Thursday, June 8, 2017

Welcome to Fatland

You’ve probably seen something like this image recently; several versions circulate. Don’t write another article on obesity in America until you explain why fatty, unhealthful foods cost more than their healthy, nutritionally complete equivalents. And I’ve seen several answers back, like: well, if you only eat McDonalds then yeah; or, anything is cheaper deep-fat-fried than prepared in a healthy way. I’d like to offer just one possible explanation.

You’ve probably heard lots about America’s notoriously subsidized agriculture. Because of massive monetary transfusions used to keep farmers working and food affordable, American crops are often cheaper than the dirt they grow in. That’s especially true with today’s inflated land values. When NAFTA lowered trade barriers, subsidized American-grown food hit Mexican markets below the cost of growing, causing rural poverty to hit seventy percent in Mexico.

But those subsidies don’t go just anywhere. Since the Great Depression, America has subsidized just five staple crops: corn, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton. These staples all have long shelf lives, which makes their market value very volatile: oversupply can last a long, long time. If farmers overplant lettuce, it’ll rot within a matter of weeks. If farmers overplant corn—and who know’s what’s too much at planting time?—markets could be destabilized for a year.

So, America has decided we owe our planters of cereal grains and natural fibers the dignity of a stable income. After all, an unstable grain market owing to oversupply jeopardizes farmers, but we still need to eat. Grains provide dietary fibers that we all need, and unlike fruit or salad greens, we can ship corn to where it’s needed. Why not, therefore, dedicate public money to ensuring people who grow our corn aren’t rolling the dice on uncertain markets.

Except that hasn’t been the effect. By subsidizing only a few crops, we’ve created cash incentives for farmers to overproduce these grains at massive numbers. Cotton is so cheap now that we use it to make disposable shop rags. According to agricultural journalist George Pyle, American farmers currently produce twenty times as much corn as American consumers can possibly eat. All that oversupply has to go somewhere.

And that “somewhere,” overwhelmingly, is animal feed. American agricultural policy doesn’t directly subsidize livestock agriculture. However, we have Earth’s cheapest meat, because by encouraging oversupply, we indirectly subsidize cattle farming. Cattle raised on grass, like God intended, reach market weight in about two years. Cattle raised on corn, fed to them in confined feedlots, reach market weight in about fourteen months. It’s a cash boon for livestock farmers.

A typical confined animal feeding operation—in this case, a hog pen

Stay with me here. The wheat used in making buns is directly subsidized. The beef slapped between those buns is indirectly subsidized. Even the cheese used to make the burger taste less like dead flesh is subsidized, because dairy oversupply keeps threatening to crash market values; the government buys excess dairy and pours it on the ground to stabilize prices. Does the government want us to eat more burgers?

Of course not. They just don’t want farmers subject to the instabilities of market fluctuations. Readers old enough to remember the “tractorcades” of the 1980s know that farmers are more beholden to market forces than most other producers. As we learned in 2008, housing oversupply is bad for home builders; but builders can store their tools, pull in their claws, and wait. Farmers, to keep their families together, often have to sell their land.

This says nothing about side effects of agricultural policy. Subsidizing only five crops has led to massive monocropping, which overtaxes the soil of certain nutrients. To keep the land producing crops, farmers saturate it with fertilizers derived from hydrocarbons. American farms today produce more greenhouse gases than cars do, not from inefficiency, but because farmers need the five magic crops to show a profit. And nutrient-depleted topsoil washes away whenever it rains.

That seems simple enough. The makings of a burger are directly or indirectly subsidized, while the makings of a salad are not. If the ways we spend our money reflect our cultural values, then apparently we place higher value on maintaining certain food crops than on encouraging Americans to eat well. This approach, though moralistic, isn’t wrong. Maintaining the status quo is cost-efficient, while changing the system, even a system that causes bad health, is scary.

Designing an agricultural policy that would result in more diverse crops, better land management, and healthier foods at more modest prices, will challenge even seasoned legislators. Even in today’s environment of armchair quarterbacking, I don’t dare extend myself this way. But somebody must. Because the meme isn’t wrong: we won’t tackle American obesity until ordinary Americans can afford better-quality food.

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