Food Fight: Farm Policies Are Making Us Fat
Business + Economy

Food Fight: Farm Policies Are Making Us Fat

Jack Puccio/iStockphoto

As Americans’ waistlines continue to grow, so does the cost of health:  obesity will cost the U.S. about $344 billion in seven years. Michelle Obama knows how to keep the pounds off—she planted her vegetable garden last week for the third year in a row.  But fewer and fewer Americans can find and afford the fruits and vegetables that make up a healthy diet because ironically, the government has put up barriers.  

This is one food fight that goes well beyond bulging waistlines. Consider these points:

1. Trade Imbalance: The U.S. is an agricultural superpower, but since 1999 it’s been a net importer of fresh fruits and vegetables. Last year it purchased $6 billion more of this produce abroad than it sold to foreign customers, and the Department of Agriculture predicts this deficit will grow by more than $1 billion this year. Much of the apple juice sold in supermarkets, for example, is from concentrate imported from China—this in the land of Johnny Appleseed. Americans are also consuming less fresh produce despite a growing population. In the last decade alone, California cut back its fresh vegetable production by 150,000 acres,  according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service and as a result, volumes dropped by nearly 10 percent despite improved yields. Across the U.S., 14,000 fewer acres of broccoli were planted in 2010 than in 2000 – the equivalent of about 10,000 football fields.

2. The Shifting Farm Economy: National food companies such as Heinz, Hunts and Campbell’s abandoned the Midwest in the 1980s and ‘90s and concentrated their canning operations near large-scale irrigated farming in California, as well as in foreign countries such as Chile and Mexico. These shifts come at a price.  In the Southwest, irrigated farming competes with sprawling cities for subsidized federal water.

Agriculture is losing that fight in the arid Imperial Valley, which provides 90 percent of the nation’s winter vegetables, according to a report by National Public Radio. Farmers have been forced to idle cropland equal to about 10 Central Parks, the report said.   “Soon there may not be enough water to go around … and that could bring an end to the area’s days of growing sweet corn, onions, lettuce, carrots, cauliflower and broccoli.” The growing reliance on fields far from home has many causes: consumer demand for year-round fresh produce; longer growing seasons in warmer climates; lower labor costs; and less stringent food safety and environmental laws in foreign countries.

3. Federal Subsidies:  Current federal law discourages farmers from growing fruits and vegetables on some 266 million acres – most of it prime farmland. The restriction strips farmers of key subsidies if they convert to vegetables even a single acre of land on which they’ve traditionally grown grain, soybeans, cotton or other cash crops. An Iowan with 1,000 corn “base acres,” for instance, would lose about $30,000 in federal income support if he switched that land to tomatoes. Yet a farmer can sell an acre of tomatoes for as much as $3,600 – compared to $1000 for an acre of corn at today’s prices.

“The [government] needs to get the heck out of the restrictions on agriculture and let farmers plant food,” said John Hilger, president of the Indiana Vegetable Growers Association, a farm lobby, adding that the Midwest “could produce all the vegetables for the U.S.”

In the 2008 farm bill, Midwest vegetable processors won approval of a pilot project that exempted 75,000 acres from the restriction, though it applied only to vegetables grown for processing—a concession to the fresh produce industry in California, Florida and Georgia. So far, only about 10,000 acres have been converted, due to booming prices for grain and soybeans and administrative problems with the program.

But Steve Smith, director of agriculture for Indiana-based Red Gold Co., the largest tomato processor outside California, says keeping and expanding the exemptions are crucial to the long-term survival of Midwest vegetable production. Acreage available for vegetables is sure to shrink as vegetable farmers die and their exemptions are lost, he said.

The Big Money at Risk
The generation of new farmers following Mrs. Obama’s call to grow fresh foods for local markets, face bigger threats than a swarm of locusts: they may lose federal funding due to budget cuts and opposition from agribusiness and key members of Congress.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has launched a campaign known as “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” aimed at helping mid-sized farms sell more fresh produce to local schools, colleges, hospitals and prisons, using community-based distribution hubs. The goal is to keep more of the added value in the food chain in rural counties, by utilizing close by markets for meat and fresh produce.

Last year, though, key Republican senators pushed back hard, claiming that the program favored “small, hobbyist and organic producers” over commercial farmers. A letter from Sens. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said USDA seemed to favor “locavore” projects in urban areas at the expense of rural communities.

Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), chair of a key House Agriculture subcommittee, has proposed legislation that would end federal cost-sharing of expenses that go toward a farm’s organic certification.  He’s charged that the program benefits mainly “hobby” farmers and is a waste of taxpayer money. The organic industry, for its part, has responded that the average organic farm has annual sales of more than $200,000 a year.

The 2008 farm bill included incentives for small farmers, farmers’ markets, and innovative “sustainable” farming practices that do not overstress the environment. “There’s a huge interest in agriculture right now,” said Fred Hoefner, president of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “There are young farmers who like the interface with the consumer.”

Under congressional budget rules, the new programs are more vulnerable to cuts than older, established farm subsidy programs whose continuation is assumed to be automatic. This could affect federal funding for programs that give farmers' markets the technology to take payments from food stamp recipients, or support genetic research that may lead to hardier vegetables less prone to frost or wind.
A Possible Tipping Point
The jury is still out on whether all these developments represent a passing fad or a permanent new direction in U.S. agriculture. But there are signs that Mrs. Obama’s movement is taking hold. Last October, Walmart announced it would spend $1 billion to help train small farmers and purchase fresh, locally raised produce for its stores. And a recent Iowa State study concluded that six Midwest states could ring up nearly $1 billion in new farm sales and create up to 10,000 jobs by growing enough quantities of 28 key foods to meet the annual needs of consumers in that region.

Related Links:
Kansas Lawmaker:  Farmers Must Justify Deficit Spending for Subsidies (Des Moines Register)
Conservatives Dig into Michelle Obama’s Anti-Obesity Campaign (L.A. Times)
Anti-Obesity Campaign Can Help Economy (Washington Post)