If lawmakers are interested in cutting costs during the 2013 reauthorization of the farm bill, they should reduce wasteful spending on subsidies that support processed food additives and already profitable agribusiness corporations, according to members of the consumer advocacy group, U.S. PIRG.
“The way our subsidies are distributed right now is a strong example of how skewed our system is,” said Dani Neuharth-Keusch, assistant community outreach director for Illinois PIRG, who spoke at a press conference Tuesday to release the nationwide research group’s new report, “Apples to Twinkies 2013.”
Federally subsidized crop insurance is intended to help farmers manage the risk inherent to their business. According to the report, the current farm bill, enacted in 2008, fails to “appropriately direct federal dollars” with subsidies that “mirror a pattern of special interest influence.”
“We need to push back against subsidies skewed toward big agribusiness and inadequate subsides for fresh produce,” said Neuharth-Keusch.
Taxpayers spent more than $290 billion between 1995 and 2012 on agricultural subsidies, according to U.S. PIRG. Of these federal funds for crop insurance, the research group reports, 75 percent went to only 3.8 percent of American farmers, while 62 percent of U.S. farms did not receive any subsidy.
Meanwhile, the report indicates, $19 billion of those taxpayer-funded subsidies were allocated toward the production of corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch and soy oils. These fillers and flavor enhancers, or "junk food ingredients", according to Neuharth-Keusch, have little to no nutritional value and are some of the leading contributors to America’s obesity epidemic.
“At a time when childhood obesity rates are sky-high, it’s absurd that we’re spending even one cent of taxpayer money on junk food, let alone billions,” Neuharth-Keusch said.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), one out of every three adults in the U.S. is obese. Medical costs related to obesity reached an estimated $147 billion in 2008, the CDC reports.
The amount of money taxpayers spent on subsidies for artificial food additives between 1995 and 2012 equated to $7.30 per person, according to the report. That translates to 20 Twinkies every year for every person in the U.S.
Alternatively, U.S. PIRG found that the amount of money taxpayers spent in that same time period on the production of apples, one of only a few fruits and vegetables to receive a federal subsidy, was $689 million. That figure translates to 26 cents per taxpayer, less than the cost of one Red Delicious apple.
Chicago taxpayers spend roughly $9.2 million, enough to buy nearly 25 million Twinkies, on average every year on federal subsidies that fund processed food additives, according to the report.
Illinoisans, the study continues, pay more than $43.7 million for federally-subsidized crop insurance that supports the production of corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch and soy oils. That translates to approximately 118 million purchasable Twinkies every year.
“With the farm bill before Congress it’s time to end these subsidies that are a waste of our money and bad for our health,” said Dan Smith, tax and budget advocate for U.S. PIRG and co-author of the report. “I think we can all agree anything would be a better use of our taxpayer dollars than subsidizing junk food ingredients.”
As the existing farm bill, which directs funding for most of the nation’s farm and food policies, is set to expire in September, both the U.S. Senate and House have passed a new version of the legislation.
The House farm bill, H.R. 1947, passed the chamber on a 216-208 roll call vote last week. The legislation, the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2013, continues 2008’s farm bill subsidies for another five years and doesn't include funding for a popular food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is used by millions of Americans. None of the lower chamber’s 201 Democrats supported the legislation.
The Senate’s Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, S. 954, passed by a 66-27 vote in early June. The legislation also continues the subsidized crop insurance program, but cuts food stamps by $4.1 billion over 10 years. An amendment sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), approved by a 59-33 vote, limits subsidies for farmers with an adjusted gross income of more than $750,000.
But Smith said, while the House bill didn’t do anything, the Senate bill didn’t do enough to reform the subsidization of profitable agribusinesses growing commodity crops that get processed into food additives.
“We think Congress needs to make serious changes to these bills or reject them entirely,” he said.
U.S. PIRG supported an amendment that would have enacted “comprehensive limits on crop insurance” to a farm bill that failed in the U.S. House last month. Labeled the Kind-Petri amendment, or the AFFIRM Act, the legislation called for a cap on subsidies for farms earning $250,000 in annual gross income. The amendment also included a limit on subsidies to no more than $50,000; it fell just nine votes short of passing.
“At the very least we should put in some common sense limits on these subsidies,” said Smith. “What we do with the money we save from ending or limiting the subsidies is a question that we should have a robust debate about, and certainly subsidizing healthy food would better than subsidizing junk food.”
Melissa Fagerstrom, owner of Fairstream Farms, a 16-acre organic farm in North Judson, Indiana, said her business is completely reliant on the purchasing power of the public.
“There are no subsidies for farms like ours,” she said at Tuesday’s event with Illinois PIRG. “There are very few sources of funding for small organic farms.”
Although she said she was wary of the government regulations that may piggyback on federal subsidies, she said additional support is needed for small farmers.
“We need to be supporting the small farmers in our communities,” she said. “We’re talking about a new kind of culture that centers around food that delivers health to people’s bodies instead of the opposite.”