Healthy Food Needs Love (and Subsidies) Too

July 22, 2022

Why agricultural subsidies should not be confined to meat and milk.

A recent United Nations report on global hunger sounds alarms that are by now all too depressingly familiar. The worldwide rate of food insecurity climbed from 8% in 2019 to 9.8% last year, and it’s on target to shoot up from there, thanks to the usual suspects: COVID, inflation, the Ukraine war, etc.

What I found especially interesting was one of the prescriptions. The report pointed out that in the United States and other nations with large agricultural sectors, government subsidies tend to go to grain and dairy. These crops not only have a destructive long-term impact on the environment, they generate the unhealthiest kinds of food. The report calls for subsidies to be redirected to “nutritious foods, including fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and pulses.”

The UN people make a great point. I’ve been writing for years about the contradiction of underwriting foods like meat (from animals fed with subsidized grain) and cheese while obesity and heart disease are major health problems. The absurdity reaches its height when the USDA develops things like stuffed-crust pizza (yes, that abomination was born in a USDA research lab) to get people to eat more cheese. That would be the same USDA that puts out all those food pyramids telling us to eat less fat.

A radical restructuring of the U.S agricultural subsidy system is not in the cards. The entire point of ag subsidies, from the viewpoint of us non-farmers, is to ensure that production of vital foodstuffs is not left to the vagaries of the free market. We don’t want a situation where farmers are wiped out en masse by a few years of glutted markets with low crop prices, only to find a few years later that the glut has dried up and there’s no one left to grow our wheat.

The key phrase here, of course, is “vital foodstuffs.” Historically, that’s meant meat, milk and grain far more than produce, nuts and seeds, because the former have more calories and are seen as the foundation of the American (or Western) diet.

The subsidy system is entrenched, and I don’t think there will be any major changes to it. But it would be nice if those who grow healthy food were eligible for some help, too, even if it’s only a small fraction of what dairy and grain farmers get.

Also, now that we’re thinking about taking food safety functions away from the FDA and handing them over to the Department of Health and Human Services, how about doing the same thing with the USDA and consumer nutrition?

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