Government Bytes


Farm Subsidies: A Strange Game of “21”

by Pete Sepp / /

The number “21” may be a lucky one when it comes to card games, but not when it comes to a shell game that Washington plays with its agriculture and nutrition policy - and guess who ultimately loses their money when the shells are shuffled?

A new report from U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) has determined that between 1995 and 2011, taxpayers have provided $18.2 billion in subsidies toward the raw material for corn syrups, corn starch, and soy oils (aka hydrogenated vegetable oils) – all additives in a number of processed foods.

Of the whopping $277 billion taxpayers have spent since 1995 on farm loans, crop insurance, and counter-cyclical payments, about $108 billion went to corn and soybean crops. Corn and soy are ingredients in many other kinds of products, including animal feed and federally-backed biofuels. So, using production data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the authors of the analysis were able to determine how much of the $18.2 billion total could be specifically attributed to harvests that later wound up as additives “that provide a cheap dose of sweetness and fat to a wide variety” of what USPIRG calls “junk food products.”

In fact, the report calculates that whopping sum breaks down to $7.58 per taxpayer, per year – or about enough to purchase 21 Twinkies. Love Twinkies or not, 21 is definitely not a winning hand for those who believe in fiscal responsibility. Meanwhile, federal farm policy provides slimmer pickings for produce crops. The largest such recipient of taxpayer largesse between 1995 and 2011 was the apple ($637 million). Using the same methodology as for Twinkies, that sum works out to the equivalent price of less than half a red delicious apple per taxpayer, per year.

Fiscal conservatives may have many opinions about this comparison. Those of us who are already concerned about “Nanny Staters” policing our food choices would certainly not want to hand government another bludgeon with which to smash our dinner plates, and replace them with some bureaucrat’s vision of the “perfect” meal. Nor would we want to see federal policymakers engage in their customary budgetary mathematics of rounding up, e.g., showering more subsidies on produce crops even as they prop up other commodities.

Nonetheless, it is truly bizarre to see a federal government that preaches “healthy eating” practicing a policy that leaves taxpayers to starve no matter what’s being served.  And make no mistake, the price tag for the federal lectures about our eating habits is steep on its own. Five years ago, an Associated Press review of research on 57 separate government nutrition education ventures “found mostly failure” and noted that the feds alone were spending more than $1 billion in 2007 on initiatives such as “fresh carrot and celery snacks, videos of dancing fruit, [and] hundreds of hours of lively lessons about how great you will feel if you eat well.” Replicating AP’s findings today would be difficult, but it’s hard to believe that $1 billion expenditure has gotten smaller – especially since health and fitness has been a major cause under the Obama Administration.

So how do we stop the shell game? One place to begin is the current fight over reauthorizing federal agriculture programs, which my NTU colleagues have written about recently here  and here. USPIRG’s Public Health Advocate Nasima Hossain observed, “The fact that so many tax dollars are being wasted on junk food demonstrates the need to reform federal agricultural subsidies and end this wasteful spending.” Whether you agree with the motivation or not, that “end” is certainly a worthy one – which is why NTU has joined with citizen groups across the political spectrum in opposing Congress’s bipartisan Farm Bill boondoggle now worming its way through the House of Representatives.

Here’s hoping this alliance can stop Congress from saddling Americans with a near-trillion-dollar Farm Bill. As Twinkie-munchers and apple-crunchers alike ought to acknowledge, taxpayers should be free to feed their families, rather than feeding their money to a game they can’t win.