Mt. Vernon Register-News

Opinion

February 19, 2014

Taxpayers underwriting system that hurts health

Read the farm bill, and a big problem jumps right out at you: Taxpayers heavily subsidize corn and soy, two crops that facilitate the meat and processed food we’re supposed to eat less of, and do almost nothing for the fruits and vegetables we’re supposed to eat more of. If there’s any obligation to spend the public’s money in a way that’s consistent with that same public’s health, shouldn’t it be the other way around?

The problem dates back to the bill’s inception in the 1930s, when farms raised livestock and grew a mix of crops, including staple crops (corn, wheat, oats, barley) and what the bill calls “specialty crops” but what the rest of us know as fruits and vegetables.

From the 1930s to 1980, subsidies alone weren’t substantial enough to significantly change the mix of crops on farms, according to Vincent Smith, professor of economics at Montana State University and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “In 1980, we introduced crop insurance subsidies of substance that began to change the ways in which farmers manage risk, and to discourage diversification,” he says. And then we increased them until they became very substantial, and farmers, at least to some extent, farmed to the bill the way teachers teach to a test.

What’s important about how we subsidize farms isn’t necessarily the overall dollar amount — it comes to 5 percent to 10 percent of the market price of most of the subsidized crops — it’s that it takes some of the risk out of farming grains and oil seeds, but not fruits and vegetables.

Farming is inherently risky. Weather, insects and disease, over which you have limited control or none at all, can wipe you out. One of the ways farmers manage risk is to plant variety. Okay, powdery mildew got your strawberries, but the broccoli’s going gangbusters. For farmers, crops that are given guaranteed protection from both losses and price drops are lower-risk propositions.

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