How Can We Promote Farmers Who Grow Healthier Foods Given Our Current Focus on Subsidizing Commodity Crops?

Ask a Scientist - September 2013

Lanni Isenberg of Newton, MA, asks "What is UCS doing to encourage American farmers to grow more vegetables and fruit that would be healthier for our diets given that so many of them are dependent on government subsidies to grow commodity crops like corn and soybeans?" and is answered by Jeffrey O'hara, agricultural economist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program.  

It is not an accident that the U.S. agricultural landscape looks the way it does.  Farm policy plays a critical role in influencing which crops are grown.  Today, excessive subsidies are directed to “commodity” crops such as corn and soybeans that are used as animal feed and ingredients in processed junk foods.  At the same time, as I describe below, federal farm policy restricts fruit and vegetable production  To make matters worse, significant obstacles exist in some communities for those wishing to use nutrition assistance benefits to buy healthy food at local markets.  

The Union of Concerned Scientists is working for reform on all these fronts. The facts of our current situation are stark:

  • Americans, on average, eat only about half of the recommended levels of fruits and vegetables.
  • Fruits and vegetables are grown on only two percent of U.S. farmland.  
  • The rapid growth in diet-related illnesses is a real concern in this country and contributes significantly to rising expenditures in entitlement programs like Medicaid and Medicare.  

I just completed a report – The $11 Trillion Reward – that shows how increased fruit and vegetable intake can reduce the incidence of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes.  Cardiovascular disease is the leading killer of Americans, responsible for roughly 750,000 deaths in 2011.  Based on the latest scientific evidence, we found that if Americans ate one additional serving of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, that change alone could help prevent approximately 30,000 deaths each year.  If Americans were to consume fruits and vegetables at recommended levels, the change could prevent 127,000 deaths annually.  From an economic perspective, the value of such an increase in American life expectancy is equal to $11 trillion.  For more details, we created a short video to accompany the report. You can watch it here.  

To solve these problems, my colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists are pushing hard for a variety of policy changes.  Some of these policies are designed to help farmers growing healthy crops to sell food in local markets. For instance, our recent report Ensuring the Harvest recommends important changes to the crop insurance program that can help farmers obtain protection against a weather-related disaster like a drought or flood, and remove planting restrictions in subsidy programs that penalize farmers for growing fruits and vegetables.

Other types of programs can help bolster local food markets and provide low-income citizens more access to healthier food.  Our report Market Forces recommends grants and subsidized loans to help set up farmers’ markets and grocery stores in low-income communities as well as  incentive vouchers for those wishing to use nutrition assistance benefits to buy healthy food.  

As you may know, farm and food subsidies are developed every five years or so through the massive piece of legislation known as the “Farm Bill.”  The previous Farm Bill expired last year and a temporary extension was put in place that expires at the end of September. Right now, my colleagues and I are advocating for legislation that helps promote healthy foods and healthy farms. We’re working especially hard to win more federal support for establishing farmers’ markets because they are such an important channel for fresh and healthy produce. If you care about saving lives and improving the future health and prosperity of Americans, it’s important to urge your representatives in Congress to support reforming the Farm Bill to promote healthy food production and consumption.  When it comes to the economic and health costs of U.S. agricultural policy, Benjamin Franklin said it best: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 

As an agricultural economist in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dr. Jeffrey O’Hara researches and advocates for federal programs, including those in the farm bill, that provide financial incentives to farmers engaging in environmentally sustainable practices. His expertise also includes local food systems and community development. Dr. O’Hara has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and a B.S. in economics from The George Washington University.

We Need Your Support
to Make Change Happen

We can transform the U.S. agricultural system to prioritize investments in healthy foods and farms —but not without you. Your generous support helps develop science-based solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.