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Shelf Life Theory Has Short Expiration Date

Monday, August 2, 2010

The large, industrial growers of corn floated a trial balloon recently (July 20) in an attempt to justify continued taxpayer subsidies that have totaled $73.8 billion since 1995 for the ubiquitous crop. What stirred them up was that even hard-core subsidy defenders in Congress have begun talking about the need to give commodity subsidies a haircut in light of the worsening federal deficit. (The fact that 74 percent of the payments by the US Department of Agriculture go to the largest and wealthiest 10 percent of farm operations makes continuing the lavish subsidies even harder to justify.)

It’s not easy to follow the tortured logic of the National Corn Growers Association, but here it is:

There are numerous factors that make this access to cheap and abundant food possible including a wildly productive agricultural core that produces key crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans. These staple crops provide the very foundation of the “real” food pyramid. These are crops that we have learned to grow fairly predictably on a large scale even when Mother Nature hits us with challenging weather. In the worst-case scenario when weather, insects or disease reduces the size of these crops we have a certain amount in reserve.

However, with a growing emphasis on more fruits and vegetable in our diet, there are also those calling for more and more taxpayers’ dollars to shift from existing farm programs to encourage and expand farmers markets and produce production. Striking a reasonable balance won’t be easy but it will be critical.

While many produce items have a shelf life of weeks or months at best, corn, soybeans and wheat can be transported more readily and stored for years. The authors of the original farm bill understood this and chose to put their emphasis and limited budget into programs that help growers of these keystone crops make it through tough times.

First let's examine the idea that we should take subsidies for commodities like corn and soybeans and shift them to fruit and vegetable growers. Most produce growers don't want to be on the subsidy dole, rightly fearing the same addiction to taxpayer dollars that currently ensnares the commodity growers. Fruit and vegetable farmers would rather get federal help with marketing, conservation programs, transitioning between crops or going organic.

The real problem is that we’re subsidizing unhealthy calories in commodity food products, making it a lot harder to do something about the simultaneous obesity and hunger epidemics. Does it make sense to underwrite the raw material costs for McDonald's and other fast-food chains to inject processed corn into nearly every menu item?

The corn growers refuse to confront the real toll of the unhealthy calories they produce. Instead they try to change the subject and veer off into scary tales of apocalypse should the subsidy spigot ever be turned off.

In the interim keep this in mind; if we stopped growing green beans or carrots tomorrow, the world would not end. But if we see big reductions in crops like corn, soybeans or wheat the loss of essential oils, protein and other precious calories would change the food universe as you know it.

Given the unhealthy diets too many Americans eat, changing “the food universe” sounds like a good idea – especially since according to First Lady Michelle Obama, the US spends almost $150 billion every year to treat obesity-related conditions.

Here’s another thought. Perhaps we should cap subsidies so that we, the taxpayers, only pay to support corn and soy that’s actually eaten by people. Since only about 20 percent of corn grown in the US is used for food or processed into food substitutes, why don’t we give out only 20 percent of the current subsidies? That could save taxpayers $1.6 billion per year in the automatic and fixed “direct payments” alone for corn – payments that go out regardless of need.

And if growers of corn and other commodities are now so good at withstanding weather-related disasters, why do taxpayers have to foot the bill for billions in additional disaster payments and crop insurance premiums?

Let's concede one point to the corn growers. Their product does have a longer shelf life than fresh fruits and vegetables, as demonstrated only too well by this McDonald's Happy Meal that failed to decompose after sitting out for an entire year.

The corn growers' motivations for defending a wide-open subsidy spigot become clearer if you match members of the National Corn Growers Association board with EWG’s farm subsidy database.

Amounts received in USDA administered subsidies 1995-2009 by:

Robert Dickey, Nebraska - $298,279

Darrin Ihnen, South Dakota - $794,556

Bart Schott, North Dakota - $858,636

Martin Barbre, Illinois - $1,096,706

Guy Davenport, North Carolina - $1,130,507

Clark Gerstacker, Michigan - $132,100

Mike Geske, Missouri - $1,287,308

Daryl Haack, Iowa - $451,402

Charles J. Jamison, Maryland - $237,697

Pam Johnson, Iowa - $784,611

Jerry Larson, Minnesota - $859,634

Dave J. Nelson, Iowa - $1,358,437

Garry Niemeyer, Illinois - $868,931

Theresa Schmalshof, Illinois - $972,376

Mark Schwiebert, Ohio - $160,411

New Board members for 2011 (starting in October)

Bill Chase, South Dakota - $592,023

Robert Elliott, Illinois - $390,246

Jon Holzfaster, Nebraska - $1,080,361

Wesley Spurlock, Texas - $1,684,517

Total: a tidy $15,038,738

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