Friday, September 16, 2005

Debating agricultural subsidies and nutrition

I will participate in a lively session (.pdf) on agricultural subsidies Tuesday morning (corrected date: Sept. 20) at the National Press Club in Washington, as part of the annual Food Policy Conference of the Consumer Federation of America. The session will be a Phil Donahue style discussion and debate, perhaps recorded for C-SPAN.

The host is NPR's Dan Charles, author of an interesting book on biotechnology, Lords of the Harvest, as well as a new book I haven't yet read, Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate Who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare.

The other participants include former Congressman Charlie Stenholm (D-TX), the Environmental Working Group's Ken Cook, Bread for the World's David Beckmann*, and somebody from the American Farm Bureau.

I will probably get asked if farm subsidies contribute to poor nutrition and obesity. My answer is that farm subsidies should be seen in the context of agricultural policy more generally. Traditional subsidies help farmers essentially by raising the price they get for their crops. Other programs, like checkoff advertising, help farmers by increasing market demand and having consumers pay the farmers more for their crops.

Some traditional subsidies probably cause some small damage to nutrition, while others probably offer some small benefit for nutrition. In any case, the subsidies provide almost no encouragement for increased production of major categories emphasized in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans -- including fruits and vegetables.

By contrast, federally sponsored commodity promotions on the order of more than $400 million per year undermine the nutrition and healthy weight message of the Dietary Guidelines. Commodity promotion may not be the biggest farm program that affects nutrition, but it represents the clearest case where farm policy shoots nutrition policy in the kneecaps.

*Update 9/20/2005: corrected spelling.

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