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Old 10-15-2003, 06:34 AM   #1 (permalink)
Location: South Africa
Agricultural subsidies

After the failure of the first world to come to the party at the last WTO summit and continuing poverty in the 3rd world, how do you view agricultural subsidies?
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Old 10-15-2003, 07:28 AM   #2 (permalink)
I am not for subsidies, agricultural or otherwise. I am also against the government forcing the people, by law, to purchase certain goods or services.
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Old 10-15-2003, 07:28 AM   #3 (permalink)
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I'm not qualified to answer this question for any country other than our own and may not be qualified to answer for it either but my understanding of why there are agricultural subsidies is to protect American farmers from unfair foreign competition. On the surface this probably tends to cause increased prices for subsidized product. It is my belief that nations who produce a surplus beyond what there is a legitimate export market should make that surplus available to relief programs for areas in which it is needed. I beleive that the US normally does this through loans with strings attached (ie the money must be used to purchase US agricultural products) In an ideal world we would just give away the product to those who needed it but this would not protect us from nations which subsidize their agriculture and then dump the product on world markets for less that its actual cost.
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Old 10-15-2003, 09:13 AM   #4 (permalink)
Interesting, I was just planning to start my own thread on this...

Originally posted by Liquor Dealer
I'm not qualified to answer this question for any country other than our own and may not be qualified to answer for it either but my understanding of why there are agricultural subsidies is to protect American farmers from unfair foreign competition.
I believe that the subsidies for American farmers is causing grossly unfair foreign competition for third-world farmers. There is no way that these farmers can compete and earn a fair living against the size of the subsidies that American farmers receive.

Lets see the results of these subsidies. It's lead to a huge grain surplus in the United States. Waaaay too much corn and grains to feed the american people. Waay too much even to feed cattle to feed to american people. ( by the way, the energy efficiency in the conversion from corn to beef is extraordinarily inefficient.... ). So much so that states have come up with subsidies for industries that USE corn as some sort of feedstock, such as ethanol production, or the very related industry of corn-syrup production. ( you make corn-syrup, then you make ethanol from the sugary liquid.... )

Too much beef, too much corn-syrup ( which goes into soft drinks... ).... manufacturers need to sell their products... witness super-sizing of fast-food portions and the subsequent supersizing of Americans.........

Many economies in the third world are heavily dependent on agriculture, and a good part of these have imploded, partly due to their own poor economic policies ,and partly due to the cheap flood of American grain in the marketplace... The governments should probably do more to lessen their dependence on primary products, and further their economy, but its hard to do if your people are starving because your farmers are being run out of business and cannot earn a living wage......

It is in America's interests to raise the wealth of the rest of the world. It's definitely not a zero-sum game here, and poverty breeds despair and desperation. hmmm.. i wonder what that leads to....

Its criminal that the world currently produces more than enough grain to feed its population, but millions of people are starving at the same time. Grain is burnt, contaminated, to keep prices up, or used to feed cattle, instead of feeding the starving millions.
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Old 10-15-2003, 09:16 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Originally posted by dimbulb
Its criminal that the world currently produces more than enough grain to feed its population, but millions of people are starving at the same time. Grain is burnt, contaminated, to keep prices up, or used to feed cattle, instead of feeding the starving millions.
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Old 10-15-2003, 09:35 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Originally posted by Bill O'Rights
I second that. Go dimbulb! (Not so dim at all. How 'bout some truth in advertising, dude? )
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Old 10-15-2003, 09:58 AM   #7 (permalink)
Location: St. Paul, MN
Right on... that is the reason i get so bitchy when people at school start talking about food waste. People are not starving because i don't finish all of the green beans on my plate. People are starving because of the economic structures that dictate how those crops got grown, paid for, and distributed. trying to hold up the well being of farmers (i say this with irony because few family farmers would say the subsidies actually provide well being) as the reason we jack up prices on food is just evil.

The 3rd world needs to get its act together on GM foods though...that's the other part of the equation in my mind. they're worried about it contaminating their food...but the science is not really that new. Extensive cross breeding and selection isn't really that different from outright genetic modifcation. and if its going to feed more mouths, screw the prejuidices and fears....
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Old 10-15-2003, 10:30 AM   #8 (permalink)
Originally posted by dimbulb

Its criminal that the world currently produces more than enough grain to feed its population, but millions of people are starving at the same time. Grain is burnt, contaminated, to keep prices up, or used to feed cattle, instead of feeding the starving millions.
Every day 24000 people die from starvation in the world, it's criminal beyond everything.
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Old 10-15-2003, 11:01 AM   #9 (permalink)
Originally posted by chavos
trying to hold up the well being of farmers (i say this with irony because few family farmers would say the subsidies actually provide well being) as the reason we jack up prices on food is just evil.
its ironic that most farming in the US is done by huge conglomerates. Even if the farm is family owned, they are being squeezed, and squeezed hard by these huge farming corporations. I say this without doing much research into this, but I think that very few people actually benefit from all of these subsidies. More like corporations.
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Old 10-15-2003, 11:12 AM   #10 (permalink)
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Originally posted by chavos
The 3rd world needs to get its act together on GM foods though...that's the other part of the equation in my mind. they're worried about it contaminating their food...but the science is not really that new. Extensive cross breeding and selection isn't really that different from outright genetic modifcation. and if its going to feed more mouths, screw the prejuidices and fears....
I think the other reason they're worried about GM foods is because they're concerned about the dependence that might develop. Although Monsanto agreed not to sell their "one-shot" seeds (seeds that develop into sterile plants that you can't use to re-seed next year's crops, so you have to buy from Monsanto every year) this kind of thinking betrays the predatory relationship that could develop. There are also some pretty legitimate concerns about testing the GM seeds, particularly those with built-in herbicide and insecticide properties, in the field where they're going to be used to make sure that they don't cross-pollinate with any of the local plants that could then take over the crops. It's not just a question of "is the food safe" but also about how this is going to affect sustainable agricultural practices in the future. Otherwise, I agree with you - a lot of GM foods could be used to alleviate a lot of unnecessary hunger in the 3rd world.

However, until you make it profitable for farmers in these countries to grow their own food domestically - and not have to compete against artificially lowered prices offered by subsidized U.S. and European imports - there's no real incentive to farm locally, let alone develop export agriculture. GM, or no.
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Old 10-15-2003, 01:12 PM   #11 (permalink)
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The 3rd world needs to get its act together on GM foods though...that's the other part of the equation in my mind. they're worried about it contaminating their food...but the science is not really that new.
Actually almost all of Europe does not want GM foods either. Recently a Government survey in the UK found over 90% of people did not want GM foods. No-one trusts American big business - especially when it comes to something as important as food. Also most Europeans are worried that GM foods will mess up the environment. But back to the subject the agricultural subsidies both the Americans & Europeans receive are totally unfair. They mess up the economy of the developing world countries.
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Old 10-15-2003, 05:44 PM   #12 (permalink)
Location: Wellington, New Zealand
One of the better summaries on the insanity of first-world, specifically US, farming subsidies, is PJ O'Rourke's excellent chapter "Moscow on the Missisippi" in "Parliament of Whores."

Summary: Bad for people in the US. Bad for US relationships with allies like Australia. Bad for the third world. Only good for the Department of Agriculture and food conglomerates.

Pity is Clinton ditched many subsidies (although retained tarrif barriers, the other part of the problem), but one of Bush's first actions on being elected was to roll them back in.
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Old 10-15-2003, 05:47 PM   #13 (permalink)
Location: Sydney, Australia
Originally posted by lurkette
Although Monsanto agreed not to sell their "one-shot" seeds (seeds that develop into sterile plants that you can't use to re-seed next year's crops, so you have to buy from Monsanto every year) this kind of thinking betrays the predatory relationship that could develop.
Not wanting to threadjack too much but the most terrifying thing is that these patented crops have the potential to contaminate natural crops. There was a court case a while back in which a GM food company was demanding royalties from a farmer whose crops have been contaminated by theirs.

