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Amaizing waistlines
October 11, 2003 10:09 AM   Subscribe

You are fat because there is too much corn. [NYT, forfeit of first-born son required] I love good old-fashioned materialism, and Michael Pollan (author of The Botany of Desire) scores one for the team with this article on the economics of corn production. Are we fat because New Deal agricultural policy was overturned in the 70s by Rusty Butz? Now there's a trailing question we can all enjoy.
posted by condour75 (31 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
I had read this piece this morning and my first throught was "why is someone or something else always the cause of a problem rather than ME"? France et al subsidize farmers a good deal but the French are not fat. Could it be that we stuff ourselves and are without restraint in our need to gobble everything instead of taking smaller portions, no matter how big the servings are? After all, the fast food places give more and more at a cost to them because they know we will buy when we can get more and more.
Does the article imply that if we cut subsidies there will no longer be a weight and oresity problem? Atkins never thought of that idea.
posted by Postroad at 10:55 AM on October 11, 2003


I knew those low-carb zealots were just beeding-heart socialists. Starch is what makes America great!
posted by rschram at 10:58 AM on October 11, 2003


Great... just great. And who, may I ask, did we get the corn from? In my opinion, this is just a piece of filthy propoganda aimed at casting yet another dark shadow on our Native American population.
"Fat? Me? Well, I wouldn't be, if it hadn't been for those friggin' injuns."

FREE LEONARD PELTIER!
posted by bradth27 at 11:13 AM on October 11, 2003


I've been trying to eat more Atkinsy, cuz despite other diets, I'm still allegedly 75 pounds overweight in comparison to my height. I thought giving up beef was hard, back when I was on a cholesterol free diet. What's really hard is giving up bread and sweets. If Atkins weren't already dead I'd wanna kill him, making me feel guilty every time I eat creamed corn (16g carbs per mouthful). The bastard. At the moment, after a month of this low carbs shit, I'm eating Duncan Hines' Peaches & Pecan Fruit Crisp. Fuck'm.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:35 AM on October 11, 2003


*wrinkles nose*

you eat creamed corn?
posted by quonsar at 12:07 PM on October 11, 2003


Postroad, do the French subsidies work just as the American and therefore impact production in the same way? Otherwise, apples, oranges, hello. The article even explains that prior to the Nixonian program change, the program generally worked and didn't encourage overproduction and obesity.
posted by billsaysthis at 12:25 PM on October 11, 2003


So if we rase food prices, poor people will starve, but the middle classers won't be so fucking fat?

Rich people arn't fat. The solution isn't more expensive food, but cheaper anti-obesity drugs.
posted by delmoi at 12:31 PM on October 11, 2003


Rich people arn't fat. The solution isn't more expensive food, but cheaper anti-obesity drugs.

What?
posted by jon_kill at 12:53 PM on October 11, 2003


It's not my fault, I'm from Iowa.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 1:26 PM on October 11, 2003


Thanks for the link condour75. Its a good short history of farm subsidies, but a very poor explanation of anything else.

There's less than 2 cents of corn in a $3.00 box of cornflakes. It costs more to move the box from the warehouse to the storeshelf than it does to buy the corn in the box.

Most of the cost of "Big Food" products are generated by processing, shipping, warehousing, refrigeration, and the like, not producer prices. Since these costs have gone down over time much more than the producer price of corn, the 'blame' for cheap food should go to things like improvements in the trucking industry and better warehouse management, not farm subsidies.
posted by Jos Bleau at 1:44 PM on October 11, 2003


Delmoi:

Speaking as someone who has known a great number of fat rich people... You're talking out of your ass.
posted by Veritron at 1:57 PM on October 11, 2003


Okay, delmoi seems unclear on this thing. Let me break it down:

Federal subsidies (the way they are currently distributed) pay farmers to raise as much cheap grain as possible. This has gotten the Americans and Europeans in trouble with the WTO, who a) consider this dumping b) point out that American markets are not open to many agricultural products from foriegn nations, partcularly the poor ones whose largest industry is growing food.

