Food & Culture


My last trip to the grocery store was the last straw . . . though I’m not on a mission to arrange a boycott (although I certainly could).  This is the position of an educated-but-lazy consumer who’s finally had enough.

Dear Food Manufacturers,

Things I am no longer buying:
sugar bombs away!Boxed breakfast cereals:  Dear cereal manufacturers: the value-added, pre-vitaminafied, pre-sugared, and in some cases, pre-milk-added component of your product is not adding sufficient value to my convenience.  At USD 4 or more per box, it is never likely to do so, either.  I’m eating oatmeal, and adding my own brown sugar and milk: take that, buster.

‘Healthy’ bread: I can remember when the choice was white, pasty stuff at USD .39 per loaf, and I was willing to pay up to USD 1.99 for a loaf that actually looked and tasted like it was made of real food.    However, you commercial bakers have sweetened your recipes, refined all of the husks out of the whole wheat flour, and who knows what else.  The result: your bread tastes too much like the old 39-cent stuff.  Unfortunately, your ostensibly healthy bread is now USD 3.39 to USD 5 for a loaf.  You can kiss most of my money good-bye, because I’m buying local bakery stuff, or, failing that, cutting my consumption WAY down until you figure out what made your product better in the first place.

Supposedly healthy and/or diet cookies: Oh, I love sweets, and oh, I tried.  But you’ve added so much fake sugar to them that I can’t even taste the cookie anymore.  Not the sexiest package in the world is going to overcome a bad product.

Supposedly healthy and/or diet salad dressings: I’ve tried your offerings here too, and the fake sugar content is too much to be borne.

Boiling My OwnCanned soup: soggy noodles, limp vegetables, and so much salt my teeth hurt when I take a spoonful.  That goes for Andy Warhol’s brand and for all of the supposedly higher-end canned soups as well.

Microwave dinners:  See soup, above.

Sodapop, commercial or alternative: Once the mainstay of my liquid consumption, and now, practically nothing of my life.  Ginger ale has no ginger in it; root beer no sassafras.  Plain, uncarbonated “alternative” or “vitamin-rich” drinks taste like watered-down fruit sodas.  Sports drinks taste like glycerine mixed with water and coloring.  No, no, and again, no.

Water . . .So what am I eating?
As a lover of convenience, this presented a problem.  But here it is: I’m drinking water and tea and coffee.  Mixing my own orange juice, when I want a sweet drink that’s cold.  Buying fruit and vegetables; eating salads; making my own quick stir-fries and soups. 

You manufacturers could have done all this for me, but I just can’t stand what you make any longer.  You have newed and improved me right back to the basics.  Your loss.

Sincerely,

The Ramblin’ Gal

For those of us who dislike paying taxes, it’s sometimes good to reflect what the government does for us:

With added FunOn July 18th, the FDA issued a warning to consumers about various canned-meat products, especially hot dog chili made by a company who creates product for store brands as well as brand-name foods. 

That warning was expanded on July 23 to include various types of natural dog food (i.e., pet food, not sausage condiment) made by the same company.

This latter announcement ends for all time the belief that the chili sauce that goes on top of a hotdog is anything other than an insult on top of injury. 

The dog food and hot dog food are dangerous because of botulism, a toxin created by bacteria.  Symptoms of  botulin poisoning and safe disposal of botulism-contaminated foods is available at another great agency that U.S. taxpayers fund: The Center for Disease Control.

Stay safe, enjoy life–eat corn on the cob, with a little butter and salt.  Fresh peaches.  Stuff like that.  As for those of us with pets, we will definitely want to check the links above for product recalls.

See also, previous post on adulterated foods. . .

It’s been awhile since I posted on the Farm Bill currently waddling its way through Congress.  And I found that The Library of Congress has written a report on the current farm bill, part of which I have arranged as Frequently Asked Questions, and then supplemented with other articles and references.

What is a farm bill, anyway?
The LOC organizes the answer under three headings:

1. The heart of every omnibus farm bill is farm income and commodity price support policy — namely, the methods and levels of support that the federal government provides to agricultural producers. 
2. Farm bills also typically include titles on agricultural trade and foreign food aid, conservation and environment, forestry, domestic food assistance (primarily food stamps), agricultural credit, rural development, agricultural research and education, and marketing-related programs. 
3. Often, such “miscellaneous” provisions as food safety, marketing orders, animal health and welfare, and energy are added. [page 7].

