26 March 2012

How government corn subsidies are making us fat

If you've ever wondered why the price of a box of snacky cakes is dirt cheap, while it might require a small loan to buy a container of roasted almonds, the reason can be summed up in one word: subsidies. 

Federal corn subsidies in 2011 totaled out at $3.5 billion, the lowest level since 1997. While this may seem like some kind of cost-saving improvement, the bigger picture tells a different story. That's because, between 1995 and 2006, the US government spent a grand total of $56 billion on corn subsidies, according to the Environmental Working Group. These corn subsidies serve several functions, most of which only benefit the consumer's wallet, not their long-term health.

As we've already reported, from 1995 to 2010, $16.9 billion in federal subsidies went to producers of soy oils, corn starch, corn syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Soy oils makes up roughly two thirds of all edible oils eaten in the United States, and are used to create hydrogenated oils and other junk food additives. Corn starch is a stabilizer, thickening agent, or an emulsifier, and is typically found in a wide variety of places, including sugary, unhealthy snacks. Corn syrup is less sweet than HFCS, but both are nonetheless damaging to our health.

The Corn Refiners Association, which recently launched a massive public relations campaign to fight off "misconceptions" about HFCS, claims that consuming it is harmless "in moderation." However, it has become increasingly difficult to "moderate" ones intake of HFCS considering it has become a widespread supermarket plague, infecting ketchup, cereal, crackers, bread, various canned goods, and, perhaps most obvious, many soft drink beverages.

One study concluded that, between 1965 and 1996, adolescents' consumption of soft drinks increased by 287% in boys and 224% in girls. The USDA reports that individuals who consume more than 18% of their calories in added sugars tend to have lower-than-normal levels of essential micronutrients, especially vitamin A, vitamin B12, folate, magnesium and iron.

With all the aforementioned in mind, it would seem apparent that corn subsidies are directly contributing to the overproduction of junkfood. While this may be true, perhaps surprisingly, most of the corn produced in the United States never touches the mouths of taxpayers.

As revealed by the USDA, 42.5% of all corn produced in 2009 was broken down into feed to fatten up animals confined to massive industrial factory farms. These animals live and die in the worst conditions imaginable, which not only raises important ethical questions about how we're funding the brutal torture of sentient beings, but also brings to light issues about food quality and its impact on the consumer's health.

In fact, factory farms have become increasingly notorious for a host of horrible things, such as unsanitary conditions, where fecal matter is regularly found caked to floors, walls, and even the animals themselves. Most of it ends up on the final meat product, and ultimately, rotting away in the consumer's belly. As a result of this lack of cleanliness, factory farms often create ideal breeding conditions for a host of nasty diseases -- diseases which regularly find their way into human food, causing mass-recalls and widespread sickness.

One is left to wonder not only why subsidies are being channeled to corn production, but more specifically, why those subsidies fund the unhealthiest of foods. In 2009, producers of fruits, vegetables, and organics only received $825 million in support from the government. These funds are not direct subsidies, weigh far less economically than that which is distributed to corn production, and are geared more towards school programs, research, and market promotion.

Personal responsibility among consumers should, of course, remain highly emphasized. Obviously, nobody is forcing the average American to walk into their favorite grocery store and buy poo-crusted meat slabs and high-fructose corn cakes. However, our friends in Washington aren't helping the market incentive structure by making what's bad for us cheaper, and what's good for us much more expensive.

Jonathan Reynolds
Jonathan is a freelance writer and blogger residing in upstate New York.

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/der_bauer