mountains of propaganda that is routinely spread by certain anti-farm subsidy groups. But it is unsettling to see the same sort of sensationalism in your local newspaper.
Government financial support, states the article, spurs farmers to plant certain crops, creating “an abundant, cheap supply of fat-producing soybean oil and high-fructose corn syrup. Nutritionists say these building blocks for scores of fattening foods — from hamburgers to soda and potato chips — hurt the nation's health.”
The article then goes on to suggest that if similar subsidies are instituted for fruits and vegetables, then they would offset the ones for corn, soybeans and other crops, suggesting that fruits and vegetables instantly would become cheaper, and people would promptly throw down their Big Mac's and eat an apple or orange instead.
There is a brief mention in the article that the farm bill, as proposed, adds extra money to promote fruits and vegetables in school lunches, but it is a very brief mention. This report also fails to take into account the complexity of the fruits and vegetable market.
The rising cost of land tends to be more of a factor in fruit and vegetable production than in row-crop production because an estimated 80 percent of producers are in areas of runaway urban sprawl, such as Florida and California. In recent years, the number of farms that harvest vegetables fell by 11 percent and the number of farms with orchards fell by 6 percent.
Fruit and vegetable production also is much more labor intensive than growing corn or soybeans, and uncertainties over future immigration policy continue to hang over the market.
The article doesn't mention that farm products actually make up only a fraction of the cost of food. The cost of growing and harvesting the “food” reflects just 16 percent and 19 percent of the price consumers pay for fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, respectively.
So, in a more thorough analysis — using more sound logic — it becomes clear that many things impact the price of fruits and vegetables, but farm subsidies probably isn't a big factor, and they certainly aren't the root cause of obesity in this country.
If you want to find a hint of objectivity in the newspaper article, you'll have to continue reading almost to the end, where it finally quotes Jon Dogget, vice-president of the National Corn Growers Association, as saying that researchers do not place enough importance on the larger portion food sizes that have become so popular in recent decades.
“When I was a kid, I remember drinking Coke out of a 6-ounce bottle,” he says. “When was the last time you drank a 6-ounce Coke?” Not to mention the “super-sized” fast-food meals and menu selections such as Hardee's Country Breakfast Burrito, offering 60 grams of fat.
Dogget adds that in many products, ingredients derived from subsidized crops like corn and soybeans account for a tiny fraction of the cost.
Factors such as poverty, bad food choices and an increasingly less active populace also play a role in the fattening of America. It's too easy — and frankly dishonest — to blame it on government crop subsidies.