You Are What You Grow

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has an article in the NYT today about the relationship between the farm bill and the production of cheap, unhealthy food. From the NYT:

Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world’s food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root.

This is one of those absurdly well-written articles that makes you want to go read a book and become much more intelligent than you currently are. Then, with your massive intellect, you will reform the food system and solve the childhood obesity epidemic. Sadly, you will probably just go eat your cheap Twinkie and cry. Or is that just us? —MEGHANN MARCO

You Are What You Grow [NYT] (Thanks, entinterrapax!)
(Photo: Clean Walmart)


Edit Your Comment

  1. mrbenning says:

    Great, now I know why a box of Wheat Thins costs less than a large yellow pepper at my grocery store.

  2. This reminds me of the “You’re Fat Because You’re Broke” post y’all linked to months ago. On the surface it’s not really new information but the details are incredibly depressing.

    The next government official to wail about the obesity epedemic is getting punched in the face.

  3. orchid777 says:

    Very depressing indeed. Apparently this is why a gallon of water costs the same as a gallon of milk costs the same as a gallon of gasoline. So, who do we contact about this Farm Bill?

  4. phrygian says:

    I didn’t grow up around farming — other than knowing that my a pair of my great-grandparents were sharecroppers, I didn’t know anything about what it takes to farm in the US. Then, I met my husband’s relatives. They can wax for hours on farm subsidies and crop write-offs and they have all sorts of opinions on how the government should take better care of the farmer. The first time I heard about how they can get the government to pay twice for a crop — because the government often declares “natural disaster” for certain areas/crops several years after the fact — I was both in awe and disgusted. I’m cityfolk, and all I could think about is how these greedy (albeit nice) people were gaming the system. Only they’re small fish in a big pond really — the large corporate farms game the system better than any of my small-time agricultural relatives.

  5. Trai_Dep says:

    I (heart) Capitalism. But this definately isn’t it. Not only is it corporate Socialism, but it’s BAD Socialism: interfere with markets to achieve bad goals.

    It cracks me up when I hear free-market uber alles types defending agribusiness when it’s among the most artificial and protected in our economy.

  6. Omnivore’s Dilemma IS good, I reccommend it.

    I live in a small metropolis that serves a farming area, so I’ve learned a LOT about farm policy since I moved here. Got up in my senator’s grill about it last time he was in town and it was basically “blah blah blah organic blah blah blah environmentalism blah blah blah long-term food safety blah blah blah — Basically, it’s going to stay the same and we’re going to spend assloads more on corn. Yay for Illinois!”

    Which I mean, yeah, it is fairly yay for Illinois when the price of corn goes up, but not so good for the environment, or the food supply, or the obesity problem.

    In Omnivore’s Dilemma, he talks about how the gov’t pays farmers to overproduce corn, then pays scientists to come up with more ways to use the corn overproduction (like feeding it to cows or making ethanol from it). My next door neighbor is actually the Dept of Ag dude in charge of the “what to do with useless parts of corn” project which is part of the “what to do with overproduced corn” project.

    A good way to get more vegetable bang for your buck is through Community Supported Agriculture, where you subscribe to a farm and you get a box of produce every week (or two weeks) all season long. Some also do eggs or other dairy. has nationwide listings. Many deliver into cities to central pickup locations.

    And if you’ve got a backyard, growing your own veggies is cheaper than either buying them at the store or using a CSA. :)

  7. kenposan says:

    It wasn’t a Twinkie I was eating, though, it was a Hostess cupcake. LOL

  8. B says:

    So I can save money for retirement by eating cheap food, but that will reduce my lifespan. Or I can eat healthy, but that costs more, so I won’t have any money saved for retirement. Screw it, I’m blowing all my money on beer.

  9. whydidnt says:

    The real question is why we continue to subsidize this industry at the rate we currently do. The subsidies were originally intended to provide incentives to small farmers to produce crops that were in need at the time. However, today with huge corporations owning a majority of farms, it’s simply corporate welfare of the worst kind.