This causes farmers to grow even more food in a perverse attempt to "stay even." So prices are continually driven down. Companies like Cargill make lots of money selling things to farmers to increase the amount of food they can grow, no matter that the land can realistically only support so much agriculture. The other result is that the family farmer has been pushed out of business by continually lower commodity prices and a technological arms race.

Food Processing Companies like Cargill are more than happy to take this excess supply at rock bottom prices! After all, the subsidies mean the farmer does not actually have to make a profit on the sale of the grain. They then turn this food we don't need into tasty highly processed food we don't need. Had you noticed that over the years plain old fashioned sugar has been mostly replaced by corn syrup and "high fructose" corn syrup? And that it shows up in such weird places as turkey lunchmeat and premade spaghetti sauce?

Marketing wizardry convinces us that we need this processed food, and how fortunate we are that the package is so large. Never mind that the package of snacky cakes, chips, soda, or whathaveyou that will surely be eaten in one sitting is something like 2 or 5 servings. Those rich people that aren't fat? They aren't buying Kraft Dinner. They are buying organic this and naturally sweetened that. They aren't supersizing their fast food meals, they are having a balanced meal on a china plate and eating it with metal flatware. "Fries" are to "vegetables" as "pork rinds" are to "meat." Stop me if I am going too fast, as I realize analogies have been taken off the SAT.

Consumers get fat eating their fair share of the food surplus. This provides opportunities for business to make money off obesity. In fact, the article doesn't take this last step. Maybe it should.
posted by ilsa at 2:08 PM on October 11, 2003


Seems today is get-off-your-fat-American-ass day at the Times: Fight Against Fat Shifts to the Workplace (10/11).
posted by rschram at 3:11 PM on October 11, 2003


There was a great article about this very subject in the Believer Magazine this month. unfortunately they don't seem to put any of their content online (which may be best considering how fast we'd have believerFilter.)

The thrust of the Believer article was that the US overproduction of corn was also leading to the US policy of force over diplomacy. By producing an abundance of cheap corn a number of things have been accomplished. 1) The conglomeration of food production resources into a few very large corporations. The current structure of American farming has decimated the family farms that once feed our nation. Butz did more then stabilize food prices, he fought to destroy the small farmer in favor of agribusiness. 2) The cheap corn insured American control of third world economies by making farming unviable above the subsistence level. A farmer in South America cannot put grain on the market that will compare in price to American grain. Third world countries can't subsidize their farmers either, the IMF and other global financial interests do everything they can to prevent such actions. In the end it is easier to buy American grain then to grow it, so America retains power.

Really, the American government should change it farm policies. And I just love how the politicians spin farm subsidies as helping the American farmer. There is no American farmer anymore - there's only Monsanto, AMD etc.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:40 PM on October 11, 2003


This is a worthy article to note, even though we discussed it already (when the NYT, double-posting in its own way, published basically the same article 15 months ago, by the same guy). Whose famous book, by the way, is quite good.
posted by LeLiLo at 3:58 PM on October 11, 2003


I just had some Twinkie tempura, and it was damn tasty.
posted by majcher at 4:38 PM on October 11, 2003


Mentioned by lelilo as having been discussed before, here you may find the full text of Pollan's old NYTimes op-ed all about corn.
posted by beth at 5:29 PM on October 11, 2003


Actually, I eat cans of drained sweet corn mixed in with vanilla bean ice cream, but I just call it creamed corn.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:32 PM on October 11, 2003


well, obviously we would not be fat if lots of people had access to anti-obesity drugs, and I havn't seen anyone refute that.

I'm against farm subsidies, they're stupid. But I don't see why you have this love for independant farmers, it's not like the stuff they make is any diffrent then the stuff made by large corporations. (for the most part).

anyway, I actualy live in Iowa, and there are plenty of independant farmers around here. But what's the point?
posted by delmoi at 7:23 PM on October 11, 2003


Too much corn... and too much soy.
posted by stbalbach at 7:27 PM on October 11, 2003


delmoi: There are plenty of independents in Nebraska, too (my SO's cousin owns about 2000 acres that she farms with her husband). I don't know about all subsidies, but I know the government pays to keep about 500 acres of her land unfarmed because it's natural grasslands. I've got no problem with that since they're disappearing rapidly from this country.