I picture a world in which genetically dominant GM crops aggressively take over leading to monocultures. Unforeseen blight sets in, decimating these monocultures through lack of genetic diversity. Meanwhile, as Rome burns, the GM Nero plays his fiddle - demanding a pound of flesh for his "intellectual property". I've always feared GM food most as a legal issue. Imagine the argument over Aids drugs' patents multiplied by 1000. Imagine 1000 different distros of rice being muscled out of the "market" by one Microsoft Rice with it's horrifying "security holes".

As for these massive corporate subsidies; just a part of the mindbending hypocrisy of the so-called "global free market".
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Old 10-17-2003, 02:59 AM   #14 (permalink)
Location: South Africa
Cool, this thread mentioned many of the things I had in mind.

One other thing is that the Bushites etc Have to keep giving subsudies as the farming lobby is pretty powerful and does not want the status quo to change.
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Old 10-19-2003, 12:22 PM   #15 (permalink)
Much of the subsidies for corn comes from ethanol production mandates. I believe that it is less efficient to hire famers, use fertilizer, drive huge diesel using tractors, use millions of gallons of water, all to turn corn into alcohol fuel. I think it is a lot easier to pump oil out of the ground. Also, because of the economies of scale of faming, it is generally the huge conglamerates that tend to benefit from subsidies. If we had a subsidy-free farming system and huge farms developed, then I would be ok with it. As it is now, I am a little squeamish about all of our food supply being produced by a few companies.
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Old 10-19-2003, 01:13 PM   #16 (permalink)
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First off, as bad as it sounds, our farmers and our economy are more important than those of random third-world nations. Sorry.

Secondly, until the rest of the world follows suit (and they won't), getting rid of our subsidies will not help the third-world nations at all. There will always be someone who will sell cheaper, and anyone with a budget will buy from them.
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Old 10-19-2003, 01:30 PM   #17 (permalink)
Originally posted by seretogis
First off, as bad as it sounds, our farmers and our economy are more important than those of random third-world nations. Sorry.

Secondly, until the rest of the world follows suit (and they won't), getting rid of our subsidies will not help the third-world nations at all. There will always be someone who will sell cheaper, and anyone with a budget will buy from them.
That is the whole problem, isn't it. The "Not My Fault" excuse...
The "farmers" that you refer to, as mentioned by myself, and several other posters, are actually large conglomerates. We don't give subsidies to Intel or Microsoft, and we shouldn't give any to the farmers.

Secondly, its not a zero-sum game. If the third world benefits, the economy of your country will benefit as a result. Protectionism is NOT going to help your economy... I'm very sorry to break this news to you...

Originally posted by pocon1
Much of the subsidies for corn comes from ethanol production mandates. .
For my final project for my undergraduate Chemical Engineering class, I designed an plant producing Ethanol from corn. I also did an economic analysis on the plant. Without tax subsidies, there is NO WAY an ethanol plant would be economically viable. Some think that ethanol fuel is environmentally friendly. Problably, if you only consider the effects of burning ethanol, or using ethanol as a fuel additive to reduce vehicle emissions during winter. If you take into account the whole process, including the costs of producing ethanol, you find that ethanol as a fuel source ( from corn... which is where most of the ethanol comes from... ) is horribly inefficient. I believe that someone did a study-- Even if the entire US was converted to a giant corn-field, we would not produce enough energy to be self-sufficient...
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Old 10-19-2003, 01:53 PM   #18 (permalink)
We don't give subsidies to Intel or Microsoft, and we shouldn't give any to the farmers.
Actually, I think these and many more companies do get subsidized with corporate research tax writeoffs and I believe the Govt. doles out money to companies for research, as well. So if Microsoft or somebody argues that their software gives greater connectivity on the Net, they will get grants. Just like the drug companies get huge research grants, so all of their claims about the high costs of research are tainted by the fact that they get grants.
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Old 10-20-2003, 12:19 AM   #19 (permalink)
Location: South Africa
Originally posted by seretogis

Secondly, until the rest of the world follows suit (and they won't), getting rid of our subsidies will not help the third-world nations at all. There will always be someone who will sell cheaper, and anyone with a budget will buy from them.

The thing is that for 3rd world countries agriculture is a primary economic activity, they don't really have alternatives, whereas the US has tech stuff and industry and finance etc.

Do you get the picture? Its a matter of survival vs greed, basically.
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Old 10-20-2003, 03:42 PM   #20 (permalink)
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The following (very) long article in a-week-ago-Sunday's NY Times explains how U.S. subsidy policy creates a glut of agricultural goods for export -- but doesn't really have to. It also tries to show how the glut-causing subsidy structure of the last 30 years -- and the resulting low prices -- have contributed to America's obesity epidemic.

New York Times

October 12, 2003
The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions of Obesity

ometimes even complicated social problems turn out to be simpler than they look. Take America's ''obesity epidemic,'' arguably the most serious public-health problem facing the country. Three of every five Americans are now overweight, and some researchers predict that today's children will be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The culprit, they say, is the health problems associated with obesity.

You hear several explanations. Big food companies are pushing supersize portions of unhealthful foods on us and our children. We have devolved into a torpid nation of couch potatoes. The family dinner has succumbed to the fast-food outlet. All these explanations are true, as far as they go. But it pays to go a little further, to look for the cause behind the causes. Which, very simply, is this: when food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat. Since 1977, an American's average daily intake of calories has jumped by more than 10 percent. Those 200 or so extra calories have to go somewhere. But the interesting question is, Where, exactly, did all those extra calories come from in the first place? And the answer takes us back to the source of all calories: the farm.

It turns out that we have been here before, sort of, though the last great American binge involved not food, but alcohol. It came during the first decades of the 19th century, when Americans suddenly began drinking more than they ever had before or have since, going on a collective bender that confronted the young republic with its first major public-health crisis -- the obesity epidemic of its day. Corn whiskey, suddenly superabundant and cheap, was the drink of choice, and in the 1820's the typical American man was putting away half a pint of the stuff every day. That works out to more than five gallons of spirits a year for every American. The figure today is less than a gallon.

As W.J. Rorabaugh tells the story in ''The Alcoholic Republic,'' we drank the hard stuff at breakfast, lunch and dinner, before work and after and very often during. Employers were expected to supply spirits over the course of the workday; in fact, the modern coffee break began as a late-morning whiskey break called ''the elevenses.'' (Just to pronounce it makes you sound tipsy.) Except for a brief respite Sunday mornings in church, Americans simply did not gather -- whether for a barn raising or quilting bee, corn husking or political campaign -- without passing the jug. Visitors from Europe -- hardly models of sobriety themselves -- marveled at the free flow of American spirits. ''Come on then, if you love toping,'' the journalist William Cobbett wrote his fellow Englishmen in a dispatch from America. ''For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.''

The results of all this toping were entirely predictable: a rising tide of public drunkenness, violence and family abandonment and a spike in alcohol-related diseases. Several of the founding fathers -- including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams -- denounced the excesses of the ''alcoholic republic,'' inaugurating the American quarrel over drinking that would culminate a century later in Prohibition.

But the outcome of our national drinking binge is not nearly as relevant to our present predicament as its underlying cause. Which, put simply, was this: American farmers were producing way too much corn, especially in the newly settled areas west of the Appalachians, where fertile soil yielded one bumper crop after another. Much as it has today, the astounding productivity of American farmers proved to be their own worst enemy, as well as a threat to the public health. For when yields rise, the market is flooded with grain, and its price collapses. As a result, there is a surfeit of cheap calories that clever marketers sooner or later will figure out a way to induce us to consume.

