Fulfilling Christ's call to love God, live in community, and serve our neighbor

Government Food Policy

May 2017 Earth Stewards Blog

VanGogh.jpg

Vincent Van Gogh: Corn Harvest in Provence, Wikimedia Commons

"The consequences of the poor harvests of last year were very evident through a considerable part of the year. To the praise of the goodness of God we must acknowledge that none of our members were without the prime necessities of life; yet the wish and fervent prayer was general that God might be pleased this year to give us bountiful harvests. Thank God! this wish was fulfilled! Unusually plentiful and abundant were the returns from orchards and gardens, fields, and meadows. So although certain articles remained at a higher price than formerly, the pressing need of food for man and beast was relieved, a mercy for which God is due our warmest thanks.”
Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Memorabilia, 1817, Volume 7.

Last month we examined the idea that what we choose to eat is an act of stewardship in ways that affect our bodies and God’s Creation. This month, we are going to take a look at how governmental policy shapes our food choices.

As a 21st century Moravian living in North Carolina, I have a wide variety of food choices, vastly more than our brothers and sisters who walked here almost 264 years ago. Diaries indicate they were gardening in the growing season producing cabbage, potatoes, and root crops1 as well as raising cattle, sheep and pigs, and hunting deer, squirrels, rabbits and even perhaps the occasional bear. Having easier, more varied options makes us the recipients of innovation and industry.

"There was a hard frost and some of the vegetables were frozen”
Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Volume 7, p. 3354, April 28, 2017.

Our early Wachovia forebears would have eaten more like the existence described in Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, where we read about the experiences of one family’s locavore year in Southern Appalachia. When Salem was founded, the agricultural regulations were prescribed by mad King George. After our country gained its freedom we assembled, by accretion, the policy that we all live and eat with daily. Agricultural policy has a very tangible effect on our choices and their costs to our pocketbook and our planet. 

Fully comprehending the governmental system of incentives and regulations that largely prescribe the content and pricing of grocery store inventory is a monumental task. I do not assert a mastery of the labyrinth that is agricultural policy in our nation but I am aware of some primary dictums that do affect how we eat in a significant way. It is a strange time we find ourselves in where we have record crop yields and yet 12.7% (42.2 million people) of our population lives in food insecure households2 while 66% of American adults and 33% of American children are considered overweight.3 Paradoxically, food insecurity and obesity are linked.4

Galatians 6:7 Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.

Does agricultural policy have any role in these troubling ironies?

We produce a lot of corn in this country. Do you eat a lot of corn? I occasionally put a can of it in my favorite cornbread recipe. Doug puts a few rows in the garden each summer and we enjoy some sweet corn. That’s about it for our direct consumption of what I can recognize as corn. The United States is the leading producer of corn in the world, with one-third of the planet’s output, and exports about 13% of the harvest. In 2009, 80,000,000 acres of land in the United States produced 367,081,690 short tons of the grain.5 Who consumes all that corn? For comparison, there is about 300,000,000 acres of land growing “food “in our country, half of which is sown in corn and soybeans.6 Only 14,000,000 of those acres are producing fruits and vegetables,7 something the USDA terms “specialty crops”.

"We had a severe storm which did much damage to the heavily loaded peach and apple trees.”
Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Volume 7, p. 3328, June 10, 1817.

Corn is a versatile crop that thrives in the MidWest but grows almost everywhere in our country. It can be turned into corn flour, cornmeal, hominy or grits. The largest use of our corn harvest is in the production of biofuels (≅40%), followed by the production of livestock feed (≅36%) with the remainder (≅24%) being used for food, seed and other industrial uses.8 This last category produces many of the engineered ingredients used in processed food, an immense topic that we will cover in a future blog. Corn and soybeans (also largely used for animal feed production) together account for 65% of the field crops grown in the USA. The combined value of the USA corn and soybean crop in 2016 was about $93 billion dollars. For comparison, the combined value of the USA fruit, nut and vegetable crop in 2016 was about $40 billion dollars.9

The 2014 Farm Bill stipulates spending on agriculture and nutrition programs for the years 2014-2023. This Farm Bill discontinued direct payments and replaced them with crop insurance. However, there are no premiums or policies for this insurance.  Farmers elect into Price Loss Coverage or Agricultural Risk Coverage and their payout is calculated when price or revenue drops below a benchmark. Projections estimate $134 billion to be spent on subsidies for commodities in the decade of this Farm Bill. By contrast, specialty crop growers are scheduled to receive $4 billion and none of that is in the form of direct payments or subsidies.10 Government farm policy and our tax base funds the creation of a food system that produces two grains largely used for the feeding of animals (meat and poultry production) and the production of a fuel alternative. 