    Over time the subsidies and controls have grown into a bureaucratic nightmare that costs all of us millions if not billions every year. Did you know the price controls on Milk sold in MN actually make it more expensive than it needs to be? It’s cheaper for people to buy soda than milk, despite the fact we often have dairy surpluses, simply because of the Govt’s decision to require milk to be sold at certain prices. No wonder we are eating/drinking unhealthy foods.

  10. From the article: “the nation’s agricultural policies operate at cross-purposes with its public-health objectives.”

    It’s also at cross-purposes with environmental objects AND WITH FARMING OBJECTIVES. The farm bill encourages farming practices that exhaust the soil and require more and more monetary input every year into the same acreage to get “enough” output.

    It drives Ag administrators at extension offices crazy because they’re a government-funded service to distributed the latest government-funded scientific data on agricultural practices … which are then disincentivized by farm policy that encourages farmers to engage in things not even CLOSE to “best practices.”

  11. I love Michael Pollan. I’m only halfway through Omnivore’s Dillemma and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. Pollan also wrote an article called “Unhappy Meals” for the NYT, which was sort of O.D.-lite. I’m not sure if I found the link here or elsewhere.

    I do wish he had come down harder on Whole Foods in his book; here on the East Coast, where there is little access to the industrial organic farms in California, nearly all the fresh produce is conventionally grown (yet still twice as expensive as in other supermarkets.)

  12. @whydidnt: “Did you know the price controls on Milk sold in MN actually make it more expensive than it needs to be? It’s cheaper for people to buy soda than milk, despite the fact we often have dairy surpluses, simply because of the Govt’s decision to require milk to be sold at certain prices.”

    The dairy lobby is actually one of the most corrupt in the nation and milk price fixing is a routine subject of scandals and investigations. It’s just that, well, not that many people are interested in ag policy!

  13. Indecision says:

    “Sadly, you will probably just go eat your cheap Twinkie and cry. Or is that just us?”

    That’s what I like to call “Saturday night.”

    Honestly, though, this is a problem that’s frustrated me for a long time. It’s tough to eat healthy when you don’t have a lot of money. You can get 2 liters of cola for $0.90, or half that amount of real fruit juice for $2.50.

    Cooking your own food isn’t much better. Sure, the per-serving price is less, but it takes a lot of work and planning to bring the overall cost down. You have to be willing to eat the same thing multiple times a week, and really be able to stretch ingredients. Otherwise, I can get a salad from the salad bar for less than I’d spend on just lettuce and carrots.

    I’m learning how to get better about all this, but it’s tough to *un*-learn your old habits.

  14. Triteon says:

    @whydidnt: What you’re referring to, I believe, is the old (Depression-era) maxim commonly know as the Eau Claire rule: established in the ’30’s, price supports for dairy farmerswere based on how far away from Eau Claire, Wisconsin they were; the farther away, the higher a bonus the Federal government paid out.

    Eyebrows Magee– thanks for the great insights and review! I live in downstate Illinois and also, quite selfishly, enjoy that the local farmers around me can earn a living wage, though ancillary environmental and health-related problems will also need to someday be addressed.

    I’ll head out tonight to look for this book. I might also recommend Cadillac Desert to anyone interested in odd governmental policies and the effect these dollars have on our environment. Residents of Las Vegas, LA and Phoenix should be especially interested.

  15. virgilstar says:

    Highly recommend “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – An excellent read. Depressing yes, but very entertaining.

  16. Asvetic says:

    Majorly informative. Not to sound naive, but I had no idea how interlocked everything was.

    What was good for farming 50+ years ago is ultimately what’s destroying it and the repercussions are astonishing.

    I Dugg this article through the share feature at NYTimes.

  17. yahonza says:

    Shame on conservatives for letting the ultra-liberal NYT get ahead of them on this issue. The farm bill has always been a scourge which, like all such socilaist programs, offers no real benefits to anyone but politicians. Its hard to respect republican politicians, who, if they had any integrity, would have been leading the fight against the farm bill for years.