In those days, the easiest thing to do with all that grain was to distill it. The Appalachian range made it difficult and expensive to transport surplus corn from the lightly settled Ohio River Valley to the more populous markets of the East, so farmers turned their corn into whiskey -- a more compact and portable ''value-added commodity.'' In time, the price of whiskey plummeted, to the point that people could afford to drink it by the pint, which is precisely what they did.

Nowadays, for somewhat different reasons, corn (along with most other agricultural commodities) is again abundant and cheap, and once again the easiest thing to do with the surplus is to turn it into more compact and portable value-added commodities: corn sweeteners, cornfed meat and chicken and highly processed foods of every description. The Alcoholic Republic has given way to the Republic of Fat, but in both cases, before the clever marketing, before the change in lifestyle, stands a veritable mountain of cheap grain. Until we somehow deal with this surfeit of calories coming off the farm, it is unlikely that even the most well-intentioned food companies or public-health campaigns will have much success changing the way we eat.

The underlying problem is agricultural overproduction, and that problem (while it understandably never receives quite as much attention as underproduction) is almost as old as agriculture itself. Even in the Old Testament, there's talk about how to deal not only with the lean times but also with the fat: the Bible advises creation of a grain reserve to smooth out the swings of the market in food. The nature of farming has always made it difficult to synchronize supply and demand. For one thing, there are the vagaries of nature: farmers may decide how many acres they will plant, but precisely how much food they produce in any year is beyond their control.

The rules of classical economics just don't seem to operate very well on the farm. When prices fall, for example, it would make sense for farmers to cut back on production, shrinking the supply of food to drive up its price. But in reality, farmers do precisely the opposite, planting and harvesting more food to keep their total income from falling, a practice that of course depresses prices even further. What's rational for the individual farmer is disastrous for farmers as a group. Add to this logic the constant stream of improvements in agricultural technology (mechanization, hybrid seed, agrochemicals and now genetically modified crops -- innovations all eagerly seized on by farmers hoping to stay one step ahead of falling prices by boosting yield), and you have a sure-fire recipe for overproduction -- another word for way too much food.

All this would be bad enough if the government weren't doing its best to make matters even worse, by recklessly encouraging farmers to produce even more unneeded food. Absurdly, while one hand of the federal government is campaigning against the epidemic of obesity, the other hand is actually subsidizing it, by writing farmers a check for every bushel of corn they can grow. We have been hearing a lot lately about how our agricultural policy is undermining our foreign-policy goals, forcing third-world farmers to compete against a flood tide of cheap American grain. Well, those same policies are also undermining our public-health goals by loosing a tide of cheap calories at home.

hile it is true that our farm policies are making a bad situation worse, adding mightily to the great mountain of grain, this hasn't always been the case with government support of farmers, and needn't be the case even now. For not all support programs are created equal, a fact that has been conveniently overlooked in the new free-market campaign to eliminate them.

In fact, farm programs in America were originally created as a way to shrink the great mountain of grain, and for many years they helped to do just that. The Roosevelt administration established the nation's first program of farm support during the Depression, though not, as many people seem to think, to feed a hungry nation. Then, as now, the problem was too much food, not too little; New Deal farm policy was designed to help farmers reeling from a farm depression caused by what usually causes a farm depression: collapsing prices due to overproduction. In Churdan, Iowa, recently, a corn farmer named George Naylor told me about the winter day in 1933 his father brought a load of corn to the grain elevator, where ''the price had been 10 cents a bushel the day before,'' and was told that suddenly, ''the elevator wasn't buying at any price.'' The price of corn had fallen to zero.

New Deal farm policy, quite unlike our own, set out to solve the problem of overproduction. It established a system of price supports, backed by a grain reserve, that worked to keep surplus grain off the market, thereby breaking the vicious cycle in which farmers have to produce more every year to stay even.

It is worth recalling how this system worked, since it suggests one possible path out of the current subsidy morass. Basically, the federal government set and supported a target price (based on the actual cost of production) for storable commodities like corn. When the market price dropped below the target, a farmer was given an option: rather than sell his harvest at the low price, he could take out what was called a ''nonrecourse loan,'' using his corn as collateral, for the full value of his crop. The farmer then stored his corn until the market improved, at which point he sold it and used the proceeds to repay the loan. If the market failed to improve that year, the farmer could discharge his debt simply by handing his corn over to the government, which would add it to something called, rather quaintly, the ''ever-normal granary.'' This was a grain reserve managed by the U.S.D.A., which would sell from it whenever prices spiked (during a bad harvest, say), thereby smoothing out the vicissitudes of the market and keeping the cost of food more or less steady -- or ''ever normal.''

This wasn't a perfect system by any means, but it did keep cheap grain from flooding the market and by doing so supported the prices farmers received. And it did this at a remarkably small cost to the government, since most of the loans were repaid. Even when they weren't, and the government was left holding the bag (i.e., all those bushels of collateral grain), the U.S.D.A. was eventually able to unload it, and often did so at a profit. The program actually made money in good years. Compare that with the current subsidy regime, which costs American taxpayers about $19 billion a year and does virtually nothing to control production.

So why did we ever abandon this comparatively sane sort of farm policy? Politics, in a word. The shift from an agricultural-support system designed to discourage overproduction to one that encourages it dates to the early 1970's -- to the last time food prices in America climbed high enough to generate significant political heat. That happened after news of Nixon's 1972 grain deal with the Soviet Union broke, a disclosure that coincided with a spell of bad weather in the farm belt. Commodity prices soared, and before long so did supermarket prices for meat, milk, bread and other staple foods tied to the cost of grain. Angry consumers took to the streets to protest food prices and staged a nationwide meat boycott to protest the high cost of hamburger, that American birthright. Recognizing the political peril, Nixon ordered his secretary of agriculture, Earl (Rusty) Butz, to do whatever was necessary to drive down the price of food.

Butz implored America's farmers to plant their fields ''fence row to fence row'' and set about dismantling 40 years of farm policy designed to prevent overproduction. He shuttered the ever-normal granary, dropped the target price for grain and inaugurated a new subsidy system, which eventually replaced nonrecourse loans with direct payments to farmers. The distinction may sound technical, but in effect it was revolutionary. For instead of lending farmers money so they could keep their grain off the market, the government offered to simply cut them a check, freeing them to dump their harvests on the market no matter what the price.

The new system achieved exactly what it was intended to: the price of food hasn't been a political problem for the government since the Nixon era. Commodity prices have steadily declined, and in the perverse logic of agricultural economics, production has increased, as farmers struggle to stay solvent. As you can imagine, the shift from supporting agricultural prices to subsidizing much lower prices has been a boon to agribusiness companies because it slashes the cost of their raw materials. That's why Big Food, working with the farm-state Congressional delegations it lavishly supports, consistently lobbies to maintain a farm policy geared to high production and cheap grain. (It doesn't hurt that those lightly populated farm states exert a disproportionate influence in Washington, since it takes far fewer votes to elect a senator in Kansas than in California. That means agribusiness can presumably ''buy'' a senator from one of these underpopulated states for a fraction of what a big-state senator costs.)

But as we're beginning to recognize, our cheap-food farm policy comes at a high price: first there's the $19 billion a year the government pays to keep the whole system afloat; then there's the economic misery that the dumping of cheap American grain inflicts on farmers in the developing world; and finally there's the obesity epidemic at home -- which most researchers date to the mid-70's, just when we switched to a farm policy consecrated to the overproduction of grain. Since that time, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day; each of us is, heroically, managing to pack away about 200 of those extra calories per day. Presumably the other 300 -- most of them in the form of surplus corn -- get dumped on overseas markets or turned into ethanol.

