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Column: Dairy Cliff Raises Larger Questions About Farm Bill

Don’t worry, stay calm, everyone. Those gallons of milk at the grocery store are safe — for now.

You’d think it was a matter of national security. Senate leaders negotiating the fiscal cliff deal went to extremes to keep dairy prices from spiking. As a dietitian, I am shocked that our country’s leaders would cut more than $100 million from our food stamps nutrition education programs just to give a few more dollars to corporate dairy farmers. It’s like robbing Peter to pay the king.

But I shouldn’t be surprised. Congress has a history of doing anything — no matter what the implications are for the health of Americans — to keep factory farmers content. These corporations produce — and heavily market — products that directly contribute to our nation’s epidemics of heart disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes.

One way to help prevent future fiscal cliffs — and to help Americans avoid chronic diseases — is to overhaul taxpayer-funded farm subsidies when the temporary Farm Bill extension expires nine months from now. The vast majority of subsidies go to extremely wealthy farmers who do not need them — and who are producing high-fat, high-cholesterol, nutrient-deficient foods.

The current subsidy system stems from efforts to stabilize very small family farms during the Great Depression. America’s farms have changed dramatically since then. But the subsidy system has not changed. Eighty years after the Depression, the vast majority of food is produced by massive corporations that should be able to withstand changes in crop prices.

In 1930, there were 6.3 million farms, with a quarter of the population farming. In 2012, less than 1 percent of the population was involved in farming, and there were about 2.1 million farms. Despite this huge shift, the government continues to hand out billions of dollars every year to corporate farmers.

Between 1995 and 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed more than $277.3 billion in subsidies. Ten percent of subsidized farms — the largest and wealthiest operations — have raked in about three-quarters of all subsidy payments, according to the Environmental Working Group’s analysis of federal data.

We see similar stagnation in the federal government’s advice about nutrition and decisions about which foods to subsidize and funnel into school lunch lines. In 1933, the government issued family food plans specifying which foods to eat at different cost levels, aiming to prevent malnutrition or starvation. The government was careful to support farmers producing meat, dairy products, and other foods high in fat to help fight hunger.

Today, our nation’s main nutrition issue is not hunger — it’s obesity. One in three Americans is overweight or obese, and low-income populations experience much higher rates of diet-related chronic diseases. But the government still prioritizes the production of high-fat foods over nutrition education for low-income populations.

The government doesn’t even follow its own nutrition advice. The USDA put out a new food diagram recommending that Americans fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables. But less than 1 percent of agricultural subsidies for domestic food products in recent history have supported fruit and vegetable production.

It’s true that dairy farmers would suffer if gallons of milk suddenly cost $8. But Americans are already passing by the milk section and drinking water or soy milk instead. The government should support this positive shift rather than keep milk prices artificially low. Some dairy producers may go out of business, but those that start producing other beverages will benefit greatly. Dean Foods, a massive producer of dairy products, also produces Silk soymilk, which has gained worldwide popularity.

Congress needs to look at the big picture of food, nutrition, and health. It’s not wealthy dairy operations that need help — it’s consumers. Congress needs to end agricultural subsidies or reform them so they address our nation’s current health crisis — not one we experienced nearly a century ago.

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Susan Levin is the director of nutrition education for the vegan group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C.