Ag Subsidies Linked To Obesity

The obesity epidemic. You’ve heard about it; I’m sure. According to numerous studies, more of us are getting fat than ever before. Considering that being overweight puts you in a higher risk category for so many other diseases of modern civilization, it’s not surprising that the statistics are so alarming.

Everyone who comments on the obesity epidemic points fingers at various culprits. We don’t exercise like we used to. We eat more calories than we used to. We eat more fat than we used to. We eat more refined carbohydrates than we used to. It’s the wheat! It’s the gluten! It’s the polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils! It’s the lack of play! The extra TV time!

But, would you believe that for the first time ever, a report has actually pointed the blame at agricultural subsidies?

A report recently issued by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group is blaming our lopsided subsidy structure for the societal damage. The report looked at subsidy spending for the last 15 years:

But while $262 million has gone to apples — the only fruit or vegetable with a significant subsidy — nearly $17 billion has spent on four common food additives — corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils — known to contribute to weight gain. The group says the taxpayer contribution amounts to 19 Twinkies per taxpayer every year.

And speaking of Twinkies, the report says that of their 37 ingredients, at least 14 of them are made with federal subsidies.

“At a time when childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, it’s absurd that we’re spending billions of taxpayer dollars to make the problem worse,” said Mike Russo, a policy analyst for U.S. PIRG. “It’s absurd that junk food is subsidized by taxpayers, while fresh fruits and vegetables barely get a bite at the apple.”

The report notes that one in five children ages 6 to 11 are now obese, a rate that has tripled over the last three decades.

“These increases in obesity rates will translate into kids who are at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes, undermining the health of our country and driving up medical costs by hundreds of billions of dollars,” the report reads.


The Farm Bill comes around once every five years, and it’s due for a re-hash next year. This giant bill pours hundreds of millions of dollars into subsidies which artificially create cheap corn, soy, and wheat. Without these subsidies, growing these crops in the quantities we do would be cost prohibitive for farmers. They would actually LOSE money.

It’s a matter of supply and demand. Subsidies ensure a huge supply. This, of course, floods the markets with these crops and then cheapens the price. Farmers are forced to sell the crop for less than it cost to plant, raise, and harvest it. Then they receive federal subsidies for the crop, ensuring that they make a marginal profit depending on how productive their acres of cropland were. It’s a seemingly endless cycle.

And what do we do with these mountains of corn and other subsidized crops? Well, we use a healthy portion to feed our livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). We use a small portion to feed ourselves. And, in the case of corn, we use what’s left to flood the market with unbelievably cheap food additives like high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, corn starch, corn oil, and hundreds of other industrially produced waste products that fuel the processed foods industry.

Unfortunately, getting rid of farm subsidies out of hand would wreak havoc on our nation’s farmers. If you’re against subsidies, you’re against farmers. (Or so they would argue.)

But surely there must be a way to phase out these subsidies which have not only created an imbalanced (although cheap) food supply but which have arguably contributed to this country’s obesity epidemic.

As the Farm Bill comes up for review again next year, it will be our job as vocal consumers to let our representatives know that we’ve had enough. What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on alternatives to the current subsidy structure that could reform the way our nation’s agricultural sector does business?

(photo by ConanTheLibrarian)


  1. Ranee Mueller via Facebook says

    If I were congress, I’d do away with the subsidies entirely. They are welfare for farmers. If feed really cost what it actually costs to produce it without subsidies, there would be no incentive to raise thousands of cattle in confined areas with no access to grass. While we’re at it, I’d also go back and never permit the copyrighting and trademarking of life, thus reducing the financial incentive to raise GMOs.

    • says

      “While we’re at it, I’d also go back and never permit the copyrighting and trademarking of life, thus reducing the financial incentive to raise GMOs.” Yes, patents never actually help the “little guy” in any market.

  2. Amanda Jean Finken via Facebook says

    No more subsidies for commodity crops, only for farmers growing a diversity of crops in a sustainable manner.

  3. Peg Danek via Facebook says

    No money to GMO corn, soy or beets or for that matter GMO anything. Money to organic sustainable farms whether they raise meat, dairy or fruits and veg.