Cheap corn, the dubious legacy of Earl Butz, is truly the building block of the ''fast-food nation.'' Cheap corn, transformed into high-fructose corn syrup, is what allowed Coca-Cola to move from the svelte 8-ounce bottle of soda ubiquitous in the 70's to the chubby 20-ounce bottle of today. Cheap corn, transformed into cheap beef, is what allowed McDonald's to supersize its burgers and still sell many of them for no more than a dollar. Cheap corn gave us a whole raft of new highly processed foods, including the world-beating chicken nugget, which, if you study its ingredients, you discover is really a most ingenious transubstantiation of corn, from the cornfed chicken it contains to the bulking and binding agents that hold it together.

You would have thought that lower commodity prices would represent a boon to consumers, but it doesn't work out that way, not unless you believe a 32-ounce Big Gulp is a great deal. When the raw materials for food become so abundant and cheap, the clever strategy for a food company is not necessarily to lower prices -- to do that would only lower its revenues. It makes much more sense to compete for the consumer's dollar by increasing portion sizes -- and as Greg Critser points out in his recent book ''Fat Land,'' the bigger the portion, the more food people will eat. So McDonald's tempts us by taking a 600-calorie meal and jacking it up to 1,550 calories. Compared with that of the marketing, packaging and labor, the cost of the added ingredients is trivial.

Such cheap raw materials also argue for devising more and more highly processed food, because the real money will never be in selling cheap corn (or soybeans or rice) but in ''adding value'' to that commodity. Which is one reason that in the years since the nation moved to a cheap-food farm policy, the number and variety of new snack foods in the supermarket have ballooned. The game is in figuring out how to transform a penny's worth of corn and additives into a $3 bag of ginkgo biloba-fortified brain-function-enhancing puffs, or a dime's worth of milk and sweeteners into Swerve, a sugary new ''milk based'' soft drink to be sold in schools. It's no coincidence that Big Food has suddenly ''discovered'' how to turn milk into junk food: the government recently made deep cuts in the dairy-farm program, and as a result milk is nearly as cheap a raw material as water.

As public concern over obesity mounts, the focus of political pressure has settled on the food industry and its marketing strategies -- supersizing portions, selling junk food to children, lacing products with transfats and sugars. Certainly Big Food bears some measure of responsibility for our national eating disorder -- a reality that a growing number of food companies have publicly accepted. In recent months, Kraft, McDonald's and Coca-Cola have vowed to change marketing strategies and even recipes in an effort to help combat obesity and, no doubt, ward off the coming tide of litigation.

There is an understandable reluctance to let Big Food off the hook. Yet by devising ever more ingenious ways to induce us to consume the surplus calories our farmers are producing, the food industry is only playing by a set of rules written by our government. (And maintained, it is true, with the industry's political muscle.) The political challenge now is to rewrite those rules, to develop a new set of agricultural policies that don't subsidize overproduction -- and overeating. For unless we somehow deal with the mountain of cheap grain that makes the Happy Meal and the Double Stuf Oreo such ''bargains,'' the calories are guaranteed to keep coming.
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Old 10-20-2003, 11:14 PM   #21 (permalink)
Location: South Africa
Great article, Rodney. Goes right to the base of everything.
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Old 10-21-2003, 04:26 AM   #22 (permalink)
Location: NJ
There are many types of subsidies and lumping them all together does the discussion a great disservice. Subsidies vary considerably from country to country and even further within geographic regions of the US.

There are a plethora of small family owned farms that receive subsidies which enable them to stay in business as workers shy away from long hours and LOW wages. The high costs of equipment, fertilizers, insect sprays, land, etc make it extremely difficult for these farmers to make any money to provide for their families.

I have very good friends who are farmers and worked as a farmer for several years. Subsidies range from tax breaks all the way to paying some farmers not to produce certain crops. It's an incredibly complex subject that has elements of conservation, urban sprawl, economies of scale, tax law, market economics, and of course weather.
Strive to be more curious than ignorant.
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Old 11-11-2004, 10:19 AM   #23 (permalink)
braisler's Avatar
Location: Midway, KY
onetime2 seems to have a far more intimate grasp of the subsidy issue than I do myself. The thing that I would like to understand better is why we feel it is neccessary to subsidize a particular way of life, ie. why should the "small" or "family" farmer be paid a subsidy by me (I dislike calling them tax dollars when they are, in fact, my dollars) to stay in farming. If a small farmer can't make a living to support his family and lifestyle, I would think that he should change jobs. Why not? Because his family has been in the farming business for a long time. So what? What if the government was still supporting blacksmiths, wheelwrights, and coopers with our money? Would you still honestly support that? Some career choices don't remain viable forever. Am I being horribly blind about this or does anyone else feel the same way?

My uncle was a farmer so I have some personal experience to draw on. He grew corn, raised pigs and sometimes cattle. He also drove the school bus and taught history at the high school in rural Illinois. He supported his family in this way for a number of years. Eventually the farm became more work that the money it was bringing in so he sold out and moved into town. He is retired now, but did continue to work as a teacher after his move into town. He adapted to his changing circumstances. Why can't other farmers do the same? And why can't they keep their hands out of my pockets?
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Old 12-01-2004, 09:59 PM   #24 (permalink)
If my understandings are correct, the primary sources of export for third world countries to first world countries are angricultural products and raw materials. And the primary source of import for first wourld countries from third world countries are raw materials and cheap labor. By subdizing on angricultral products, the first world countries will force third countries to export more raw materials to balance the trade decifie.

So my point is that making third world countries rich will not benefit the first world countries. (No that this is the right thing to do)
It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
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Old 12-02-2004, 06:31 AM   #25 (permalink)
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Location: Fort Worth, TX
The "farmers" that you refer to, as mentioned by myself, and several other posters, are actually large conglomerates.
Really? Tell that to my grandpa, or all my aunts/uncles. They rely almost solely on subsidies to stay working and out of the red (barely). They are in no way shape or form a conglomerate.
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Old 12-02-2004, 07:39 AM   #26 (permalink)
is awesome!
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Originally Posted by Seaver
Really? Tell that to my grandpa, or all my aunts/uncles. They rely almost solely on subsidies to stay working and out of the red (barely). They are in no way shape or form a conglomerate.
There are still family owned farms, they are typically kept afloat financially by government subsidy. If this were any other industry we would see an avalanche of angry posts from the Right about how these lazy people are getting fat off of our taxes. Unfortunately farming has a false rustic Rockwellian nostalgia attached to it, and let's face it these people vote overwhelmingly for Republicans. All farming though is big business, it takes millions of dollars of equipment and chemicals to run a competitive farm. Most family farms are on fairly tentative financial ground, typically they rent their equipment and often have their assets owned by the banks.

Here is a really good essay on the net loss of energy in ethanol production that offers some semi-viable alternatives. I found it fairly eye-opening and I think it will appeal to some of the more Libertarian voices here. Also if you consider yourself "caucasian" you get to learn what that actually means.

The Oil We Eat
Following the food chain back to Iraq

The secret of great wealth with no obvious source is some forgotten crime,
forgotten because it was done neatly.


The journalist's rule says: follow the money. This rule, however, is not
really axiomatic but derivative, in that money, as even our vice president
will tell you, is really a way of tracking energy. We'll follow the

We learn as children that there is no free lunch, that you don't get
something from nothing, that what goes up must come down, and so on. The
scientific version of these verities is only slightly more complex. As
James Prescott Joule discovered in the nineteenth century, there is only
so much energy. You can change it from motion to heat, from heat to light,
but there will never be more of it and there will never be less of it. The
conservation of energy is not an option, it is a fact. This is the first
law of thermodynamics.

