In search of a smarter, more nutritious Farm Bill
Mercury News Editorial
Posted: 12/13/2010 10:00:00 PM PST
California should play matchmaker next month. It should insist that Congress marry its agriculture policy to its food and nutrition policy when federal lawmakers take up a new Farm Bill in January.
Taxpayers could shave billions from the growing deficit, and Americans could substantially reduce skyrocketing medical costs if, over time, they consumed healthier foods.
California’s fruit and vegetable growers say they don’t want government handouts. How refreshing. Imagine how the nation’s budget outlook — not to mention its health — would improve if corn growers were on an even footing. They received more than $70 billion from the federal government in the past 15 years to put some of the cheapest, unhealthiest processed foods known to man on our supermarket shelves.
All told, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given farmers about $200 billion this decade. Nearly three-fourths of that subsidizes the production of corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat. Meanwhile, strawberry, spinach and lettuce growers get virtually nada.
A prosperous agriculture industry is in everyone’s best interests, certainly in California, where it’s a $30 billion industry. But Congress long ago should have stopped subsidizing the production of unhealthy food. At least some of that money could have gone toward better informing Americans about the benefits of a more healthful diet, which ultimately will lower health care costs.
First lady Michelle Obama has made improving nutrition her No. 1 issue. She lobbied the House earlier this month to send a child nutrition bill to President Barack Obama, who will sign it soon. The legislation would reduce the amount of junk food in school cafeterias and provide more nutritional, free meals to poor children at schools.
But more must be done to encourage healthier eating and make more nutritious food available at affordable prices. That’s where the Farm Bill comes in.
It won’t be easy reducing subsidies to farmers used to being rewarded for growing unhealthy products. The majority of members of the House and Senate agriculture committees are from Midwestern states. They get re-elected by delivering billions to their constituents. (Corn: It’s the new pork.)
But about half of the nation’s agriculture cash receipts come from fruit, vegetables, nursery products and floriculture. If the House and Senate stop encouraging Midwestern farmers to grow corn products and create incentives to produce healthier crops, everyone wins.
While fruit and vegetable farmers don’t want direct subsidies, at least in California, they should be on equal footing with the corn growers. Today, they are not eligible for crop insurance that reduces risk for other types of farmers. Providing them with insurance roughly similar to what’s available for corn and wheat growers would not only help current producers of healthy foods but also would increase the incentive for others to switch to more healthful crops.
Everyone has an interest in aligning our agriculture spending with our food and nutrition goals, but nobody more than Californians. They should insist next year on a smarter Farm Bill.