When Cheap Food is Bad
Aug 27, 2009
By Steve Cornett
The Internet, at least the part folks send me links to, is filled with folks mad at Time Magazine and writer Bryan Walsh just because of a poorly-reported article he wrote blaming farm policy for fat Americans.
I’m glad he wrote it. Maybe it will wake folks up to what’s going on under their noses.
The Walsh piece—“Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food”—is nothing new. It is a Cliff’s Notes version of the (Michael) Pollan Principle. And Walsh is hardly the only apostle carrying forth "The News." President Obama has admired Pollan’s thought. Obama’s secretary of agriculture has reminded the press that he considers himself the secretary of food.
Powers-that-be are listening to this stuff.
The Pollan Principle is easily summed up: Modern agriculture pollutes the environment, wastes energy and provides cheap food that contributes to obesity and thus to health care problems—and costs.
You can argue with the merits of the case ( follow this link for one good example) but as you do so, be aware that what you have to say will pass, at the speed of unimpeded sound, into one aural cavity of the True Believers and out the other.
In an earlier day, a Time or Newsweek magazine would have required its reporters to present both sides of such debates. But those magazines have yielded their objectivity in an attempt to adjust to the loudest voice climate driven by talk radio, cable TV and the internet.
What worries me is not that such stuff will drive away consumers. I mean, if the do-gooders can’t get the epicureans among us to quit pork skins and Blue Bell’s exquisite chocolate-covered cherries ice cream, what chance do they have on iron-rich, nutrient dense beef?
What worries me is that these guys have the ears of policy makers. Policy makers who know they don’t have to stage a frontal attack on modern agriculture to destroy it. You don’t have to say, “eat less beef.” You can simply demand more stringent regulation of antibiotics and CAFO standards and employment regulations. There are many ways to attack mainstream agriculture without having to confront the united farm lobby, and if in your heart you believe mainstream agriculture to be evil, why would you not?
Walsh’s piece seems to have found an ear among non-cattle farmers this time. That’s good. He is plain in his argument that the root problem in the Pollan Principle is agriculture subsidies:
"Over the past decade, the Federal Government has poured more than $50 billion into the corn industry, keeping prices for the crop — at least until corn ethanol skewed the market — artificially low. That's why McDonald's can sell you a Big Mac, fries and a Coke for around $5 — a bargain, given that the meal contains nearly 1,200 calories, more than half the daily recommended requirement for adults. ‘Taxpayer subsidies basically underwrite cheap grain, and that's what the factory-farming system for meat is entirely dependent on,’ says (Union of Concerned Scientists spokesman Doug) Gurian-Sherman.”
A man is not wise to bet against the farm lobby in this country, and would be particularly imprudent to suggest that such charges will quickly and directly impact corn farmers’ subsidies. But if that mind set is informing decisions at EPA and FDA and USDA—if those decision makers truly believe that cheap food is a problem— how open will they be to arguments about how this rule or that rule will raise food costs?
What if they, like Walsh and Pollan, think that’s a good thing? What does it mean that “America has the widest choice of the cheapest food in the world" is considered a bad thing.
It’s a question every agriculture producer in the U.S. should be asking, because such thought is pervasive among the political elite in this country.
Steve Cornett is editor emeritus at Beef Today. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.