Extremism in defense of tastiness is no vice.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hands off

Recent years have been good to fans of high quality, locally produced food. Across the country, farmers' markets are on the upswing as demand for better ingredients swells among foodies, hippies, yuppies, and health nuts alike. Words like "salsify," "ramps," and "geoduck" are appearing on lips and menus in greater numbers than ever before, and sometimes customers actually know what they mean. I'm relatively sure that even Denny's features an heirloom tomato, organic basil, and fresh mozzarella salad alongside its signature (and oh-so-wittily designated) Moons Over My Hammy®.

It's just too bad that our government actively screws us all for lobbyist support and political capital in the Iowa caucuses.

On Saturday, the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Minnesota farmer Jack Hedin lamenting the policies of the United States Department of Agriculture with regard to small producers. In short, Mr. Hedin discusses how big backers of the Department's commodity farm program forward legislation that seeks to protect agribusiness and so stifles competition from local producers, limiting their production and ultimately passing the costs on to the consumer.

Protectionist policies of this sort help no one except for those who least need it. Take, for instance, our nation's recent infatuation with corn-based ethanol. Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, socialist or neocon, there's nary a voice to be heard that hasn't fallen for her seductive charms. But like Mr. or Ms. Friday Night, she looks a whole lot worse in the light of day after those tequila shots have worn off.

Our government insists that we subsidize an energy "solution" that pays political capital in corn-producing states and among well-meaning environmentalists who haven't done their research, but is ultimately inefficient and wasteful. As some 17% of this subsidized corn goes to ethanol (the USDA anticipates some 31% of US corn will be used for ethanol by 2016), corn prices increase, which in turn increases prices in directly related products, from tortillas to beef. Meanwhile, a relative scarcity of other produce develops as incentives encourage farmers to turn to corn, and that other produce becomes more expensive as well.

As an added insult, we as American taxpayers are spending our own money to subsidize politically vested ethanol corporations to the detriment of small farmers, better environmental solutions, and our own grocery bills. These subsidies are terrible for independent growers, terrible for food lovers, and terrible for consumers--especially Americans of modest means and the poor worldwide, for whom food and gas costs are a much larger part of their budget--but miraculously great for the Agcos, Andersons, and Archer Daniels Midlands of the world. Through our fine, career-minded representatives, we are literally paying these corporations to increase our own food and fuel costs.

Some might argue that this is an acceptable course of action if it means access to a renewable fuel source. And it might be, if these costs weren't unnecessary and idiotic.

There is no shortage of environmentally responsible alternatives. Brazil produces primarily bagasse-based ethanol that has a net energy yield approximately eight times greater than our corn-based "solution." They've been developing their ethanol policy for nearly thirty years, and their product can be imported cheaply--or could be, if we didn't use subsidies and tariffs to protect large-scale sugar and corn producers in this country. Alternatively, wind, solar, and other biomass solutions widely used in Europe work cheaply and consistently, and non-food ethanol sources don't cause artificial increases in food prices or competitive costs for small farmers.

As people who care about what we eat, we share in the responsibility of holding our politicians accountable for these inane and harmful practices.

To think that a few years ago raw milk and foie gras bans were the worst of our food worries. Thanks a lot, Iowa.


matthew said...

As I recall, Otto Van Bismark also commented that laws are like sausages; it's best not to see how they are made.

Though I'm not sure I agree... the recipe for farm subsidies would be much less appealing than a recipe for sausages. Or at least any recipe for sausages that would make it to this blog.

Anonymous said...

As humans, some may find it comforting to think of themselves at the Top Dog of the food chain, belonging to a race that devours the rest of the world revels in its ability to create waste. But if you look at the food we eat (as a country, not as an individual), it ALL comes from corn, and so do we. While corn plays the important role of "filler" for us and our cattle, it provides very little nutritional value, and high fructose corn syrup is probably the least healthy thing (notice I didn't say food) that people eat. Chew on that, top dog.

Brian said...

Hi anonymous,

Given that your comment was in reply to my article, I'm going to presume that your proposal to "chew on that" is directed at me.

Frankly I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to reply, as I don't see what the nutritional value of corn or corn syrup has to do with the efficacy of ethanol or the value of corn subsidies.

In fact, farm subsidies like the ones I've alluded to actively discourage farmers from planting diverse (and often nutritionally superior) crops.