I Thought This Was America! | Volume 2, Food (continued)

James Sasso, Associate Editor

Part 3: Politics

How could such a horrid system of mass farming, pollution, torture and low quality food be allowed to continue without much change in America? I thought that America was the land of the healthy: the land with the best doctors, the best gyms, the best trainers, the best dietitians and the best scientists. How have they allowed a system, a fundamental system to the survival and well being of our country, to continue its ferocious path of slowly killing America? Where were the politicians, those elected to protect us and serve is, to be found when the horrors of this system were discovered? Well, they were in Congress.
One of the most powerful lobbying groups in the country is the one for farms. The farm lobby has always been strong because, simply put, people need to eat. It makes sense that Congress would be willing to subsidize food in order to make it more affordable for the general public. In this regard, Congress appears actually to fulfill their duties to the general public by improving the lives of its population.
But read between the lines and one finds an entirely different and improper set of subsidies for farming and raising livestock. It would be logical for the government to subsidize all farming if it were to provide said subsidy. Doing so would be the most fair to the system and to nature because people need a varied diet to live healthfully. Instead, Congress repeatedly has bowed to the wishes of the biggest farm companies, those who own the most profitable crops and livestock such as corn, soy and cow, who insist that only certain foods receive the most generous subsidies. Low and behold that the 10 most heavily subsidized crops and livestock are grown and raised by massive “industrial” farms owned by some of the nation’s, and perhaps the world’s, biggest food companies such as Conagra, ADM and Monsanto.
These subsidies help keep the prices on these crops stable enough and cheap enough that they can be used in all sorts of processed foods and industrial products. With costs so low and subsidies so high these massive companies are able to minimize production costs while reaping the benefits of massive sales. They then are able to buy more land, lobby harder, receive further subsidization and increase their incredibly damaging farming and breeding practices. Since subsidies come from taxes, the American people, essentially are paying companies to do us (and the world) massive trauma.
One would think, though, that not every farmer in America is part of the industrial system, and that person obviously would be correct. Unfortunately, these companies produce, and/or control the production of, most food that hits American tables. Small and intermediate sized farmers have difficulty competing against the strength of the big businesses. It’s like if a small drugstore tried to compete against Wal-Mart. But America does subsidize farms, and since our government purports to fully support small business, it would make perfectly logical sense for them to prop up the smaller farms with subsidies against the big companies. A quick glance at the distribution of subsidies to the farms of America reveals the flaws of our system.

In an evaluation of the USDA’s subsidy program one finds that:

“over the last decade, increasing economies of scale and greater commodity demand generated by legislative…mandates have led to increased farm size and further crop specialization.”

(http://www.ers.usda.gov/briefing/farmincome/govtpaybyfarmtype.htm)

This has (1) increased the size of farms and (2) further limited the diversification of crops grown in America. Many previously intermediate sized farms have become “industrial,” becoming those megafarms that generally do so much damage to our environment and quality of food. Also, even though the profit per acre for these commercial farms averaged $133 in 2008 and only seven dollars per acre for rural farms, commercial farms received 76 percent of commodity program payments (a specific type of subsidy) while rural farms only found themselves the beneficiaries of eight percent of the same subsidy. Even worse, the commercial farms generated sales of $849,500 per farm while the rural farms could only manage $23,300 per farm in 2008.

Why then do these large commercial farms continue to be the recipients of such a disproportionate amount of American aid? Would it not seem that the small rural farmers, who are attempting to produce higher quality products, should gain more help from Washington? Aren’t politicians constantly lamenting the death of small businesses and the plight of independent entrepreneurs against the march of big business? Why, then, would they allow the majority of payments to go the largest producers, and therefore biggest profiteers and those who need the subsidies the least?

The answer, simply, lies in the power of the farm lobby–a farm lobby that does not protect the interests of farmers in general but only the interests of the biggest, industrial farms that can afford, with the help of American subsidies, to pour millions of dollars into their lobbying campaigns(http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/agriculture/subsidies). The farm lobby has always been strong, but now it is made up of the few who work for profit instead of the American population’s benefit. These subsidies, on a fairly small swath (such as corn, wheat, rice, soy, dairy, peantus and sugar, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy#United_States) hobble the ability of farmers to innovate and diversify their use of land. It leads to farmers all growing corn instead of one growing corn while the other grows spinach because the subsidy system inevitably makes corn more profitable for the farmer. The big companies encourage this because they control a vast majority of these subsidized fields and breeding houses, reducing their costs and increasing their profits, giving them more money to lobby and thus only continuing the waste of subsidy money poured into their pockets. The money of the taxpayer goes directly into the hands of a few extremely large corporations which are in almost no sense of the world farmers ((http://www.downsizinggovernment.org/agriculture/subsidies).
I thought the politicians wanted to protect the people against the powers of the rich? Do the politicians not have a responsibility to improve our lives, not detract from them? Are they not directly encouraging the degradation of the quality of our food and the pollution of our environment? Shouldn’t they instead encourage the return of small farms which can employ more workers and fewer machines?

Unfortunately this is another instance where the politicians follow the money instead of what is best for the country, something that is all too common in modern politics. If government is truly for the people, not the corporations, it should end this cycle of misused subsidies. Our generation, a generation of foodies, needs to bring this cycle to an end. We need to elect politicians who will serve our better good because in America our politicians are elected to try to improve our lives, not their pockets, and honestly, I thought this was America.