Why does the bill seem so large and complicated?
An aggregate bill allows more legislators from different constituencies to vote for it.  For instance, legislators from farm districts need the votes of legislators from urban districts, so urban assistance clauses are frequently added.  It’s not hard to find areas of agreement, because food is naturally important to everyone.  By including everyone’s pet project, each legislator is able to satisfy his need for good press and bringing benefits to his home district.  Or as the LOC puts it:  “This omnibus nature of the farm bill creates a broad coalition of support among sometimes conflicting interests for policies that, individually, might not survive the legislative process.” [p. 7]. And “So, for example, farm state lawmakers may seek urban legislators’ backing for commodity price supports in exchange for votes on domestic food aid — and vice versa.”

What assistance does Congress get in formulating attractive programs?
Tons of lobbyists.  Those companies who benefit from the Farm Bill, and who have received large sums of money from it, are certainly using a portion of those proceeds to fertilize this high-yield income crop: tax dollars.

Among the groups lobbying Congress will be farm and commodity organizations; input suppliers; commodity handlers, processors, exporters, retailers;

And those who have not been best-served by the Farm Bill in the past:

 foreign customers, and competitors; universities and scientific organizations; domestic consumers and food assistance advocates; environmentalists; and rural communities.

Why should foreigners have anything to say about U.S. Farming and Agriculture?
There are a lot of reasons, and most of them (but not all) involve exports and imports: balance of trade.  The agricultural market is a global one: U.S. cotton is sold overseas; we buy fruit, coffee, and fresh flowers from Latin America.  Furthermore, U.S. citizens are also employed by the import market: in inspection, sales, and distribution, just as with domestic agricultural products.  Primarily, foreign states object to tariffs and unreasonable limits on their exports.  The lobbies of foreign states do not have the power to vote in a Congressional district, but they are certainly intensely aware of Farm Bill legislative activity.  For instance, ABC Australia reports that Australian producers are upset at the likely subsidization of the US Dairy program, which they correctly say distorts the world market price for milk, cheese, and other dairy products.  This objection can stand as the example for many states, some of which do not have as vibrant an economy as Australia, and for other subsidized products on the global agricultural market. 

After a period of consultation starting in July 2005, the US Secretary of Agriculture made clear that he wanted to advocate a bill that was in compliance with the World Trade Organization.

. . . Secretary Johanns has repeatedly stated the USDA’s goal for a new farm bill is that it be “equitable, predictable and beyond challenge”in the WTO.
Equitable relates to the distribution of benefits among farmers and commodities.
Predictable relates to dependably providing assistance, particularly disaster assistance, which has been ad hoc over the past 20 years.
Beyond challenge relates to full compliance with the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules agreed to by the United States and the entire 149-country membership of the organization. [p. 8].

So far, the WTO is not impressed

So is it just about their self-interest as opposed to ours?
Another aspect of the US Farm Bill in which other states are entitled to speak out concern global poverty and also, the way the U.S. is viewed in the world.  In a February speech in the U.S., Director-General of the WTO Pierre Lamy detailed the major contributions of the U.S. in developing multilateral trade.  He went on to discuss the importance of multilateral trade agreements under the WTO.  For agriculture and industry, the WTO provides a “clear, transparent, and predictable environment for trade.”  On agriculture, however, the U.S. has not been building upon its accomplishments, which has been killing the most recent trade talks (The Doha Development Round) Mr. Lamy said:

Although [agriculture] accounts for less than 10 per cent of world trade, it holds the key to unblocking and revitalizing the negotiations and ensuring substantive progress across the board. Why? Surely because 70% of the world poor live in rural areas and that negotiators when launching these talks agreed to frontload development. 

In short, when the Farm Bill enriches big commodities concerns, it halts other states from creating their own vibrant agriculture, contributing to their poverty.  It also sends a message that the U.S. does not intend to be fair.  Instead of pressing for rules that would advantage all sectors of world trade and all states engaged in world trade, it has settled for privileging one aspect of its own economy above all others.  In response, other states are less amenable to agreement with their own “pet industries” that distort trade, which disadvantages the U.S. consumer and the U.S. manufacturing sector.

So if we want to achieve the “best all around”, what do we advocate?
That depends upon your point-of-view.  Certainly U.S. agricultural lobbies want more of the same–only more.  Consumers, public health advocates, independent farmers, and the rest of the world should not want the provisions we currently have. 

