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Guest Commentary / Federal farm bill


Stop subsidizing junk food, big ag

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By Chris Esh
Published:
Congress is now negotiating the final version of the farm bill, and both the nation's financial and physical health is on the line.
At a time when obesity rates in Washington are at an all-time high and our country faces tough federal budget choices, current farm policy showers giant agribusinesses with taxpayer handouts that subsidize junk food ingredients. The time is ripe for change and Rep. Suzan DelBene -- Washington's sole representative taking part in the negotiations over the farm bill -- can be the guiding voice to end these wasteful subsidies.
Washington Public Interest Research Group found that between 1995 and 2012, more than $19.2 billion in taxpayer dollars directly subsidized corn- and soy-derived junk food ingredients. These federal subsidies to junk food, which cost Washington taxpayers more than $23 million last year, have much more far-reaching costs to our health and well-being.
Childhood obesity rates have tripled over the last three decades, and one in three kids aged 6 to 11 in Washington is now obese. These increases in obesity rates will translate into kids who are at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes, undermining the health of our state and driving up medical costs by billions of dollars. The rise in obesity has many root causes, but one of the major sources is the increased prevalence of heavily sweetened, high-fat junk foods in our diets.
These wasteful subsidies are the byproduct of a decades-old farm bill. What started out as a Dust Bowl-era program to ensure small farmers wouldn't be wiped out by a bad season has now become a taxpayer handout for big agribusinesses to subsidize the production of commodity crops. Case in point: Since 1995, 75 percent of all agricultural subsidies have gone to just 4 percent of farmers.
These overly concentrated subsidies not only benefit the biggest players, they harm smaller, unsubsidized farmers by inflating land prices, promoting consolidation, and encouraging industrial agribusiness practices without any benefit to public health.
While 82 percent of Washington farmers have not seen a penny in subsidies, the few that do receive them are confined to a few select commodity crops, like corn and soybeans. While the crops themselves are not the issue, it becomes a problem when the percentage of these yields become the empty calorie products found in our junk food -- especially when one looks at the tiny fraction our apple producers and other fresh fruits and vegetables receive in subsidies compared to commodity crops.
But does Big Ag really need the help?
Despite a major drought last year, the industry raked in $133 billion in 2012, their second-most profitable year on record. These profits give them the resources to spend heavily to protect their subsidies. When the farm bill was up for a vote last year, the agribusiness industry spent $220 million on lobbying and campaign contributions.
Farm bill negotiations are taking place right now, and the window for ending these subsidies is coming to a close. For the first time in decades, there is a move for real reform to cut the most wasteful and harmful subsidies to the likes of Monsanto and Cargill.
There's no excuse to keep shelling out tax dollars to a handful of agribusinesses with deep pockets and access to our politicians, and there's no excuse for turning a blind eye to the ways our policies encourage a public health crisis. With America facing an obesity epidemic, it is unconscionable that even one dime of taxpayer money would go towards subsidizing junk food.
Congress needs to get it right this time by siding with the public instead of Big Ag. Our public health and small farms depend on such action.
For Rep. Suzan DelBene, she can define her political career right here as a defender of our public health and small family farms.

Chris Esh is the Program Associate with Washington Public Interest Group (WashPIRG), a statewide citizen-based consumer advocacy organization. You can reach Chris at cesh@washpirg.org

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