- Julian Alston, agricultural economist, University of Californiaat Davis
for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. He is one of the people who say federal farm policy leads directly toovereating."What we've had is a cheap feed grain policy, or a cheapcalorie policy, and that's been pretty consistent from farm billto farm bill over the last 30-odd years," he says, referring tothe bundle of legislation that includes agricultural subsidies.So the farm bill helps make us fat, right?Maybe not. Let's take a closer look at this whole picture.
Technology Has Made Farmers More Productive
Ken McCauley, a farmer from White Cloud, Kan., says he is indeed growing more corn — but
becauseof subsidies."The expansion that you're hearing about in agriculture today, or for the past several years, is all about themachinery and the easy of work," McCauley says. "Your work is easier because of machinery andtechnology."On McCauley's farm, his son Brad charges back and forth over the land in a self-propelled sprayer. Themachine, which looks like a monster bug – a green tractor on stilts with booms stretching 90 feet likeenormous wings – is trailing a finely calibrated mist of herbicide."It steers itself, shuts itself on and off, so I basically just turn around and make sure everything's runningright," Brad says.The spray kills everything but the corn, because thecorn has been genetically engineered to withstandthe herbicide. And for good measure, the corn hasalso been designed to produce its own insecticide.So now the corn plants grow much closer together than they used to and, weather permitting, producetwice as much grain per acre."Food productivity is more than doubled, so the realcost is less than half what it was 40 to 50 yearsago," says Julian Alston, an agricultural economistat the University of California at Davis. "That's thebig story. And that wasn't caused by subsidies. That was caused by improvements in productivity on thefarm."Farmers are proud of all that productivity, and it has driven crop prices
.But shouldn't farm subsidies themselves make food cheaper? When the government picks up part of thecost of something, shouldn't the price go down?
EnlargeScott Olson/Getty Images
Bill Raben loads a grain truck as he helps to harvest corn onland he farms with his brother Oct. 4, 2008, near Carmi,Illinois. Raben's family has been farming in the area for four generations. Farm subsidies are just one way the governmentcan influence farming – there is a wide array of federalprograms – some programs have the effect of lowering priceswhile others cause an increase.
Is U.S. Farm Policy Feeding The Obesity Epidemic? : NPRhttp://www.npr.org/2011/08/10/139390696/is-u-s-farm-policy-feeding-th...2 of 48/12/2011 1:21 PM