To return to the Library of Congress:  “Farm bills and the programs they encompass are complex and intensely interactive. Changes to one program often have intended and more often unintended consequences for others.”  In adding it all up, one should consider that current policy pays for distorted trade in some agricultural commodities while sidelining the rest; it sidelines other sectors of the U.S. economy through its bloated intransigence; it adds to our whopping deficit; and adds to global poverty and non-development.  Here is Mr. Lamy’s view, with which I concur:

[In the U.S. and E.U.] civil society and tax payers are questioning policies that may preserve agriculture protection at the expense of other countries, in particular poor developing countries. Also, public opinion seems to be in favour of support for the preservation of rural life or the environment, or support for those small farmers with less comparative advantages, rather than lavish government spending that benefits a handful of large farmers or farming companies. In short, what the public points out to — perhaps without knowing — is a good, non-trade distorting farm policy. 

That’s the best all around.

Whoa!  Lots of projected spending up ahead.  In fact, insane amounts:

Great idea, wrong venue:
The DesMoines Register opined on June 24 that the Farm Bill include Mental Health Clinics for Farmers in the bill.  Food producers could access mental health clinics which historically have been absent in rural areas.  It’s a great idea to have rural health care–but isn’t this something we need in a Mental Health Bill? 

Sad story, wrong cause and effect
Since farmers are greying, and the “young are turning away from the farm”, only agricultural businesses are farming nowadays.  The Phoenix Examiner-Enterprise suggested on June 24 that the bill include incentives to young people to start farming by giving dollars in aid and lower interest rates to start-up farmers.  The reasons young people going away from the farm is that there are barriers to entry–okay, I got that–but this is because we are funding agribusiness so that small farmers can’t compete.  The biggest vector for farm unemployment is agribusiness: their crops are highly mechanized and include economies of scale.  So instead of Adding to the Farm Bill, how about we cut big payments and re-introduce competition? 

Healthy food, or commodity program: Your choice:
On June 24, Edward Marty wrote in the Birmingham News that a good farm bill would include initiatives for healthy crops, and the distribution of these crops to local schools and food banks.   However, the Enid Oklahoma News reported that Representative Lucas (R-Oklahoma)  came out blasting Ron Kind  (D-Wisconsin) for trying to remove commodity crops from the bill.  The commodity program is the worst feature of the Farm Bill, a waste of billions of dollars per year that go to big agricultural consortiums for the kind of food we should not eat.  Ron Kind is also in disagreement with another Wisconsin representative, Mr. Peterson, over his plans to greatly overhaul the program.

The Muskegon Michigan Chronicle pointed out that big commodity farms, which certainly have the profit margin for better work, do not produce as healthful a product as small farms.  For both environmental and food safety reasons, they want the Farm Bill to consider dumping the agribusinesses.  Makes sense to me.

This is such an important bill!  Please remember: it is your dinner table, your refrigerator, Your legislators, Your government, and your tax dollars.   We have the chance to save money at the grocery checkout and in our taxes all at the same time.

Search Farm bill here at Ramblin’ Gal for other posts on this issue. 

It's Yours.  Not Theirs.You can “Follow the Money” at the Environmental Working Group site: Since June 12, the Farm Bill 2007 Database is Up and Running.  See for yourself what use your tax dollars get in this highly expensive bill.  This site has database by payment, starting with the Top 20 Recipients  (four are shown below). 

You can also look up statistics on these same companies that have disproportionately benefited by subsidy payments.  This is not about saving the farm–not at this level of gluttony.

Or, you can look up totals by state and Congressional district; 

Or,  figure out how many middlemen are used to funnel subsidy funds, each of whom get a cut; And, you can figure out how those funds aggregate into the hands of a few.

This will get you started: 

TOTAL USDA SUBSIDY PAYMENTS 1995-2005 
1.  Riceland Foods–USD  541,061,667.  This would be over half a trillion bucks.
2.  Producer’s Rice Mill    308,013,630.
3.  Farmer’s Rice Co-op   145,530,214.
4.  CHS Incorporated         49,037,456.

One interesting thing to note: nearly all of these large payments are commodity payments rather than disaster or conservation payments.  One exception is Ducks Unlimited–which administers payments for many private citizens engaged in restoring wetlands.  This database gives you the opportunity to see it all.  For more commentary by a specialist, go to Ken Cook’s Mulch Blog–an associated site.

Thanks for all the hard work, Mr. Cook and friends.

I was looking for progress on the U.S. Farm bill, as discussed earlier.  However, this is more in the nature of a news roundup: and not terribly encouraging, either.

1. Taking it to the constituents:
The Agricultural Committee of the U.S. Senate will go to Great Falls, Montana, for a “field hearing” on the Farm Bill still being crafted in the Senate, for constituent output.  July 2: be there or be square.  No mention is being made of Agriculture Committe members talking to U.S. consumers–which is the other “larger than half” of the national community whose interests are at stake.

