Consumer Advocates Say Government Is Subsidizing Obesity
(Updated 1:13 p.m.) A consumer advocacy group released its third annual report Tuesday detailing a disparity between federal subsidies for large-scale agribusinesses versus small farms.
The “Apples to Twinkies 2013” report, produced by the Connecticut Public Interest Research Group, says that the federal government continued its trend of doling out millions of taxpayer dollars per year to large-scale agribusinesses. The report indicates that between 1995 and 2012, about 75 percent of the $290 billion in agricultural subsidies were given to 3.8 percent of the nation’s farmers.
Natalie Johnson, a campaign director at ConnPIRG, said the big-business farmers are in the market of producing commodity crops such as corn and soybeans that are mostly used as processed food additives such as high-fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils.
“In Connecticut, one in four kids is considered overweight or obese,” Johnson said. “While the rise has many causes, the increased prevalence of high-fat, heavily-sweetened junk food is one of the main competitors.”
The report states that $84.4 billion of the $290 billion in subsidies has been spent on corn production, “$8.1 billion of which funded production of corn starch and sweeteners. Of the total domestic corn produced, 9.6 percent ended up in junk food and beverages as sweeteners or thickeners.”
Johnson said that they found that “$19.2 billion dollars have gone to taxpayer subsidies for junk food since 1995. That’s enough to buy nearly 3 billion Twinkies every year, 20 for every American taxpayer.”
In contrast, $689 million has gone to subsidies for apples since 1995. They calculated those funds could only buy a taxpayer half an apple per year, and Johnson said apples are the only fresh fruit or vegetable crop that see a significant taxpayer subsidy.
According to ConnPIRG’s report, funds for fresh fruits and vegetables do not top one percent of total federal subsidies.
“Spending billions to subsidize junk food ingredients just makes the [obesity] problem worse,” Johnson said. She said the additives produced by commodity crops “are empty calories, but they’re getting massive taxpayer support.”
Johnson warned that the 2013 Farm Bill currently under consideration by Congress would extend the federal subsidies for large agribusinesses.
“It’s past time to end these wasteful subsidies,” she said.
Eileen Hochberg, the executive director of the Connecticut branch of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said the big agribusinesses win out over local and fresh fruit farmers on federal funds because of their lobbying power.
“There’s major corporate interests and major money is at stake,” Hochberg said. “It is an industrialized food system at this point.”
Dori Wolf, the owner of Cedar Ridge Dairy, said she knows subsidies are available, but small farm owners like her rarely have the time or resources to seek them out.
“I think the farm subsidies that go to the large corporate entities is due largely to having a staff that can focus on lengthily applications and can do the research to find what resources are available,” she said. “I think that’s part of why the small family farm doesn’t get to that.”
But as far as the half an apple argument, Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, said making fresh fruit cheaper and local fruit cheaper are separate issues.
“Today, less than one percent of the fruits and vegetables in Connecticut are grown here,” he said. In fact, most fruits we consume aren’t grown in the United States.
“We’re so used to having fruit when we want it. Notice in the winter time when fruits are out of season, you can still get strawberries.” he said. “That’s because they’ve been brought in from other countries.”
Talmage said the U.S. imports fruits and vegetables from large agribusinesses all over the world, and the ability of these companies to produce these foods in such large quantities far undercuts the cost of transporting them here.
He added that the U.S. does produce a significant amount of the world’s apples, which is why the country’s apple industry is receiving a slice of the federal subsidies. But local farms, where fruits and vegetables do not have the economy of scale advantage, are on another playing field.
“It’s a completely different business model,” Talmage said. “Because the agribusinesses that receive the majority of the type of federal subsidies in the Farm Bill are monocrop producers,” it’s easier to create federal subsidy programs that funnel money to them.
Talmage said making federal subsidy programs for the mixed bag of small farms in states like Connecticut is unrealistic.
“It’s hard to make a program that deals with one size fits all,” he said.
Talmage did say the Farm Bill has traditionally contained programs— that do not necessarily involve subsidies— that benefit northeastern farmers. He said federal programs on such as farm and ranch land protection include grants that can be accessed by small farm owners.
“Those [grants] are fairly important in northeast agriculture because they allow for investments that they wouldn’t be able to do on their own,” Talmage said.
He also pointed to grants the exist at the state level that allow Connecticut farmers access to public money.
Wolf said the only grant money she’s applied for was for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s PLANT grant. She said the snow storm in February and the floods of May and June have caused infrastructure damage and ruined about 40 percent of her crops.
But Wolf said she wouldn’t have applied for those funds if the Connecticut Farm Bureau, of which she is a member, hadn’t put the application in front of her.
“When you’re the one up and responsible for the care of animals or crops to making all of the corporate decisions . . . it’s very hard for me to devote hours to focus on working on subsidies,” Wolf said.
Hochberg added that even when small farm owners can identify the grants available to them, there are still a number of obstacles to getting the funds.
“The funding for [small farmers] is so far less than the major subsidies going to industrial agriculture that they’re highly competitive and very difficult to get,” Hochberg said. “Small farmers don’t have the advantage of big offices with grant writers that are applying for these kinds of funds.”
Hochberg did say revisions to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that allows food stamps to be used at farmer’s markets create another business opportunity for local farms.
“That is a great way to get really good food into the hands of people who need it the most,” Hochberg said. “It does create yet another market for the farmers.”
There are 26 farmer’s markets in Connecticut that can process a SNAP debit card and about 2,000 others nationwide.
But the version of the 2013 Farm Bill that came out of the House would gut the SNAP program, and proposes making the agribusiness subsidies permanent. But the House and Senate are planning to conference on the bill soon, and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow recently denied that the final version of the bill would leave the program out.
Linda Piotrowicz — a spokesperson from the Connecticut Department of Agriculture — said there are state-level grants available to small local farmers as well, but they are highly competitive.
The state’s Farm Reinvestment Grant gives retroactive funding to farms for fixed capital investment projects such as facility expansion. Applications are competitive, and recipients must demonstrate a “quality business plan” and fund up to half the cost of the project under a cap of $40,000.
The Farm Transition Grant and Viability Grant are similar in that they fund the project retroactively, but the farmer must also commit to match 50 percent of the funds awarded.