Part 4: Solutions

At this point it should be fairly obvious how disgusting the American food system has become. It pollutes the earth, produces low-quality, bad tasting, unhealthy food and is driven by a political machine tucked safely away in the pockets of giant “agricultural” companies. The system is so corrupted that one might argue it’s lost for good. How could we possibly begin to dismantle the behemoth wreaking havoc on our lives and nature? Unfortunately there is no single solution, and whatever the answer, Generation Y likely will have to adopt its behavior.

First and perhaps foremost we need to lower our meat addiction. The artificially low cost of mass produced meat in this country has been permitted by the ridiculous subsidy system that pays industrial meat farmers and packers to behave so irresponsibly. There is absolutely no reason that a hamburger, or any meat, should be less expensive than a salad or fresh vegetables and fruits. This unbalance, where heavily processed foods that use primarily subsidized ingredients are cheaper than their fresh healthy counterparts, contributes an enormous amount to the high obesity rate of Generation Y. People simply are able to get more food for their money when they buy McDonalds or potato chips instead of going to a market to buy vegetables for dinner. It’s simple economics; the meat makes more monetary sense.

The cheap subsidized, hyper-processed products of America has made us addicted to meat. We eat more meat per person than any other country and have it almost every day, if not with every meal. Meat has never before in history been an everyday experience. It used to be reserved for the rich or for the special occasion. Meat was eaten in small amounts and acted almost as an accompaniment to the starches, legumes, vegetables and fruits of the dish. It is not healthy to eat meat every day. It has been linked consistently to the rise of heart disease, obesity and cancer problems in American youth. It’s neither healthy for us or the environment.

As a foodie and former chef I can say with authority that meat is not necessary at every meal, and when it is present it certainly should not dwarf the other components of the meal unless it is a special occasion. Instead, it ought to work as a flavoring to lentils or rice. The plate should have a proportionate amount of what we call side dishes to the actual meat. If more families were to follow this method than the insane one steak per person rule, then more people could afford to buy higher quality, natural meat. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that meat is a requirement for a meal. Meat is a privilege and should be treated as such.

There is no reason for meat to be less expensive than vegetables. I have always marveled at American restaurants that charge eight dollars for a salad and five for a chicken sandwich. In a similar light, vegetables at the grocery store should not cost more per pound than ground beef (to be honest you should not even consider eating mass produced ground beef, but that is another story). Yes eating less meat or higher quality meat will be more expensive and will drive up the cost of meat, but this is a necessary side effect of a healthy food system. Meat must be more expensive than vegetables.

As mentioned previously, much of the reason for the low cost of meat and processed foods that use the subsidized crops, such as corn or soy, is the political power of the massive companies who control these agricultural products. These companies are able to  lobby the government successfully to avoid oversight while reaping the benefits of an unfair subsidy system. The lack of oversight allows these companies to operate in an industrial manner while having the limited government oversight of an agricultural company.

With the lack of oversight the companies can skirt environmental and animal rights concerns. They stack animal upon animal in indoor cages where they can barely move, let alone live a happy life. This keeps the cost of production down because it minimizes land use and saves the time of herding and watching the animals. These veritable meat plants are disease and waste ridden, yet there is little governmental oversight as to how this vile waste is disposed. The massive quantities of animal feces, and the exorbitant amount of chemicals used to grow crops, spill into our water systems and rivers causing untold environmental damage. The animal waste, at the same time, contributes massively to the amount of methane in the air, which has been proven to increase Global Warming. The government needs to stop pretending these industrial plants are in any normal sense agricultural and put them under the same scrutiny as they would a nuclear plant.

In the same political breath, the subsidy system needs to be obliterated. How can a system that favors the large and already rich farms over the smaller, less profitable ones make any sort of sense? Food subsidies should surely exist but in a more universal manner so that all foods are subsidized and only the farms who need subsidization receive it.

Just as American politics need to move away from the support of megafarms so do the American people. Support your local farms. Go to the farmer’s markets. Eat locally as often as possible. The more people demand local, natural food, the more economically feasible it will become. There is little reason that America could not harness a system of small, family farms to feed the population as happens in Europe. The only problem, conceivably, is the size of America, where our populations are heavily concentrated in coastal cities. We need the middle states to produce enough food for all, which might lead one to assume large farms are the only answer, but there might be alternatives.

If high speed rail were to be developed sufficiently so that one could travel from Nebraska to the coast in a matter of hours, more small farmers would have the ability to work where there is plenty of land and still sell their high quality products on the coasts.

Another solution could be rooftop gardens in cities. These could provide fresh fruits and vegetables to city residents who might have trouble otherwise finding such staples to the human diet. These are certainly not perfect solutions, nor are they the only ones, but what is certain is that the power of the megafarms either needs to be diminished or radically altered.

Generation Y, we are supposed to be the progressive generation. We recognize the dangerous state of our environment, and we strive to be healthier than any other generation. We are self-defined foodies who pay attention to our food and have vaulted the chef to celebrity status. If food is so important to us, then we should act like it and give our crumbling food system a renaissance. Food is what keeps us alive, is it not? Are we not a country obsessed with food? Should we not, therefore, pay scrupulous attention to where our food comes from and how it is handled? I’m sorry for this rant, but I thought this was America.

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