If you are like most college students, you have probably made a meal out of instant ramen. Sure, it’s pretty nutritionally empty but it’s easy to make, it tastes all right and most of all, it’s cheap.
In the search for cheap calories, you have probably also had your fair share of fast food, frozen pizzas and candy. You may have even wished that fresh vegetables did not seem like such an expensive extravagance in comparison to processed junk.
But contrary to what you might think, that processed junk is not cheap by some accident of the free market. Cheap junk food is a result of deliberate government policy. Most of that policy is determined by the Farm Bill, a 1,769 page, $288 billion piece of legislation that affects nearly every aspect of our food, fiber and fuel system. Most consumers know little about it. And it’s up for reauthorization in 2012.
Today’s farm bill has roots in a series of Depression-era farm programs created in response to a legitimate farm crisis. Farmers were producing so much that prices dropped precipitously. In response, farmers planted even more to try to pull in more money, which depressed prices even further. Overplanting also made land vulnerable to erosion — once-fertile farmland started literally blowing away.
The main government response was to create a system of loans that farmers could use to store grain until prices recovered. If prices never recovered, the government agreed to buy the grain. New Deal farm programs also included incentives for farmers to idle sensitive land, which helped ensure that it would remain suitable for planting year after year.
But in 1973, legislators responded to citizen concern over rising food prices with a new Farm Bill, designed to ensure that cheap food would always be readily available. Like the old farm programs, the 1973 Farm Bill set a target price for commodity crops. But unlike the old farm programs, its objective was to keep crops on the market even — and especially — when prices were unsustainably low. Today, when prices drop below the cost of production, farmers of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton sell them anyway. Then the government sends a check that keeps them in business.
So farmers grow as much as possible, and American grocery store shelves have remained stocked with incredibly cheap food. But not all food is subsidized, which is why some food is cheaper than other food. Vegetable farmers, for example, can’t count on government checks and have to sell their food at prices high enough to pay their expenses. Most of the crops that the Farm Bill subsidizes are used as feed for factory-farmed animals and as raw materials for processed foods.
Which brings us back to the ramen noodles. According to the ingredients list, it contains enriched wheat flour (wheat), partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil (cotton), soy sauce (wheat and soy), hydrolyzed corn, wheat and soy protein (corn, wheat, and soy), and the list goes on. Americans are famous for spending a smaller percentage of our paycheck on food than citizens of any other nation. We pay for that food, in part, through our taxes. But we also pay for its consequences in our famously high health care bills.
Opposition to U.S. farm subsidies comes from a diverse chorus of critics. Health advocates blame them for contributing to our country’s obesity epidemic. Environmental activists condemn them for promoting unsustainable farming methods and factory farms. Many conservatives criticize them as wasteful government spending. Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner has referred to the Farm Bill as a “slush fund.” And the World Trade Organization, which opposes agricultural subsidies because they prevent fair international competition among farmers, has ruled U.S. cotton subsidies illegal.
If we want to end farm subsidies, we will have to find a better way to stabilize prices for farmers from year to year. It will be complicated, but I think it’s worth it. Maybe you disagree. Either way, you should be a part of the discussion that shapes the 2012 Farm Bill. And it’s not just agricultural subsidies that are at stake. The Farm Bill authorizes funding and administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as “food stamps.” It helps determine the content of school lunches. It determines whether and how the government subsidizes the production of biofuel.
But unless you tell them otherwise, your legislators will assume that you’d rather they leave the Farm Bill to the agriculture committee and focus on issues more relevant to your life. We need to tell them that it is relevant to our lives and that we do care. We need to demand that the media give it coverage. We need to make sure that the 2012 Farm Bill reflects the interests of everyone who’s affected — and that includes you.