As for the anti-obesity drugs... well, maybe if we exercised more we might actually burn off those 2000 USRDA recommended daily calories. It's no surprise that city-dwellers tend to be less obese than their country counterparts: better mass transit and terrible traffic mean more walking.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:43 PM on October 11, 2003


it's not like the stuff they make is any different then the stuff made by large corporations. (for the most part).
wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

I buy locally-grown produce whenever possible because, while in some sense it shares many characteristics with the industrial farming food item available at Kroger/Marsh/Etc, the taste of the local produce is incredibly different. The stuff I eat has not been sitting on trucks and in warehouses for weeks before making it to the store shelf. There is no comparison.

I actually live in Iowa, and there are plenty of independent farmers around here
I would suggest you go talk to some of these independent farmers and see how they are doing. There is nothing peachy about the family farm situation in the US. My in-laws in eastern Nebraska are being forced into selling the family homestead to pay off accumulated debt. They are the lucky ones in the area. Their primary income source was breed-stock, SPF Hampshires which subsidized their operations for nearly two decades after grain prices plummeted. They have capital assets to cover their losses. Of course this capital is also their family heritage. No lucky LLC/penalty-free bankruptcy options here.

But what's the point?
Coming to the advantages of family farms then.
1. They provide the financial foundation of rural areas Any correlation between the collapse of ag-product prices and the wholesale evacuation of rural towns? You betcha.
2. They provide meaningful work to a larger number of people. Industrial farming = mechanization of the equipment AND the people.
3. I'm not sure you can put a dollar valuation on it, but there is a widely held cultural belief that family farms have a much higher aesthetic value than corporate operations. I definitely feel this way.
4. Somewhat related to #3, the family farmer has proven to be a better custodian of the land/soil. Factors include smaller-footprint machinery, better suited to conservation or no-till methods, less environmental waste, lighter use of pest/herbicides, more humane treatment of livestock, ....

It's late and I'm late, so I'll stop at this point.
posted by Fezboy! at 9:49 PM on October 11, 2003


it's not like the stuff they make is any different then the stuff made by large corporations. (for the most part).
wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

I buy locally-grown produce


But for the most part, farming isn't produce. For the most part, farming is wheat and feed-corn and other staples. Is the wheat grown by small farmers tastier than that from large farms?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:34 PM on October 11, 2003


There is nothing peachy about the family farm situation in the US. My in-laws in eastern Nebraska are being forced into selling the family homestead to pay off accumulated debt.

My beef with farm subsidies is that they subsidize people who were born rich, or their descendants. If you inherit your family farm of a couple thousand acres in the great plains, you're inheriting fabulous wealth -- an asset the value of which the vast majority of people will never, ever, ever see.

If you inherit $1M or so (or even half that), in land or in cash, and the best you can do with it is turn it into negative net worth, I don't see why the state should bail you out. Or bail out your descendants.

Coming to the advantages of family farms then.
1. They provide the financial foundation of rural areas Any correlation between the collapse of ag-product prices and the wholesale evacuation of rural towns? You betcha.


But if a farming area and its town or two get abandoned back to nature, that's a good thing. Better to lose 50,000 acres of cornfield and a small town and in the process gain 50,000 acres of reforming grassland. Or, as actually happened to some extent in New England, for farmland to be abandoned back to forest.

2. They provide meaningful work to a larger number of people. Industrial farming = mechanization of the equipment AND the people.