"During this month the weather was unusually wet, and there were many hard showers, which made the hay and wheat harvests difficult, but did less harm than we feared.”
Records of the Moravians in North Carolina, Volume 7, p.3329, June 30, 1817.

The corn system receives the most crop subsidies from the federal government11 and those direct payments are not reflected in the “value” of the crop as stated in the crop census. Subsidies are a cost input but do not show up in the final bottom line. This is part of the reason it is so expensive to buy high quality vegetables, they are not subsidized like corn and soybeans. It is also a contributing factor to the exponential increase in the consumption of processed food in this country. This artificial underwriting also results in a continuing loss of diversified farming as farmers manage their risk according to the farm policy. They are doing what the government encourages them to do: grow corn and soybeans. Are we getting a good return on that crop subsidy investment ($134 billion over 10 years). Are we being good stewards? Is the government doing a good job of using our tax revenue to ensure a healthy, diversified food supply that helps us maintain our bodies? From where I sit, it looks like we are unfairly subsidizing the meat and poultry industry, a food category that we have previously identified as only a minor part of a healthy diet and, when consumed in place of a plant based diet, a contributor to all the primary diseases we humans face: heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, etc.12 

An additional variable is that 80% of the antibiotic consumption in our country is used in meat and poultry production to promote growth and prevent disease.13 This not only contributes to the specter of antibiotic resistance but is required due to the inhumane conditions to which the animals are subjected. This is another enormous topic.

How did we get to this place? In the first half of the 20th century, the federal government limited the amount of corn produced which kept prices high by limiting the amount of grain in the marketplace. From 1971-76 Earl Butz served as Secretary of Agriculture under two presidents. In that role and time, Butz brought sweeping changes to federal agricultural and New Deal era farm support policies. Butz envisioned and created systems that reward economies of scale to produce the massive harvest of corn and soybeans we now have. His view turned the idea of curtailment on its head and sought expansion. This sea change in perspective coupled with technological advancements in equipment, successful lobbying by certain industries, and per acre subsidies and crop insurance payments from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) brought us to where we are today. In 2016 about 4% of farms produced 66% of this country’s agricultural output14,15 and much of it corn. These same farms receive the lion’s share of the subsidies. The little farmers have been squeezed out and the big farms are getting bigger. 

My view is that our agricultural policy is making us and our planet sick. It promotes happy meals, not healthy meals.

As 21st century Christians, how do we carry out our fiduciary role vis a vis God’s Creation regarding the health of our bodies, our planet and the use of our tax revenue? What does God desire of us when it comes to daily decisions about food choices, health maintenance, consequential effects to the Earth by our decisions and influence on our elected officials? What is appropriate to ask of our governmental representatives? I believe one of the roles of government to be to challenge and lead on issues that require a collective as well as individual response. As seen in the featured quotes from the Records of the Moravians herein, 100 years ago our brothers and sisters were very connected to the weather and their crops and prayed for God’s provision. May we lift our prayers to God to direct our steps and actions to glorify Him as we use the gifts of the day.

Next month we will examine the costs to the planet that this agricultural policy creates.

Submitted by Helen Bushnell Beets for the Earth Stewards Team
Edited by Don Frey, Rick Sides and Elizabeth Harris
May 2017

http://www.oldsalem.org/garden/gardens-landscape/the-gardens-at-old-salem/single-brothers-garden/

https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/food-security-in-the-us/key-statistics-graphics.aspx#insecure

https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/Pages/overweight-obesity-statistics.aspx

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/food-insecurity-linked-to-child-obesity_us_55eefd6be4b03784e276821b

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_production_in_the_United_States

https://www.fsa.usda.gov/news-room/efoia/electronic-reading-room/frequently-requested-information/crop-acreage-data/index

https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2007/Online_Highlights/Specialty_Crops/speccrop.pdf

https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/corn/background/

http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/usda/current/CropValuSu/CropValuSu-02-24-2017.pdf

10 https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/farm-bill-why-dont-taxpayers-subsidize-the-foods-that-are-better-for-us/2014/02/14/d7642a3c-9434-11e3-84e1-27626c5ef5fb_story.html?utm_term=.ca98d35e9b59

11 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/time-to-rethink-corn/

12 http://www.homemoravian.org/~homemora/index.php/ministry/environment/environmental-stewards-blog/what-flexitarian-and-why-would-i-want-be-one/

13 https://cddep.org/sites/default/files/swa_2015_final.pdf

14 http://www.cnbc.com/2014/05/06/state-of-american-farming-big-producers-dominate-food-production.html

15 https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Volume_1,_Chapter_1_US/usv1.pdf