2. Beneficiaries weigh in:
North Dakota’s Grain Growers Association (NGGA) is disappointed with the “poor safety net” for wheat production:

The House Agriculture Committee proposes to cut direct payments to farmers in order to provide miniscule increases in wheat target payments and loan rates. The House proposal sets the target price for wheat at $4.15, well under the NAWG Farm Bill proposal of $5.29, which was the national average cost of production of wheat in 2005 and 2006. Additionally, the proposal sets loan rates for wheat at $2.94, up slightly from the present loan rate of $2.75.

On June 7, National Farmers Union President Tom Buis testified to the U.S. House Small Business Committee in support of the Farm Bill.  In particular, his group wants a bill that creates economic opportunity and restores profitability to rural America.  The words are sufficiently vague as to call into question whether the NFU wants a change of focus or things exactly as they are.  But since he went on to focus on grain production, I’m assuming that the NFU is with the NGGA: more of the same, only More of more of the same.

In Sitka, fishermen are contemplating a new status in the Farm Bill as “farmers of the sea”.  Alaska salmon has been ruled an agricultural product , and therefore worthy of subsidy–look for Alaska fish in your school lunchrooms soon.

In the meantime, produce growers in the West have felt slighted over the provisions of past Farm Bills and have banded together to lobby for their own crops.  This would at least fit with developing parity between healthier diet for America than previously, but would make the bill even more unwieldy:

Helping their cause is a coalition of 90 specialty crop groups and several lawmakers in the West.   The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance has endorsed the Equitable Agriculture Today for a Healthy America Act or E.A.T. Healthy America Act. The alliance – whose members include several California farm organizations, the Idaho Grower Shippers Association, the Oregon Winegrowers Association and the Washington Red Raspberry Commission – aims to shape the farm bill debate.

Looks like we could get lower prices for good wine too–but at a higher tax rate (or a higher national budget deficit rate) and probably not in the school cafeteria. 

3. Calls to slight virtue:
The environment: American Agriculturist notes that increased corn production for biofuels also increases the use of nitrogen fertilizers.  Fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi has not only polluted the Big Muddy but also contributed to the5,000 square mile “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.  The article suggests, along with the Environmental Defense Fund, that farmers who comply with safe nitrogen fertilizer use should be rewarded by the Farm Bill.

An Article that sums it up nicely from a consumer point of view: Why a carrot costs more than a Twinkie by Andrea Hopkins.

4. Exposure of weird beneficiaries to the Farm Bill:
In Ohio, city parks and churches are also getting farm bill payments.  This wouldn’t only occur in Ohio, I’m sure.  This article also links to a database of Farm Bill beneficiaries–now that’s a nice idea that will promote accountability–provided we attend to it.

5. Foreign policy:
The Kansas City Star features a Dutch dairy farmer who says he does not need farm subsidies on his dairy farm and looks forward to a some-day-distant market economy.  How about it, folks?

The point here, however: with new opportunities for grain growers opening up in biofuels–grain farmers do not need subsidies, nor do large successful agribusinesses, nor do churches or city parks.  The parity that vegetable and specialty crop growers are demanding could be created by diminished subsidies to grain, rather than adding subsidies for vegetable crops: so that more carrots get grown, and become cheaper relative to snack cakes and other non-food food.  The list of potential beneficiaries appear to be growing, while the inappropriate recipients of Farm Bill largesse (which is Your Tax Dollars) are not falling off the list.

Your democracy at work?  Just remember: the squeaking pig gets the trough.  Maybe the Ag Committee needs to come to your grocery store or your PTA. 

Maybe we need to do a little of our own squeaking for a change.

Photo: Ritsumei

On May 23rd, I attended a presentation organized by the CATO Institute on the U.S. Farm bill at the Russell Senate Office Building.  The last farm bill was passed in 2002, although interim legislation between then and now inflated it substantially.  The 2007 version is currently wending its way through the Congress.  

The Cato Institute is a libertarian think tank, and as you may expect, they were not in favor of current or existing government-intrusive, top-heavy legislation.  And though I am not a libertarian, I am very much inclined to their view.  The farm bill is, quite frankly, in restraint of trade, and right in the places where we need new market solutions.  It is a  burden on U.S. consumers; it helps few small farms; and it is disastrous for U.S. foreign policy. 

The purpose of any nation’s agricultural policy is three fold.  1. It should encourage, or at the very least, not interfere with the ability for farmers to produce.  2. It should assist, or at the very least, not interfere, with the ability of consumers to access that production.  Both of these two goals involve creating enough supply that farmers have sustainable income and consumers have a payable price for those foodstuffs.  The third portion of the policy is facilitating export, for greater national GDP.  This means selling excess agricultural product on the world market.