Which is to say that family farms are less efficient, and expend more human life and effort to produce the same product.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:50 PM on October 11, 2003


There are reasons to dislike the mass corporatization of farmland, unfortunately none of them are the reasons Fezboy gave. The single biggest reason I can see to patronize local growers has nothing to do with preserving their way of life. It has to do with the shit they put (or rather, don't put) in their soil and animals. Also, when you reduce the number of people growing, you prevent market competition from occuring. Right now, that isn't exactly hurting us, since the big guys simply dump their larger quantities at lower prices to freeze out the small operators, then buy up their land. But in many industries that are alreadly almost completely dominated by a few producers (the cattle and pork industry, in particular) there have been incidents of price-gouging that lead me to think bad times are around the corner.

The thing is, while some private farms are surviving by marketing themselves as "natural" growers (i.e., no growth hormones, no toxic pesticides, etc.), the great majority of them follow the same practices of their larger counterparts. If there's no qualitative benefit to the product they generate, (and the larger producers get stricter regulations and quality control), I see nothing wrong with the "way of the farmer" slowly being replaced by mass corporations. We're evolving past our gatherer stage of human development; it's sad to see a way of life disappear, but I don't see too many tears being shed for the printers' guilds.

Also, Fezboy, where do your in-laws live? Anywhere near Waverly?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:47 AM on October 12, 2003


I say any special treatment of small farmers is completely emotional and no more justified than protectionism for textile factory workers. Or tech workers such as myself, for that matter. Emotional or perhaps lingering political influence, since larger corporate farmers seem to be good at using family/small farms as a PR Potemkin.
posted by billsaysthis at 12:07 PM on October 12, 2003


Typical NYT communist manifesto stuff. People are fat because food is cheap. Therefore we must make food more expensive. Uncle Joe Stalin must be smiling.
posted by paleocon at 4:43 PM on October 12, 2003


paleocon: I'm not sure you have read the article closely, or its predecessor. Corn is made artificially cheap, with government subsidies that drive the price down below actual production costs. This makes it extremely attractive to food-processing companies, who then want to make it an ingredient for everything it can, including as a sweetener and as feed for meat production. It's a terrible distortion of the free market that perpetuates massive inefficiency (not to mention an overabundance of meat and high-fructose corn syrup) - what exactly is so "communist" about opposing a wasteful and counterproductive government subsidy?

Granted, the author rejects a totally laissez-faire system in favor of a return to an earlier price-support system that relied on voluntary loans and grain reserves, did not completely distort market incentives, and often paid for itself (according to Pollan's article). But posting in favor of the direct government-subsidy status quo and calling its opponents communists and Stalinists is not only knee-jerk, but frankly ridiculous.

I think Fezboy is right on the money regarding the situation of small, independent farms in America, and the importance of their survival. Small farms are always struggling between paying back yearly loans for capital spending (on seed, equipment, fuel, etc.) and getting a decent price on their uncertain yield three to six months later. This was a constant battle for dairy farmers in St. Lawrence County (where I'm from), and it often led them to do things (like use BGH on their cows) that they knew were bad for them in the long run (both in terms of market prices and the health of their cows in that case), but that they felt they had to do in the short run to survive right now.

Big corporate agricultural firms have massive capital reserves and product diversification to ride out the rough years; small farmers simply do not have that luxury. It seems to me that a system to smooth out the inevitable ups and downs of agricultural markets would be of substantially greater benefit to small farmers than the current policy of simply holding the prices down all the time. Am I wrong?
posted by skoosh at 5:56 PM on October 12, 2003


The most interesting bit I heard was about how, the last time corn was so oversupplied, consumption also spiked—in the form of shockingly widespread overindulgence in corn whiskey.
posted by Zurishaddai at 8:22 PM on October 12, 2003


So, when the government controls the prices of food, that's communism. And when someone suggests getting rid of these subsidies, that's also communism. Paleocon, I really think you need a civics lesson.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:58 AM on October 13, 2003


well, obviously we would not be fat if lots of people had access to anti-obesity drugs, and I havn't seen anyone refute that.
...except for the fact that there aren't any safe and effective anti-obesity drugs currently available. What anti-obesity drugs did you mean, exactly?
posted by palegirl at 5:57 PM on October 13, 2003


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