    At least, maybe, this article will open up debate on the topic, at last.

  18. grannymiller says:

    Yahonza –
    You pretty much hit the nail right on the head.
    As a small farmer I was asked to comment this past December 2006 on the current and pending Farm Bill.

    The proposed Farm Bill is a joke and does not address my biggest concerns:
    NAIS, Country Of Origin Labels, Sale of Raw Milk and many more issues that are a threat to Big Agri-Business, PAC’s and Special Interests Groups, but are of vital concern to the small producer and the American Consumer.

  19. NoneMoreBlack says:

    Old news maybe, but at least it’s in a main stream source now and not just the tired old source of economists’ chagrin. Agricultural subsidies are some of the most wasteful practices of any government, and are obscenely common.

    The dollar figure of US government expenditures on ag subsidies don’t take into account the dead-weight losses of inefficiencies in the market, which have been estimated to be as much as .5%-1% of US GDP; perhaps over $100 billion annually.

  20. @orchid777: I would recommend contacting your representative or your congressman.

    I feel that it is a great idea to open this subject to debate with everybody that you know. I know in my circle of friends and family alot of issues like this go unnoticed unless I bring up the subject.

  21. Scott says:

    US farm policy is woefully outdated. There is too much hunger in this country to pay farmers not to farm (CRP Program). And most policy is set under the assumption that agriculture is still dominated by the small farmer when in reality a vast majority of our food is produced by corporations such as Cargill. Disclosure: I grew up on a farm.

    There are a few obvious reasons that fresh, healthy foods cost more that the author chooses to ignore. For example, fresh foods must be quickly processed and shipped and sold under refrigerated conditions, that’s added cost. Processed foods also have preservatives that extend shelf life that reduce the amount that must be thrown out, reducing cost. And processing food can include steps to kill bacteria which means the raw ingredients don’t have to be as ‘clean’ and therefore cheaper.

    How can the author complain that US grain shipped to Mexico forced Mexican farmers out of agriculture and complain that a shortage of US grain has caused hunger in the same paragraph? Besides, US farm policy had been reducing the amount of corn produced so shouldn’t that have helped the Mexican farmers? And now, with a bumper crop predicted and still record prices (thanks to record demand because of US energy policy), shouldn’t those same Mexican farmers be able to return to growing corn?

    He makes some valid points but he only sees the problem from a consumer standpoint. For example, every one wants food from local farms but citrus fruits are grown in the south and west; corn, soy and wheat in the midwest; fish only come from coastal areas.

    And don’t blame farmers for accepting subsidies provided by the government. They are no more greedy than you are in taking tax deductions. If you must blame someone, blame the government.

  22. typetive says:

    While fixing the farm bill is a huge task, there is another proposal before the FDA that dovetails into this nicely. It was proposed by the Grocery Manufacturers Association along with a bunch of other food industry interests.

    The proposal could change the very definition of chocolate (from cocoa butter + cocoa powder = chocolate to vegetable fat + cocoa powder = chocolate). Which is a subject and object near and dear to my heart. But the proposal also lays out what salts, sweeteners and fats can be swapped out in your food once they’ve been defined as “safe and suitable”. They’re basically messing with the integrity and coherence of our foodstuffs.

    Look up: 2007P-0085 – Adopt Regulations of General Applicability to all Food Standards that would Permit, within Stated Boundaries, Deviations from the Requirements of the Individual Food Standards of Identity….

    The open comment period for this proposal ends tomorrow. Citizens can submit their opinions online, via fax or snailmail.

  23. TheUpMyAssPlayers says:

    Seriously, do people really not know that the US Government is trying to kill them?

    I’m sorry but it’s time to cut the payday for the few farmers that get subsidized. Not everyone can afford to spend 400 bucks a month on groceries so they can avoid the twinkies like I do.

    The government sets up the sweet/fat subsidy and the media creates the fear and consumption climate.

    Which equals disaster for the average American who isn’t taught jack shit about taking care of your body or your mind.

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