Special as we humans are, we get no exemptions from the rules. All animals
eat plants or eat animals that eat plants. This is the food chain, and
pulling it is the unique ability of plants to turn sunlight into stored
energy in the form of carbohydrates, the basic fuel of all animals.
Solar-powered photosynthesis is the only way to make this fuel. There is
no alternative to plant energy, just as there is no alternative to oxygen.
The results of taking away our plant energy may not be as sudden as
cutting off oxygen, but they are as sure.

Scientists have a name for the total amount of plant mass created by Earth
in a given year, the total budget for life. They call it the planet's
"primary productivity." There have been two efforts to figure out how that
productivity is spent, one by a group at Stanford University, the other an
independent accounting by the biologist Stuart Pimm. Both conclude that we
humans, a single species among millions, consume about 40 percent of
Earth's primary productivity, 40 percent of all there is. This simple
number may explain why the current extinction rate is 1,000 times that
which existed before human domination of the planet. We 6 billion have
simply stolen the food, the rich among us a lot more than others.

Energy cannot be created or canceled, but it can be concentrated. This is
the larger and profoundly explanatory context of a national-security memo
George Kennan wrote in 1948 as the head of a State Department planning
committee, ostensibly about Asian policy but really about how the United
States was to deal with its newfound role as the dominant force on Earth.
"We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of
its population," Kennan wrote. "In this situation, we cannot fail to be
the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is
to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this
position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.
To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and
day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on
our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we
can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction."

"The day is not far off," Kennan concluded, "when we are going to have to
deal in straight power concepts."

If you follow the energy, eventually you will end up in a field somewhere.
Humans engage in a dizzying array of artifice and industry. Nonetheless,
more than two thirds of humanity's cut of primary productivity results
from agriculture, two thirds of which in turn consists of three plants:
rice, wheat, and corn. In the 10,000 years since humans domesticated these
grains, their status has remained undiminished, most likely because they
are able to store solar energy in uniquely dense, transportable bundles of
carbohydrates. They are to the plant world what a barrel of refined oil is
to the hydrocarbon world. Indeed, aside from hydrocarbons they are the
most concentrated form of true wealth--sun energy--to be found on the

As Kennan recognized, however, the maintenance of such a concentration of
wealth often requires violent action. Agriculture is a recent human
experiment. For most of human history, we lived by gathering or killing a
broad variety of nature's offerings. Why humans might have traded this
approach for the complexities of agriculture is an interesting and
long-debated question, especially because the skeletal evidence clearly
indicates that early farmers were more poorly nourished, more
disease-ridden and deformed, than their hunter-gatherer contemporaries.
Farming did not improve most lives. The evidence that best points to the
answer, I think, lies in the difference between early agricultural
villages and their pre-agricultural counterparts--the presence not just of
grain but of granaries and, more tellingly, of just a few houses
significantly larger and more ornate than all the others attached to those
granaries. Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the
accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people have
been in charge ever since.

Domestication was also a radical change in the distribution of wealth
within the plant world. Plants can spend their solar income in several
ways. The dominant and prudent strategy is to allocate most of it to
building roots, stem, bark--a conservative portfolio of investments that
allows the plant to better gather energy and survive the downturn years.
Further, by living in diverse stands (a given chunk of native prairie
contains maybe 200 species of plants), these perennials provide services
for one another, such as retaining water, protecting one another from
wind, and fixing free nitrogen from the air to use as fertilizer.
Diversity allows a system to "sponsor its own fertility," to use visionary
agronomist Wes Jackson's phrase. This is the plant world's norm.

There is a very narrow group of annuals, however, that grow in patches of
a single species and store almost all of their income as seed, a tight
bundle of carbohydrates easily exploited by seed eaters such as ourselves.
Under normal circumstances, this eggs-in-one-basket strategy is a dumb
idea for a plant. But not during catastrophes such as floods, fires, and
volcanic eruptions. Such catastrophes strip established plant communities
and create opportunities for wind-scattered entrepreneurial seed bearers.
It is no accident that no matter where agriculture sprouted on the globe,
it always happened near rivers. You might assume, as many have, that this
is because the plants needed the water or nutrients. Mostly this is not
true. They needed the power of flooding, which scoured landscapes and
stripped out competitors. Nor is it an accident, I think, that agriculture
arose independently and simultaneously around the globe just as the last
ice age ended, a time of enormous upheaval when glacial melt let loose
sea-size lakes to create tidal waves of erosion. It was a time of

Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is their
niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe would create a blank
slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then, under normal
circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals
would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the soil, accumulate organic
matter, provide cover. Eventually the catastrophic niche would close.
Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It is
an annual artificial catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three
or four tons of TNT per acre for a modern American farm. Iowa's fields
require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can find
what Iowans call a "postage stamp" remnant of some, it most likely will
abut a cornfield. This allows an observation. Walk from the prairie to the
field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had
been stolen from beneath you. Settlers' accounts of the prairie conquest
mention a sound, a series of pops, like pistol shots, the sound of stout
grass roots breaking before a moldboard plow. A robbery was in progress.

When we say the soil is rich, it is not a metaphor. It is as rich in
energy as an oil well. A prairie converts that energy to flowers and roots
and stems, which in turn pass back into the ground as dead organic matter.
The layers of topsoil build up into a rich repository of energy, a bank. A
farm field appropriates that energy, puts it into seeds we can eat. Much
of the energy moves from the earth to the rings of fat around our necks
and waists. And much of the energy is simply wasted, a trail of dollars
billowing from the burglar's satchel.

I've already mentioned that we humans take 40 percent of the globe's
primary productivity every year. You might have assumed we and our
livestock eat our way through that volume, but this is not the case. Part
of that total--almost a third of it--is the potential plant mass lost when
forests are cleared for farming or when tropical rain forests are cut for
grazing or when plows destroy the deep mat of prairie roots that held the
whole business together, triggering erosion. The Dust Bowl was no accident
of nature. A functioning grassland prairie produces more biomass each year
than does even the most technologically advanced wheat field. The problem
is, it's mostly a form of grass and grass roots that humans can't eat. So
we replace the prairie with our own preferred grass, wheat. Never mind
that we feed most of our grain to livestock, and that livestock is
perfectly content to eat native grass. And never mind that there likely
were more bison produced naturally on the Great Plains before farming than
all of beef farming raises in the same area today. Our ancestors found it
preferable to pluck the energy from the ground and when it ran out move

Today we do the same, only now when the vault is empty we fill it again
with new energy in the form of oil-rich fertilizers. Oil is annual primary
productivity stored as hydrocarbons, a trust fund of sorts, built up over
many thousands of years. On average, it takes 5.5 gallons of fossil energy
to restore a year's worth of lost fertility to an acre of eroded land--in
1997 we burned through more than 400 years' worth of ancient fossilized
productivity, most of it from someplace else. Even as the earth beneath
Iowa shrinks, it is being globalized.

Six thousand years before sodbusters broke up Iowa, their Caucasian blood
ancestors broke up the Hungarian plain, an area just northwest of the
Caucasus Mountains. Archaeologists call this tribe the LBK, short for
linearbandkeramik, the German word that describes the distinctive pottery
remnants that mark their occupation of Europe. Anthropologists call them
the wheat-beef people, a name that better connects those ancients along
the Danube to my fellow Montanans on the Upper Missouri River. These
proto-Europeans had a full set of domesticated plants and animals, but
wheat and beef dominated. All the domesticates came from an area along
what is now the Iraq-Syria-Turkey border at the edges of the Zagros
Mountains. This is the center of domestication for the Western world's
main crops and live stock, ground zero of catastrophic agriculture.

Two other types of catastrophic agriculture evolved at roughly the same
time, one centered on rice in what is now China and India and one centered
on corn and potatoes in Central and South America. Rice, though, is
tropical and its expansion depends on water, so it developed only in
floodplains, estuaries, and swamps. Corn agriculture was every bit as
voracious as wheat; the Aztecs could be as brutal and imperialistic as
Romans or Brits, but the corn cultures collapsed with the onslaught of
Spanish conquest. Corn itself simply joined the wheat-beef people's
coalition. Wheat was the empire builder; its bare botanical facts dictated
the motion and violence that we know as imperialism.

