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Subsidies and Our Food System

 Happy Iowa Caucus Day!

I figured today would be as good as any to review my latest disturbing food read (I'm beginning to think there isn't any other kind): Thomas M. Kostigen's The Big Handout: How Government Subsidies and Corporate Welfare Corrupt the World We Live In and Wreak Havoc on Our Food Bill. It's hard to come away from the book encouraged in any way about our political situation or how Iowa, with its lead-off caucus and soybean-corn dedication, tends to hold undue influence, but if you hang on to the end of the post, I do have some good news.


Kostigen paints a detailed, alarming picture of how the whole subsidy system, started during the Depression in good (or at least better) faith, has now become a mighty albatross around taxpayer necks and a source of anti-American ill-will worldwide. Most troubles stem from cheap Corn and Soy, whose subsidized abundance ripples through the Beef, Dairy, Poultry, and Pork industries, not to mention the totally messed-up Energy industry. (Lord, how I hate ethanol!) There are brief stops along the way in the land of Cotton, Steel, Oil, and Gas--equally fascinating and depressing.

Consider a few of the numbers Kostigen throws out there:

  • 71% of food subsidies go to factory farms, with Corn leading the way ($5B), followed by Soy.
  • Subsidized Corn and Soy means cheap agricultural feed for livestock.
  • Feed represents 60% of chicken production cost, and the price of feed has gone down 25% since the introduction of the 1996 Farm Bill. This has led to a consolidation and verticalization of the poultry industry.
    • What Kostigen calls "Big Chicken" can crank out 10,000 chickens every three weeks, in a 20,000 sq. ft. warehouse.
    • In comparison, a free-range chicken operation (which may or may not qualify for any subsidies) raises 10,000 chickens per year on 100 acres.
  •  Feed represents 85% of hog production costs. In addition to feed and environmental subsidies (pigs poop 2 to 4 times as much as humans), the government buys up excess pork. According to Tufts University research, industrial concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) receive 13% discounted operating costs over small farmers in free-range environments because of US ag policies. Never mind that hogs in CAFOs are "more likely to be exposed to H1N1 and harbor it continuously" or that CAFOs "may facilitate evolution of novel [viral] strains."
  • Kostigen also had creepy things to say about bovine growth hormone, which has been making dairy more productive since Monsanto received FDA approval for "Prosilac" (rBGH or fbST) in 1993. Since 1970, the number of farms with dairy cows has fallen from 650,000 to 75,000, but milk production has increased.
    • Cows treated with rBGH demonstrate a 50% increase in leg and hoof problems, a greater than 25% increase in mastitis frequency, and reproductive problems like infertility, cystic ovaries, fetal loss, and birth defects. Because of their increased health problems, they receive more antibiotics, contributing to greater antibiotic resistance. Cows receiving rBGH also show higher levels of hormone insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF1, a hormone which survives digestion and enters the human bloodstream. 
    • "Numerous studies now demonstrate that IGF1 is an important factor in the growth of cancers of the breast, prostate and colon." (In some test cases, IGF1 increased the risk of cancer fourfold.) 
    • Monsanto litigated to ban dairy producers using "rBGH-free" label and won, but this ruling is being fought state by state. As you probably realize, in Washington dairy producers can still label "rBGH-free." 
    • Growth hormone is injected into 43% of cows in herds of 500 or more (USDA). In small dairies (<100 cows), the injection rate is less than 10%.
  •  The other item going into cows (and this was news to me) is cottonseed and "gin trash." The average US dairy cow eats 8 lbs of cottonseed, 75% of which is genetically modified. This stuff gets in our system, wrecks soil, and requires lots of pesticides and fertilizer. The CA EPA found the pesticides used on California-grown cotton to be very toxic, seven of which were "probably" cancer-causing, eight caused tumors, and five caused mutations. They were also rated Toxic or Very Toxic to fish, birds or both.