  4. Margaret Fulmer Wolf via Facebook says

    This makes perfect sense to me. Subsidize something that is unhealthy and put it in everything…he who controls the food of a nation controls it’s people. :-(

  5. Meredith Harbour Yetter via Facebook says

    It makes me nuts! I choose to never buy processed junk foods, yet I still “buy” them in a way through these subsidies. Blech!

  6. John Q. Galt says

    Oh! A report!

    US PIRG is an alarmist pseudo-science peddler.

    So-called “subsidies” are actually a nationalized food finance and insurance program. Without the state co-opting this function, private enterprise would simply do it through market institutions.

    It is ALWAYS less-bad to have more than you need than it is to have less than you need. Having more than you need means you did more work than was required to satisfy your wants. Having less than you need means somebody goes bankrupt or starves to death.

    The constant bitching and moaning about corn products is nothing more than magical thinking. Corn is the most efficient means of supplying demand for starch and protein.

    • Jenna says

      If the market will do it, then we should just let it. Why should taxpayers who disapprove of subsidies have to pay for them if the market is ready to step in and do, according to you, exactly the same thing?

      Moreover, I disagree with the premise. Insurance doesn’t pay its customers every year regardless of conditions…it only pays when something goes wrong. (Insurance, after all, is a risk management.) The rest of the time, the customer pays the insurance company.

  7. says

    I wonder if it would be too impractical to base subsidies on the nutrient density of the crop grown? So growing broccoli, for example, would get more support than corn or wheat. There should also be a cap on the ACTUAL size of the operation involved, just support farms owned by single families or jointly owned by two or three, but no corporately owned farms.

    • Jane Metzger says

      The problem with growing alot of the really healthy food is that it is only really healthy when it is fresh. Broccoli doesn’t keep very well. It is too bad, but it seems the only foodstuffs that are easy to store are the worst for our health. I admire those who wish to eat fresh, local and sustainable, but most of the world’s population lives in areas where they would starve if it were not large amounts of grains and their byproducts. There is no easy answer. I live on a farm and we raise beef. We have never received any subsidies. We buy supplies at a retail price and basically sell them at wholesale.

      • Kasi says

        Jane, glad to see someone who has actual experience AND that recognizes that it isn’t a simple thing. I agree totally – the reason humanity came to depend on these foods is that they are easily stored – unlike fresh produce. And that storage factors into transport, and thereby allows billions of people to survive even if it isn’t ‘perfect’ food. And while there is an argument that perhaps our world is overpopulated, I’m pretty sure that our Congress doesn’t want to see headlines like ‘US Puts Own Health Before Survival of Billions By Eliminating Agriculture Subsidies’.

  8. says

    @Beverly — The problem with this definition is that most farms ARE owned by families and not corporations. But they’re still HUGE, monoculture operations funded by corporations since farmers have to take out loans from the companies to buy seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, machinery, etc.

  9. says

    This is EXACTLY what people need to understand! I think it’s quite ironic that the first lady is on a mission to stop childhood obesity (I’m sure her heart is in the right place), while it’s the very government that she is the first lady OF that is subsidizing crap that is MAKING children obese! And health care reform starts with removing these subsidies; then perhaps we can have an intelligent dialogue about universal health care!

  10. Steve Alley says

    Unlike many of you who have commented.. I do make a living farming and ranching. Go and try and grow a garden in your back yard without a garden hose if you want to know how difficult it is to raise a crop on a farm.
    The subsidies that I get are only a small percentage of my farm budget. I disagree on several points in this article. When the market isnt screwed with, when weather doesnt cause a disaster…farmers normally will make money without the need of a subsidy…. Now even though I hadnt ever thought of connecting obese children to farm subsidies… seriously that is quite a jump from a kid eating a snickers bar to peanut subsidy… I mean really.. wheres the parents?
    It is necessary for the USA to guarantee a cheap source of food to consume and trade. As far as the ” Farm Bill”, only a small percentage is actually “Farm Related”… Several welfare programs, kids school lunch programs..all come out of the “farm bill” Why in the world they dont have their own bill and leave farming to their own bill is beyond me.

    Foreign governments invest much more than we do on their subsidies in agriculture.
    If I were going to suggest a change, I would put a limit to subsidies given to amount of farm gross income… Large farms/corps will survive without a subsidy.

