How Congress Makes You Fat


Michael Pollan's piece in the NYT magazine is a minor masterpiece—a holy union of anti-obesity grumbling and anti-government pork righteousness. As Pollan tells it, farm subidies (especially the version of the farm bill that rises up every few years) are to blame for unhealthy eating habits.

This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world's food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.)

For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy. That's because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

If the anti-Twinkies forces had their way, would there be more restrictions on what you could eat? Probably. But if the obesity panic centers on the massive shift of tax dollars to growing these foods, and breadbasket congressfolk have to apologize for those votes… well, that's a useful direction for the debate to go in.

Back in 2002, Jonathan Rauch ran the farm bill over with a thresher, backed up, and ran over it again.