Enabling Farm Production?
Farm subsidies are concentrated in the following areas– at a whopping 90%: wheat, cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans.  This means it is a narrow program, ignoring smaller operations or areas such as produce production, an area where American consumers have continued to create demand but also meet high prices.  The point is not that produce growers should also receive subsidies.  Rather, a rational market, without price supports, would cause farmers to diversify and therefore increase supply of the most demanded foodstuffs.  (That was reason Number 5 under Cato’s report Ripe for reform: Six good reasons to reduce US farm subsidies and trade barriers).

There is little doubt that the mechanization of agriculture from the “Green Revolution” brought about many positive changes in the U.S. as the “breadbasket of the world.”  The problem is that we have institutionalized one step in an upward cycle to market productivity.  To make that cycle of production stay perennially on top, we have subsidized it to the point of killing many kinds of innovation, stunting our own growth.  Overall, the farm industry does not need these subsidies.  Furthermore, the recipients of them remain among the top producers, rather than those whom we would generally target for income equalization–which was the purpose of farm subsidies in the first place. 

Enabling Market-Rational Food Consumption?
Riceland Foods-Frying OilThere’s a real left hand-right hand disconnect in the Federal Government, and it is fueling future gaps in social services.  By subsidizing wheat and corn, we make crackers, chips, and sodapop less expensive to produce (although not to advertise), while fresh foods continue to go up in price.  At the same time, the research dollars and health care costs for weight-related diseases, such as diabetes, continues to climb.  We are accustomed to viewing this disconnect in regard to tobacco, but we also need to consider it crops less striking in their health care consequences. 

Those most likely to subsist on subsidized food products are also those least likely to have comprehensive health insurance.  In turn, this drives the pressures upon health care policy–including the need for universal baseline health care.  Subsidized food crops also permeate our institutional food service, such as in hospitals and school lunchrooms; it is one major root cause for increased rates of child obesity.  In a previous post, I wrote about Mark Pollan’s investigations upon this issue.

It also limits agricultural imports, which affects the cost of sugar and other commodities at the grocery store.  Its whopping price tag adds to our budget deficit: 15 billion dollars. 

Enabling Exports? 
Fresh OkraDr. James at Cato noted that the farm bill is the most market-distorting instrument of U.S. policy.  That means it costs a lot of money–an opportunity cost of USD 1.7 trillion dollars including lost export income.   The farm bill depresses our agricultural exports, which has a direct bearing on US GDP.  It enables us to sell the six subsidized crops to greater advantage, but does not create supply for other crops that are actually grown on the farm and could be traded internationally–everything from fresh flowers to okra to tomato paste.

Farm subsidies are in fact a misnomer–large agribusinesses such as processors, and agricultural concerns which already obtain economies of scale, benefit in outsized manner from this bill, while individual farmers do not.  For instance, Cato reports that in 2003, Riceland foods received USD 68.9 million in subsidies–more than the farm subsidies for Rhode Island, Hawaii, Alaska, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Massahusetts, Maine, Nevada and New Jersey combined.

Such subsidies also have a killing effect on agriculture elsewhere.  The price of subsidized crops on the open market does not reflect actual production costs.  This means that developing nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, cannot compete on a price basis with their own agricultural efforts in an non-rational world market.  They become unable to agriculturally sustain themselves, concentrating instead on single cash crops such as cotton in Central Asia, and coffee–or coca–in Latin America.  

As one-note economies, they are tied to the price cycle of their agricultural commodity.  This precarious situation means that periodically, these businesses suffer downturns for which no other industry or production can pick up the slack, hire labor, or increase that state’s GDP.   As these businesses shut down or disinvest in their operations, their citizens begin to face increased poverty with no visible avenues of relief.  As their plight hits disastrous proportions, food aid kicks in.  Ironically, the poverty relief includes delivery of subsidized U.S. grain and other relief subsidized by U.S. tax dollars.

So, to reflect:
We are paying USD 15 billion in direct costs and 1.7 trillion in opportunity cost for our Farm Bill.  This bill makes healthy foods more expensive than unhealthy ones; makes health care costs more expensive for those who can pay and unreachable for those who can’t; subverts child nutrition; and renders the developing world helpless against food dependence and other economic aid.  

On the up side, agribusiness, the manufacturers of  lipitor and insulin and the advertising agencies are doing okay.

Is this what we want?

Further Reading:
USDA Newsroom roundup on the Farm bill–
End it, don’t mend it” Sallie James of Cato’s Center for Trade Policy Studies on the Farm Bill

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