The wheat-beef people swept across the western European plains in less
than 300 years, a conquest some archaeologists refer to as a "blitzkrieg."
A different race of humans, the Cro-Magnons--hunter-gatherers, not
farmers--lived on those plains at the time. Their cave art at places such
as Lascaux testifies to their sophistication and profound connection to
wildlife. They probably did most of their hunting and gathering in uplands
and river bottoms, places the wheat farmers didn't need, suggesting the
possibility of coexistence. That's not what happened, however. Both
genetic and linguistic evidence say that the farmers killed the hunters.
The Basque people are probably the lone remnant descendants of
Cro-Magnons, the only trace.

Hunter-gatherer archaeological sites of the period contain spear points
that originally belonged to the farmers, and we can guess they weren't
trade goods. One group of anthropologists concludes, "The evidence from
the western extension of the LBK leaves little room for any other
conclusion but that LBK-Mesolithic interactions were at best chilly and at
worst hostile." The world's surviving Blackfeet, Assiniboine Sioux, Inca,
and Maori probably have the best idea of the nature of these interactions.

Wheat is temperate and prefers plowed-up grasslands. The globe has a
limited stock of temperate grasslands, just as it has a limited stock of
all other biomes. On average, about 10 percent of all other biomes remain
in something like their native state today. Only 1 percent of temperate
grasslands remains undestroyed. Wheat takes what it needs.

The supply of temperate grasslands lies in what are today the United
States, Canada, the South American pampas, New Zealand, Australia, South
Africa, Europe, and the Asiatic extension of the European plain into the
sub-Siberian steppes. This area largely describes the First World, the
developed world. Temperate grasslands make up not only the habitat of
wheat and beef but also the globe's islands of Caucasians, of European
surnames and languages. In 2000 the countries of the temperate grasslands,
the neo-Europes, accounted for about 80 percent of all wheat exports in
the world, and about 86 percent of all com. That is to say, the
neo-Europes drive the world's agriculture. The dominance does not stop
with grain. These countries, plus the mothership--Europe accounted for
three fourths of all agricultural exports of all crops in the world in

Plato wrote of his country's farmlands:

What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick
man. ...Formerly, many of the mountains were arable, The plains that were
full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with
forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once
the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are
now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it
absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into
the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned
shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our
description of the land is true.

Plato's lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his
country's soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed
centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth
century, though, wheat's strategy of depleting and moving on ran up
against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat agriculture is like rice
agriculture. It balances its equations with famine. In the millennium
between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major "corrective" famine about
every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period.
The incidence, however, dropped sharply when colonization brought an
influx of new food to Europe.

The new lands had an even greater effect on the colonists themselves.
Thomas Jefferson, after enduring a lecture on the rustic nature by his
hosts at a dinner party in Paris, pointed out that all of the Americans
present were a good head taller than all of the French. Indeed, colonists
in all of the neo-Europes enjoyed greater stature and longevity, as well
as a lower infant-mortality rate--all indicators of the better nutrition
afforded by the onetime spend down of the accumulated capital of virgin

The precolonial famines of Europe raised the question: What would happen
when the planet's supply of arable land ran out? We have a clear answer.
In about 1960 expansion hit its limits and the supply of unfarmed, arable
lands came to an end. There was nothing left to plow. What happened was
grain yields tripled.

The accepted term for this strange turn of events is the green revolution,
though it would be more properly labeled the amber revolution, because it
applied exclusively to grain--wheat, rice, and corn. Plant breeders
tinkered with the architecture of these three grains so that they could be
hypercharged with irrigation water and chemical fertilizers, especially
nitrogen. This innovation meshed nicely with the increased "efficiency" of
the industrialized factory-farm system. With the possible exception of the
domestication of wheat, the green revolution is the worst thing that has
ever happened to the planet.

For openers, it disrupted long-standing patterns of rural life worldwide,
moving a lot of no-longer-needed people off the land and into the world's
most severe poverty. The experience in population control in the
developing world is by now clear: It is not that people make more people
so much as it is that they make more poor people. In the forty-year period
beginning about 1960, the world's population doubled, adding virtually the
entire increase of 3 billion to the world's poorest classes, the most
fecund classes. The way in which the green revolution raised that grain
contributed hugely to the population boom, and it is the weight of the
population that leaves humanity in its present untenable position.

Discussion of these, the most poor, however, is largely irrelevant to the
American situation. We say we have poor people here, but almost no one in
this country lives on less than one dollar a day, the global benchmark for
poverty. It marks off a class of about 1.3 billion people, the hard core
of the larger group of 2 billion chronically malnourished people--that is,
one third of humanity. We may forget about them, as most Americans do.

More relevant here are the methods of the green revolution, which added
orders of magnitude to the devastation. By mining the iron for tractors,
drilling the new oil to fuel them and to make nitrogen fertilizers, and by
taking the water that rain and rivers had meant for other lands, farming
had extended its boundaries, its dominion, to lands that were not
farmable. At the same time, it extended its boundaries across time,
tapping fossil energy, stripping past assets.

The common assumption these days is that we muster our weapons to secure
oil, not food. There's a little joke in this. Ever since we ran out of
arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at
least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the
United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of
fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked
closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the
problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there
is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less
energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we
got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting
it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a
calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers
and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq.

David Pimentel, an expert on food and energy at Cornell University, has
estimated that if all of the world ate the way the United States eats,
humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over
seven years. Pimentel has his detractors. Some have accused him of being
off on other calculations by as much as 30 percent. Fine. Make it ten

Fertilizer makes a pretty fine bomb right off the shelf, a chemistry
lesson Timothy McVeigh taught at Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah Federal
Building in 1995--not a small matter, in that the green revolution has
made nitrogen fertilizers ubiquitous in some of the more violent and
desperate corners of the world. Still, there is more to contemplate in
nitrogen's less sensational chemistry.

The chemophobia of modem times excludes fear of the simple elements of
chemistry's periodic table. We circulate petitions, hold hearings, launch
websites, and buy and sell legislators in regard to polysyllabic organic
compounds--polychlorinated biphenyls, polyvinyls, DDT, 2-4d, that sort of
thing--not simple carbon or nitrogen. Not that agriculture's use of the
more ornate chemistry is benign--an infant born in a rural,
wheat-producing county in the United States has about twice the chance of
suffering birth defects as one born in a rural place that doesn't produce
wheat, an effect researchers blame on chlorophenoxy herbicides. Focusing
on pesticide pollution, though, misses the worst of the pollutants. Forget
the polysyllabic organics. It is nitrogen-the wellspring of fertility
relied upon by every Eden-obsessed backyard gardener and suburban
groundskeeper--that we should fear most.

Those who model our planet as an organism do so on the basis that the
earth appears to breathe--it thrives by converting a short list of basic
elements from one compound into the next, just as our own bodies cycle
oxygen into carbon dioxide and plants cycle carbon dioxide into oxygen. In
fact, two of the planet's most fundamental humors are oxygen and carbon
dioxide. Another is nitrogen.

Nitrogen can be released from its "fixed" state as a solid in the soil by
natural processes that allow it to circulate freely in the atmosphere.
This also can be done artificially. Indeed, humans now contribute more
nitrogen to the nitrogen cycle than the planet itself does. That is,
humans have doubled the amount of nitrogen in play.

This has led to an imbalance. It is easier to create nitrogen fertilizer
than it is to apply it evenly to fields. When farmers dump nitrogen on a
crop, much is wasted. It runs into the water and soil, where it either
reacts chemically with its surroundings to form new compounds or flows off
to fertilize something else, somewhere else.