Now, apart from the Cotton biz (subsidized by $5B/yr), these horrors are familiar to us. There are reasons I've been buying grass-fed, free-range, and so on. What I was not aware of was the impact of US farm subsidies on the global food market.

I found Kostigen's discussion of Rice especially heartbreaking. The U.S. accounts for 12% of the world's production, and we export about half of it. Water subsidies and price supports enable American rice to be sold at prices lower than the cost of production. This means, on the global market, we can then undersell other rice-producing countries like Haiti, Ghana, and Honduras. When they impose tariffs to protect their own farmers, the U.S., through the World Bank and IMF, forces them to reduce these. Haiti, in particular, was "encouraged" by the IMF to reduce the rice import tariff from 35% to 3%. As a result, imports tripled and Haitian rice farms lost marketshare. Now 3/4 of rice eaten in Haiti comes from the U.S. That, in one of the poorest countries in the world.

The story gets repeated in different countries, with different foods. All of which contributes toward global anti-Americanism. To borrow from the Occupy Movement, to the rest of the world, we are the 1%. We use our money and our might to bully and foster economic dependence.

Sigh.

But I did promise a glimmer of light, so I'll skip over Kostigen's look at fishing subsidies (more depressing stuff) and point out that...drumroll, please...ONE SUBSIDY HAS BEEN ALLOWED TO LAPSE! Yes, Virginia, the thirty-year, $20 billion Ethanol Tax Credit is now history. Glory, hallelujah. The entire New York Times article is worth the read, for its anti-depressant qualities alone. As the article quotes, β€œThe end of this giant subsidy is a win for taxpayers, the environment and people struggling to put food on the table...Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.” If only they could get rid of the stuff altogether, but too many politicians jumped on that bandwagon and it's long out of sight. The reason ethanol producers and mixers didn't put up more of a fight? They were already experiencing a boom market, thank you very much.

So get out there and pick our next presidential candidates, you Iowans. We here in Washington usually don't have much choice by the time it gets around to us. The lesser of two evils, really.

Kostigen makes recommendations, of course. But motivating politicians of either stripe to change the system, or motivating all those recipients of subsidies to give them up for the common good sounds next to impossible, so I'll have to settle for my usual MO: encouraging people, to buy, cook, and eat real food, grown by small family farmers without government handouts or "help" from Monsanto products.

New Year's Food Resolutions

Launch yourself into dietary health

According to my oldest nephew, who runs the gym in a college town, the first two weeks of the New Year are total chaos at work. Hordes of us show up, resolved to be fit, irritating staff and regulars with our passing health whim. By mid-January we've given up and returned to our La-Z-Boys and cubicles, patting ourselves on the back that at least two weeks of exercise beats zero weeks. Maybe if we put that Rascal scooter on our Amazon Wish List...

Well, I'm here to encourage us non-exercisers (and if you are a regular exerciser, you can just feel extra smug while you read the rest of this post): exercising isn't the only way to improve your health. Diet is the other. And New Year's Diet Resolutions have a better shot of becoming habits.

Check out these possibilities and just pick one or two:

