The U.S. Spends Hundreds of Billions on Crops That Make Us Unhealthy

A new study finds that high consumption of commodity crops is linked with poor health outcomes.

Late corn being harvested in November 2015 in Whittemore, Iowa. (Photo: Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)

Jul 6, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa, I helped a farmer sell his vegetables at the Iowa City Farmers Market and was paid with a huge bag of produce every week—except during the summer of 2008, when it continued to rain and rain and rain, causing historic flooding across the state. There was less to pull out of the 80 acres Andrew Dunham’s family has farmed outside Grinnell, Iowa, for more than 150 years. The plot, like so many across the Midwest that summer, was inundated, and many of his various crops destroyed.

But while corn and soy farmers had their losses covered by disaster-relief payments and crop insurance supplied through the federal farm bill, farmers like Dunham who grow fruits and vegetables received no federal support. “Specialty crop” farmers, as they’re called by the USDA, are not eligible for the federal subsidy and crop insurance program, which paid out $322 billion between 1995 and 2014, according to the Environmental Working Group.

No one, save for farmers and their representatives in the U.S. Congress, really likes the subsidy program, but it’s been hardwired into the American political and agricultural system in one form or another since the Great Depression. The farm bill, an omnibus piece of legislation passed every five years (or more, recently) that sets budget and direction for ag and nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has helped to shape American farming, food supply, and diets through programs like subsidies.

According to a study published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, more than half the calories Americans consumed between 2001 and 2006 came from subsidized crops like corn, wheat, soy, and rice. While these are admittedly staple crops, which by both definition and nutritional makeup are a major component of diets, the researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the high rates of consumption of subsidized crops are associated with “adverse cardiometabolic risk” among adults.

The study found that adults who ate a higher percentage of calories from subsidized crops, according to self-reported data gathered through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, were more likely to have a body mass index of over 30, higher “bad” cholesterol, and increased levels of c-reactive protein (a sign of overall inflammation in the body), among other signs of poor health.

The study does not suggest that eating corn, rice, or wheat—which humans have relied on for sustenance going back millennia—correlates with poor health. Rather, it’s the type of highly processed foods that today’s subsidized staple crops are made into that are the problem. Eating corn grits or polenta is one thing; consuming large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup is another. “We know that eating too many of these foods can lead to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes,” the CDC’s Karen R. Siegel, the study’s lead author, told Reuters.

The authors conclude, “Better alignment of agricultural and nutritional policies may potentially improve population health.” While that may seem like common sense, there is a huge gap between what Americans eat today­ and what U.S. farms are optimized, partly because of subsidies and other federal programs, to produce.

Farmers like Dunham, my old farmers market boss, aren’t just left in the lurch in times of disaster. Apart from artificially low water prices for California’s farmers, they receive little support or incentives from the federal government—and that shows up in where, how, and how many non-commodity crops are grown in the U.S. Fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops (which includes, in USDA Land, nonfood crops such as Christmas trees) are grown on 14 million acres of American farmland—roughly a third of which are in California—according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Corn alone accounts for 90 million acres of land, and 10 percent of the harvest is used to produce the high-fructose corn syrup that sweetens soda and other sugary beverages.

When you look at this imbalance in our farming system, what Americans eat looks less like an aberration than a reflection. Despite the newfound trendiness of “healthy” food fads ranging from kale to cleanses to more widespread diet changes like the decrease in soda consumption, the USDA found last year that potatoes and tomatoes constituted fully 51 percent of the vegetables Americans consume. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association last month found that just 1.5 percent of Americans eat what the American Heart Association would consider an optimal diet.

Meanwhile, U.S. commodity farmers may get the largest subsidy payout in more than a decade because of falling prices: As much as $13.9 billion of net farm income in 2016 may come from subsidies, according to USDA estimates.