That chemical reaction, called acidification, is noxious and contributes
significantly to acid rain. One of the compounds produced by acidification
is nitrous oxide, which aggravates the greenhouse effect. Green growing
things normally offset global warming by sucking up carbon dioxide, but
nitrogen on farm fields plus methane from decomposing vegetation make
every farmed acre, like every acre of Los Angeles freeway, a net
contributor to global warming. Fertilization is equally worrisome.
Rainfall and irrigation water inevitably washes the nitrogen from fields
to creeks and streams, which flows into rivers, which floods into the
ocean. This explains why the Mississippi River, which drains the nation's
Corn Belt, is an environmental catastrophe. The nitrogen fertilizes
artificially large blooms of algae that in growing suck all the oxygen
from the water, a condition biologists call anoxia, which means
"oxygen-depleted." Here there's no need to calculate long-term effects,
because life in such places has no long term: everything dies immediately.
The Mississippi River's heavily fertilized effluvia has created a dead
zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.

America's biggest crop, grain corn, is completely unpalatable. It is raw
material for an industry that manufactures food substitutes. Likewise, you
can't eat unprocessed wheat. You certainly can't eat hay. You can eat
unprocessed soybeans, but mostly we don't. These four crops cover 82
percent of American cropland. Agriculture in this country is not about
food; it's about commodities that require the outlay of still more energy
to become food.

About two thirds of U.S. grain corn is labeled "processed," meaning it is
milled and otherwise refined for food or industrial uses. More than 45
percent of that becomes sugar, especially high-fructose corn sweeteners,
the keystone ingredient in three quarters of all processed foods,
especially soft drinks, the food of America's poor and working classes. It
is not a coincidence that the American pandemic of obesity tracks rather
nicely with the fivefold increase in corn-syrup production since Archer
Daniels Midland developed a high-fructose version of the stuff in the
early seventies. Nor is it a coincidence that the plague selects the poor,
who eat the most processed food.

It began with the industrialization of Victorian England. The empire was
then flush with sugar from plantations in the colonies. Meantime the
cities were flush with factory workers. There was no good way to feed
them. And thus was born the afternoon tea break, the tea consisting
primarily of warm water and sugar. If the workers were well off, they
could also afford bread with heavily sugared jam--sugar-powered
industrialization. There was a 500 percent increase in per capita sugar
consumption in Britain between 1860 and 1890, around the time when the
life expectancy of a male factory worker was seventeen years. By the end
of the century the average Brit was getting about one sixth of his total
nutrition from sugar, exactly the same percentage Americans get
today--double what nutritionists recommend.

There is another energy matter to consider here, though. The grinding,
milling, wetting, drying, and baking of a breakfast cereal requires about
four calories of energy for every calorie of food energy it produces. A
two-pound bag of breakfast cereal burns the energy of a half-gallon of
gasoline in its making. All together the food-processing industry in the
United States uses about ten calories of fossil-fuel energy for every
calorie of food energy it produces.

That number does not include the fuel used in transporting the food from
the factory to a store near you, or the fuel used by millions of people
driving to thousands of super discount stores on the edge of town, where
the land is cheap. It appears, however, that the corn cycle is about to
come full circle. If a bipartisan coalition of farm-state lawmakers has
their way--and it appears they will--we will soon buy gasoline containing
twice as much fuel alcohol as it does now. Fuel alcohol already ranks
second as a use for processed corn in the United States, just behind corn
sweeteners. According to one set of calculations, we spend more calories
of fossil-fuel energy making ethanol than we gain from it. The Department
of Agriculture says the ratio is closer to a gallon and a quart of ethanol
for every gallon of fossil fuel we invest. The USDA calls this a bargain,
because gasohol is a "clean fuel." This claim to cleanness is in dispute
at the tailpipe level, and it certainly ignores the dead zone in the Gulf
of Mexico, pesticide pollution, and the haze of global gases gathering
over every farm field. Nor does this claim cover clean conscience; some
still might be unsettled knowing that our SUVs' demands for fuel compete
with the poor's demand for grain.

Green eaters, especially vegetarians, advocate eating low on the food
chain, a simple matter of energy flow. Eating a carrot gives the diner all
that carrot's energy, but feeding carrots to a chicken, then eating the
chicken, reduces the energy by a factor of ten. The chicken wastes some
energy, stores some as feathers, bones, and other inedibles, and uses most
of it just to live long enough to be eaten. As a rough rule of thumb, that
factor of ten applies to each level up the food chain, which is why some
fish, such as tuna, can be a horror in all of this. Tuna is a secondary
predator, meaning it not only doesn't eat plants but eats other fish that
themselves eat other fish, adding a zero to the multiplier each notch up,
easily a hundred times, more like a thousand times less efficient than
eating a plant.

This is fine as far as it goes, but the vegetarian's case can break down
on some details. On the moral issues, vegetarians claim their habits are
kinder to animals, though it is difficult to see how wiping out 99 percent
of wildlife's habitat, as farming has done in Iowa, is a kindness. In
rural Michigan, for example, the potato farmers have a peculiar tactic for
dealing with the predations of whitetail deer. They gut-shoot them with
small-bore rifles, in hopes the deer will limp off to the woods and die
where they won't stink up the potato fields.

Animal rights aside, vegetarians can lose the edge in the energy argument
by eating processed food, with its ten calories of fossil energy for every
calorie of food energy produced. The question, then, is: Does eating
processed food such as soy burger or soy milk cancel the energy benefits
of vegetarianism, which is to say, can I eat my lamb chops in peace?
Maybe. If I've done my due diligence, I will have found out that the
particular lamb I am eating was both local and grass-fed, two factors that
of course greatly reduce the embedded energy in a meal. I know of ranches
here in Montana, for instance, where sheep eat native grass under closely
controlled circumstances--no farming, no plows, no corn, no nitrogen.
Assets have not been stripped. I can't eat the grass directly. This can go
on. There are little niches like this in the system. Each person's
individual charge is to find such niches.

Chances are, though, any meat eater will come out on the short end of this
argument, especially in the United States. Take the case of beef. Cattle
are grazers, so in theory could live like the grass-fed lamb. Some cattle
cultures--those of South America and Mexico, for example--have perfected
wonderful cuisines based on grass-fed beef. This is not our habit in the
United States, and it is simply a matter of habit. Eighty percent of the
grain the United States produces goes to livestock. Seventy-eight percent
of all of our beef comes from feed lots, where the cattle eat grain,
mostly corn and wheat. So do most of our hogs and chickens. The cattle
spend their adult lives packed shoulder to shoulder in a space not much
bigger than their bodies, up to their knees in shit, being stuffed with
grain and a constant stream of antibiotics to prevent the disease this
sort of confinement invariably engenders. The manure is rich in nitrogen
and once provided a farm's fertilizer. The feedlots, however, are now far
removed from farm fields, so it is simply not "efficient" to haul it to
cornfields. It is waste. It exhales methane, a global-warming gas. It
pollutes streams. It takes thirty-five calories of fossil fuel to make a
calorie of beef this way; sixty-eight to make one calorie of pork.

Still, these livestock do something we can't. They convert grain's
carbohydrates to high-quality protein. All well and good, except that per
capita protein production in the United States is about double what an
average adult needs per day. Excess cannot be stored as protein in the
human body but is simply converted to fat. This is the end result of a
factory-farm system that appears as a living, continental-scale monument
to Rube Goldberg, a black-mass remake of the loaves-and-fishes miracle.
Prairie's productivity is lost for grain, grain's productivity is lost in
livestock, livestock's protein is lost to human fat--all federally
subsidized for about $15 billion a year, two thirds of which goes directly
to only two crops, corn and wheat.