  1. Dump one processed food product permanently. It could be cake mix or pancake mix, storebought cookies, instant oatmeal, protein bars, anything! If it's something you could make easily at home, try it. I would love love love to get my family off breakfast cereal, but they gag over anything porridge-like, and I gag over the thought of having to cook every morning.
  2. If you can't afford organic dairy, at least go hormone-free. As Prevention put it in their article entitled "7 Foods That Should Never Pass Your Lips," growth hormones lead to "higher levels of a hormone called insulin-like growth factor in milk. In people, high levels of IGF-1 may contribute to breast, prostate, and colon cancers." Eeks! When it isn't Bellevue Farmers Market season, our family tries to stick to Organic Valley (pastured products) or at least Tillamook (hormone-free).
  3. Pick the one food your family eats regularly and make sure it's the best you can afford. If it's salmon, stay away from the farmed stuff. If it's ground beef, go for grass-fed or switch to buffalo. Going with the farmers market options may cost you more in the short-run, but hey--you may get to avoid the Rascal scooter later, and that's a savings.
  4. Eat vegetarian for one dinner a week. If you already do this, try two meals. This can defray the cost of Resolution #3. Our family regularly does breakfast burritos or lentil soup or homemade mac & cheese. If you must have some meat, it could just be some Skagit River Ranch bacon thrown in for flavor.
  5. Stay away from soy. As I've noted in this blog, 90% of soybeans grown in America are genetically-modified to resist Round-Up. Processed soy has been linked to hormone issues in people and possibly to the rise in food allergies. This is a toughie to eliminate because the American soy surplus, like the corn surplus, motivates the food industry to find millions of uses for it. Other than the tried-and-true fermented soy products (tofu and soy sauce), we stay away.
  6. Serve two healthy vegetables at dinner. Potatoes, corn and bagged-lettuce-salad covered in soybean-oil-based dressing don't count. In fact, you better add a third vegetable to the meal to make up for them.

If you have food resolutions for the New Year, feel free to share. My personal ones for 2011: (1) switch from canned tomatoes to boxed--per the abovementioned Prevention article; and (2) dump the seed oils (canola, safflower, etc.) for olive oil, butter, and Skagit bacon fat.

Happy New Year!

In a Nutshell

Alarmist books about our food supply are the non-fiction equivalent of young adult novels with vampires--a dime a dozen lately. I'm as freaked out as the next thoughtful eater by debeaked chickens and mysterious chemical compounds in our food supply, but there's only so much to say about it.

It being About That Time again, however, I picked up Robyn O'Brien's THE UNHEALTHY TRUTH: HOW OUR FOOD IS MAKING US SICK--AND WHAT WE CAN DO ABOUT IT. Some of the ground O'Brien covers will be review for readers of Michael Pollan or Nina Planck, but because of her four food-allergic children, she has her own unique spin on things.

O'Brien details the remarkable rise in childhood ailments, including autism, allergies, asthma, ADHD(!), cancers, and obesity, and finds connections to changes in our food supply. These changes include:

  1. A decrease in micronutrients as Americans switch from real to processed food.
  2. Excessive exposure to antibiotics
  3. Possible allergic reactions to genetically-modified organisms, especially soy and corn. A possible connection between soy exposure/allergy and peanut allergies!
  4. Isoflavones in soy that boost estrogen levels
  5. Growth hormones in dairy products (including one of my favorite ice cream brands, Breyer's)
  6. The use of artificial colors and preservatives
  7. The use of artificial sweeteners

I was particularly interested in the discussion of soy and other genetically-modified crops. In most cases the crops have been genetically modified to survive being sprayed with pesticides marketed by Monsanto (which conveniently also markets the GM seeds). O'Brien believes the genetic scrambling that takes place might be causing the jump in allergies, since soy might trigger other allergies and is found in just about every processed food.

Takeaways on genetically-modified food:

  1. 92% of U.S.-grown soy is GM, as is 80% of the corn.
  2. Top 10 GM crops in the U.S. are: corn, cotton, potatoes, tomatoes, soybeans, canola, sugar beets, rice, flax, squash/zucchini, papaya, and radicchio.

Takeaway on the takeaways: the food world is going to hell in a handbasket, and our farmers market can't open soon enough. I'll have new questions for the farmers as well--are they buying seeds from Monsanto (which O'Brien probably mis-typed as Monsatan-o as she worked on her book)?

After reading I considered going on a frantic pantry purge, but O'Brien ends on a realistic note. Processed foods are almost impossible to avoid, especially since kids will eat what they want to eat and what is offered, so shoot for an 80/20 ratio of  80% real, healthy food to 20% death-by-a-thousand-soy-derivatives.

Works for me.