    • Felicity Culwell says

      I agree with Steve. We too make our living farming. I believe farm subsides are not what is making our children obese. It is the lack of knowledge either on the parents part or children for not watching what they eat. Change your meal plans, eat more fruit and vegetables. Don’t buy the soda and processed food at the store. I don’t! My family has not had soda for over 10 years and we are healthier becuase of it. Just because the food companies process the food doesnt mean you have to buy it. As far as McDonald’s goes, I have a happy meal I purchased on March 13, 2011 that has been sitting in my garage through all the heat this summer and has not changed. No mold, no flies bothered it, looks the same!! Only it is hard as a rock! Think about that the next time you go for a cheap meal at McDonald’s!!

    • PurpleGirl38 says

      Thanks Steve and Felicity for posting your information. I have wanted to hear a farmers side of things on this topic. How can a working mom of two, who feeds her kids all whole foods, take the time to really figure this out? that is what is so frustrating!

  11. Viki Gronoski Fehr via Facebook says

    Unless, of course, you are prepared to raise every piece of food you eat, there are far worse things the government wastes money on. Your tax dollars don’t go to this anyway, that is why we have such a huge deficit. I always wonder, too when these topics come up, if the people that say to get rid (in this case) farm subsidies will collect social security

  12. says

    … I’m sorry… I’m still hung up at “If you (I) were Congress”… unfortunately I’d follow the money… if I were Congress; status quo/business as usual. Cynicism aside, if I were Congress I’d begin rewarding agribusiness (and all business) that puts America’s health first – – organic farmers, green (no greenwashed) products, significant efforts to decrease pollution (say, minimal and sustainable/biodegradable packaging, significantly lower emissions, products with low/zero VOCs, health promoting/preventive benefits pkgs, etc…) etc…

  13. Sybil Strawser via Facebook says

    Unfortunately many people feel they can only afford to buy the cheapest food which is most often the most processed and least nutritious.:( Subsidizing the very foods that make us sick is insane! I’d like to see more government support for organic/sustainable farming, local fresh food etc.

  14. Jane Metzger says

    Actually we need to return to the days of home ec, and the boys need to join in. Since many families don’t really function well they need someone to help them out. Yes, I know it is not the schools job to be the parent and teach family life skills, but someone has to.

  15. says

    It’s not the crops that are the problem…it’s that subsidizing anything leads to an oversaturated market. If it weren’t corn and soy, I guarantee big agriculture would find a way to make a profitable sugar stand in and other food additives from other crops. The subsidies are the problem. If apples were subsidized at the same level, for example, don’t you think that would become a cash cow just like corn?

  16. says

    Subsidies need to go away completely. It really doesn’t matter what foods they subsidize, giant corps will find a way to exploit it. If they subsidized broccoli, for example, I’d be willing to bet they’d find a way to process the life out of it to make cheap crappy food with it.

    • says

      I agree. And because the agribusiness, food, and pharmaceutical corporations have so much influence, I don’t think any bill that makes it through Congress will ever provide significant support for truly sustainable operations. “If I were Congress” is worth thinking about, but it’s never going to happen.

      What could happen? Get those Republicans to go after ag subsidies. Use budget cuts to level out the playing field, just a little bit.

  17. Tiffany says

    Subsidizing the processed food additives is a big part of the reason processed foods are so cheap. Many families can not afford to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, pastured chicken, grass-fed beef, etc. I believe the government should use the subsidy funds to promote healthy, whole foods; and to make them more affordable and accessible to the majority of American families. They could do this, as Barbara and Sybil said above, by subsidizing organic and sustainable farming. I would love to see the farmers at my local market receive some of that subsidy money!

  18. says

    Diets have changed but do we really eat more fat than we used to? I suspect that a lot of the weight gain has more to do with people getting less exercise and living in heated homes so they burn fewer calories. Our ancestors ate plenty of meat and cooked with lard. Lots of fat. But they burned it off. My family eats plenty of fat but we’re physically active farming and doing construction plus we live in a cold climate where we’re outdoors a great deal of the time. That means we’re burning calories to work and to stay warm. Our ancestors worked at least that hard and didn’t have quite as snug a little house. (glass windows are great.)

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