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Ag Subsidies Fund Junk Food, Report Says

Each year when Americans pay their taxes, part of that money feeds into subsidies for junk food ingredients; and hardly any of it goes toward fresh produce, according to a new report.

The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) Wednesday released “Apples to Twinkies,” a review of agricultural subsidies that shows that since 1995, approximately 16.9 billion dollars in taxpayer money have gone toward supplementing four of the country’s most common food additives – corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils.

These products are used almost exclusively to make junk foods such as chips, candy or soft drinks, or to change the consistency or flavor of staple foods.

“The ingredients that we focused on are really empty calories. They’re just added into foods to add calories, fat, or sweetness, without any nutritional value,” explained Mike Russo, Policy Analyst for US PIRG and lead author of the report.

Conversely, produce such as oranges or spinach receive no regular federal funding, with the exception of apples – on which the government spent about .01 percent of its agricultural subsidy money between 1995 and 2010.

At a time when obesity is becoming a rising concern in American, with 1 in 5 children ages 6 to 11 now obese, US PIRG says spending that makes junk foods cheaper to produce is a waste of government money, and should be curbed.

According to the report, 13 billion of the 181.1 billion bushels of corn sold since 1995 were used to make corn sweetener, and 4.3 billion bushels turned into corn starch. This means that of the money spent on corn by the government over these years, 9.7 percent of the money contributed directly to food additives. That’s $7.5 billion of the 77.1 billion taxpayer dollars spent on corn.

As for subsidies for soy bean oil, that number is an even greater 9.44 billion dollars. Soybean oil makes up around two thirds of all edible oils eaten in the United States, and is commonly used to make hydrogenated oils and other junk food additives.

That’s opposed to the 262 million dollars spent on apples over that same time period.

Not only would cutting off this lifeline to commodity crops reduce companies’ ability to produce junk food, but it would also put a dent in future costs to society arising from health problems associated with obesity, says the organization.

“By fueling the crisis of childhood obesity, the subsidies damage our country’s health and increase the medical costs that will ultimately need to be paid to treat the effects of the obesity epidemic,” Russo told Food Safety News.

Viewed in another light, if the money spent on agricultural products were to go directly to consumers, it would translate into a little over $7 per person to spend on junk food, and 11 cents to spend on apples, and a negligible amount on other fresh produce such as spinach or oranges, foods that can be prohibitively expensive.

These findings were released Wednesday, just two days after President Obama revealed his 2012 budget plan, which includes a proposed 22 percent cut to agricultural spending and an end to direct payment to farmers, which comprises $5 billion per year in payment to farmers.

The administration deemed these direct payments “unnecessary,” because more than half of farmers receiving such benefits make over $100,000 a year.

According to US PIRG, agribusinesses take in the lion’s share of current government allotments for agriculture. “Roughly 74 percent of subsidies go to four percent of U.S. farmers,” says the report.

“We’re focusing in on the fact that there are these wasteful taxpayer subsidies going to junk food and to an industry that frankly doesn’t really need them, to these giant agribusinesses,” says Russo.

Russo says US PIRG’s message about agricultural spending is having an impact on consumers.

“People are pretty outraged when we tell them about where their tax dollars are going. It really does seem completely perverse.”

© Food Safety News
  • Donnie

    Soy can have a negative effect on the thyroid, which can lead to hypothyroidism, and weight gain. Corn is fed to cattle to fatten them up for market, so maybe it’s doing the same thing to people. And our tax dollars are paying big bucks for all this. Oh yeah, corn and soy are genetically modified. So our tax dollars are promoting the biotech industries, too. No wonder our country is in such sorry shape. Idiots are running it.

  • Rob

    I would suggest that the people we think are running the country are not idiots, but rather are powerless officials. The food industry is in the shape it is because consumers buy the product. If you want to change what people eat, convince them not to buy the wrong stuff. The battle is won at the point of sale.

  • http://crohnsend.com/ Reid

    Rob, indeed the battle is won at the point of sale, if only people could afford real food, which is the point of this whole article, that real food is much more expensive than subsidized junk edible chemicals.

  • Steve

    The real battlefield here already occurred behind the scenes — where food industry influence has effectively corralled our politicians to do their bidding.
    And as we know — their advertising works — especially when combined with addictive junk phood, empty calorie ingredients (sugars, salts, GMO fructose) — and targeted at consumers from childhood on.
    And so, convincing addicts to change their ways is an uphill battle when a constant Big Bucks promotion onslaught is in full gear and the gov’t role of consumer protection is non-existent.
    This is the Big Tobacco profit machine playbook all over again…

  • ecofoodologist

    This is one of the most important discussions happening anywhere at this moment. It is simple, no one needs an advanced degree to understand it. You are unlikely to see detailed discussions by experts in the comments. Rob and Reid said it all without nuance.
    I offer one important nuance to Reid’s comment;
    Americans on average spend less than ten percent of income on food. If someone is at a severe financial disadvantage now, and did not prepare for it by developing a relationship with some farmers, they should take some responsibility for that error. Most Americans, as Rob says, give most of their food dollars to BigAg. They also, commute too far to work, hardly know their neighbors and don’t invest their food dollars ensuring that food farmers in their region remain profitable. then they praise their local politicos for paving a new mall. GET A F@%!%G GRIP ON REALITY!
    It’s no surprise that real food farmers are hard to find and that their food costs more than junk. It should. Most of them had to sell out, or convert to commodities so the commuters can eat Happy Meals in the car, brainwashed to believe that we can’t grow food or prepare it ourselves. If WE (reading this comment) build the economy of scale for real food, we will have it at a price that ALL can afford.
    And Reid, MOST people can still afford real food easily, they just spend $$ on cheap calories, manufactured, packaged and distributed by people who pervert the concept of food. There may be a few who truly can’t afford real food, but they are locked in grinding systemic poverty… an important social problem, but separate from the focus of Ms. Goetz’s article and the PIRG report, for which I would appreciate a URL.
    If Americans (1)changed their habits to build thriving regional food systems feeding local buyers during each growing season and (2) black ball every congressman who funnels money to Big AG at the expense of regional agriculture systems, this blog would be in the forgotten annals of food foolishness in ten years. I value this blog today, but Mr. Marler and so many others thrive financially thanks to perverse calorie promotion.
    I hope they will be happy to retire wealthy., but there is little danger of it until I find a multinational corp. to fit these ideas on bumper stickers and repeat, repeat, repeat them on FOX News until they soak in.

  • Furtherthanever

    I all for letting go of the portions going to junk food… But I am afraid that we might not be considering everything else. By subsidizing corn, and soy, we subsidize cattle feed, which subsidizes all kinds of things… Down to the fertilizers that we used to grow organic carrots and broccoli. What would cutting these subsidies to to the other markets, like meat, dairy, farmland, etc?

    Am I missing something, or just not thinking clearly? Because my first thought was just how important these subsadies are to the country. I don’t think this needs to be a heated debate or anything… Just an honest question.