Share This!
Text SizeAAA Share Email

Unhealthy Food Policy

How government subsidizes the wrong foods—and creates obstacles for healthy farms

Government policy plays a crucial role in our food system. Decisions made in Washington about how government supports and regulates American agriculture have far-reaching impacts on what food is available, what it costs, and how it is produced.

Current U.S. food policy is a major contributor to the failures of our food system—making junk food cheaper, healthy food more expensive, and sustainable farming more difficult.

The USDA and Our Diet: Eat What We Say, Not What We Subsidize

When it comes to healthy food, the U.S. government talks a good game, but fails to put our money where its mouth is.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released an updated version of its Dietary Guidelines for Americans—featuring a new graphic dubbed "MyPlate"—advising that a healthy diet should typically consist of about 50 percent fruits and vegetables.

Yet the average American eats far less of these healthy foods than the USDA recommends—and policy isn't helping. Subsidies skewed toward commodity crops, such as corn and soybeans, help keep processed foods made from these crops cheap and plentiful. And research has linked a diet high in processed foods to our growing obesity crisis and to chronic metabolic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension.

Learn more:

The Farm Bill: Stacking the Deck against Healthy Farms

Federal programs related to food and agriculture are funded primarily through a large, recurring legislative package commonly known as the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill, which is re-authorized at five-year intervals, contains a long list of provisions or "titles" addressing various areas of food and farm policy.

Aside from nutrition assistance programs, the largest titles in the Farm Bill are crop insurance and commodity subsidy programs, designed to protect farmers against the vagaries of weather and markets and to keep food prices stable and affordable.

In their current form, these programs work well for farmers growing commodity crops on a massive scale using industrial methods. But they create problems for farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, or who use sustainable practices that help preserve the health and productivity of farmland for future generations.

Learn more:

The Agribusiness Lobby: Guardians of the Status Quo

The current state of U.S. food policy has serious shortcomings for the public and for many farmers. But it does work well for at least one constituency: the large corporations that sell seed, pesticides, and other products to the nation's farmers. These companies have built successful business models around the very aspects of our food system that we most need to change.

And they have deep pockets. The Monsanto Company, for instance, spends millions of dollars each year lobbying for policy goals such as defeating patent reform, preventing consumer labeling rules, and enabling agribusiness consolidation.

Learn more:

The Cost of Unhealthy Food Policy

The U.S. currently spends close to $100 billion per year on the programs in the Farm Bill—a substantial investment. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, U.S. food policy has become part of the problem; we are spending vast sums, in many cases, to make matters worse.

And the costs of unhealthy food policy go far beyond the outlays in the Farm Bill. They include:

  • public health costs, including the obesity crisis and the chronic illnesses that come with it—as well as the growing problem of antibiotic resistance, fueled by overuse of antibiotics as an animal feed additive;
  • environmental costs of the industrial practices that current policy encourages, including pollution, soil damage, weed proliferation and lost biodiversity;
  • socioeconomic costs of a system that stacks the deck against farmers who don't operate on an industrial scale, and offers little support for job-creating local and regional food systems—thus adding to the economic challenges of rural communities.

Learn more:

Powered by Convio
nonprofit software