This explains why the energy expert David Pimentel is so worried that the
rest of the world will adopt America's methods. He should be, because the
rest of the world is. Mexico now feeds 45 percent of its grain to
livestock, up from 5 percent in 1960. Egypt went from 3 percent to 31
percent in the same period, and China, with a sixth of the world's
population, has gone from 8 percent to 26 percent. All of these places
have poor people who could use the grain, but they can't afford it.

I live among elk and have learned to respect them. One moonlit night
during the dead of last winter, I looked out my bedroom window to see
about twenty of them grazing a plot of grass the size of a living room.
Just that small patch among acres of other species of native prairie
grass. Why that species and only that species of grass that night in the
worst of winter when the threat to their survival was the greatest? What
magic nutrient did this species alone contain? What does a wild animal
know that we don't? I think we need this knowledge.

Food is politics. That being the case, I voted twice in 2002. The day
after Election Day, in a truly dismal mood, I climbed the mountain behind
my house and found a small herd of elk grazing native grasses in the
morning sunlight. My respect for these creatures over the years has become
great enough that on that morning I did not hesitate but went straight to
my job, which was to rack a shell and drop one cow elk, my household's
annual protein supply. I voted with my weapon of choice--an act not all
that uncommon in this world, largely, I think, as a result of the way we
grow food. I can see why it is catching on. Such a vote has a certain
satisfying heft and finality about it. My particular bit of violence,
though, is more satisfying, I think, than the rest of the globe's ordinary
political mayhem. I used a rifle to opt out of an insane system. I killed,
but then so did you when you bought that package of burger, even when you
bought that package of tofu burger. I killed, then the rest of those elk
went on, as did the grasses, the birds, the trees, the coyotes, mountain
lions, and bugs, the fundamental productivity of an intact natural system,
all of it went on.


By Richard Manning
Locobot is offline  
Old 12-02-2004, 07:53 AM   #27 (permalink)
Originally Posted by dimbulb

Its criminal that the world currently produces more than enough grain to feed its population, but millions of people are starving at the same time. Grain is burnt, contaminated, to keep prices up, or used to feed cattle, instead of feeding the starving millions.

You are incorrect here. The US would gladly give away the grain but the other countries won't accept it. Accepting it would destroy their local economies. That is why we are waisting it. We over produce because we want to keep farmers making food so we never have food shortages. The last thing we want to do is become dependent on forgeign food.
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Old 12-02-2004, 08:12 AM   #28 (permalink)
This vexes me. I am terribly vexed.
Superbelt's Avatar
Location: Grantville, Pa
Exactly Rekna. That is the reason that Farm subsidies are here. They are necessary to our own national security. If a blight does happen somewhere in the world, especially in one of the bread-baskets, food prices around the world will surge and could even make it hard for America to import enough to keep us going. It is necessary in times of war, where we may not be able to get the food we need because of dangerous conditions or the power we are fighting being in control of it.

Another important reason to give agricultural subsidies is to keep those farms in farmable conditions. That is important because we do not want the market to dictate how much land is kept as farmland. If we did that we would only have enough as is needed, the rest would go to seed or be developed. This way we preserve much of this land so if we ever do need it one day it can be immediately called into service.

Farm subsidies are just necessary. Sucks for 3rd world, but we become much weaker as a nation if we don't have them.
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Old 12-02-2004, 08:51 AM   #29 (permalink)
Observant Ruminant
Location: Rich Wannabe Hippie Town
Originally Posted by Rekna
You are incorrect here. The US would gladly give away the grain but the other countries won't accept it. Accepting it would destroy their local economies. That is why we are waisting it. We over produce because we want to keep farmers making food so we never have food shortages. The last thing we want to do is become dependent on forgeign food.
See the very large article farther up this thread. The gov't has had subsidies since the Depression, but in the '70s they changed the rules to give a subsidy for _every bag of corn you could produce._ Up until then, there had been limits on how much of your production the subsidy would cover. Like, you had 1000 acres and you were allowed to plant up to 500 in corn to get the subsidy. You could plant the other 500 as well in corn, but without the subsidy. Under the new rules, everybody could plant all their acreage in corn and still get the subsidy. So now we have 'way more corn than we need.

The old way -- limited subsidies -- worked fine. But there was a temporary grain shortage in the early '70s because of heavy exports to the Soviet Union which shot up food prices, and Nixon changed the system to maximize production, at the cost of billions in tax dollars per year. I wouldn't have minded if he changed the subsidies on a temporary basis, but he made it permanent.

Our current system is wasteful and produces 'way, 'way, more corn and other basic grains than we would ever need, even for emergencies.
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Old 12-02-2004, 09:15 AM   #30 (permalink)
This vexes me. I am terribly vexed.
Superbelt's Avatar
Location: Grantville, Pa
Do you know just how much corn would ever be needed in a emergency, and how much exactly would be wasted in said emergency?

Regardless, and this may seem hard-hearted to some, but tough beans to those in the third world that are starving. That is the way of nature. When you can't legitimately support your own people, the rest of the world shouldn't be doing things to artificially inflate your ability to feed a population.

I have plenty of problems with our agricultural system, especially the intensity. But looking at it (subsidies) from a national security perspective, it is legitimate. World starvation is a bad reason to oppose it because of what I said in the paragraph above.

For more information on my opinion, check out Ishmael

An awesome book that really goes in depth to the problems of uncontrolled population growth. This is a book I believe is one of the most important I ever read.

Last edited by Superbelt; 12-02-2004 at 09:17 AM..
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Old 12-02-2004, 12:39 PM   #31 (permalink)
guy44's Avatar
Location: corner of No and Where
Um, Superbelt, perhaps feeding the impoverished is a good idea. I don't know, maybe it is just me, but letting millions starve is pretty fucking cold hearted and, in a very abstract sense, evil. If the best solution we have to world population increases is, well, screw the fuckers and let em die, I think we as the human race will have failed miserably.

Additionally, ag subsidies aren't the only thing that have to go. Export subsidies, mostly in Europe, are just as damaging to LDC (Least Developed Countries) agricultural growth.

Also, de facto American export subsidies through food aid and foreign food credits is quite harmful. Lowering European export subsidies and American ag subsidies would have a major effect on this, in the following manner:

1. American taxpayers pay millions in domestic agricultural subsidies
2. In part as a result of this, the U.S. has massive ag product surplus, much of which gets dumped on the open market at very low prices
3. Developing, agriculture-dependant countries cannot compete with American (and European) dumped food on the world market
4. America, Canada, and Europe pay millions upon millions in aid to these countries, who as a result of being unable to sell their product, have very high unemployment and poor real wages
5. So, American taxpayers are paying twice: first for the domestic subsidies, and later for the foreign aid
6. A successful Doha round of negotiations, if it could bring about actually significant reductions in American ag subsidies and European export subsidies, and there aren't too many exceptions, "sensitive products," as the lingo goes, could really level the playing field and reduce the need for North-to-South financial and food aid

It would be in world interest, therefore, to have a successful conclusion to the Doha negotiations, and a resultant decrease in American ag subsidies and European export subsidies.

Some reference:

Economic Implications of Trade Liberalization Under The Doha Round

Global Agricultural Trade and the Doha Round: What Are the Implications for North and South?
"You have reached Ritual Sacrifice. For goats press one, or say 'goats.'"
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Old 12-02-2004, 06:10 PM   #32 (permalink)
Location: California
When you realize that food production is done by agri-corporations and not small time farmers as many believe, subsidies are indeed lame.
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Old 12-02-2004, 06:48 PM   #33 (permalink)
Seaver's Avatar
Location: Fort Worth, TX
I don't know, maybe it is just me, but letting millions starve is pretty fucking cold hearted and, in a very abstract sense, evil.
That's a big problem. In the '50s and '60s we shipped much of our extra grains to 3rd world countries, mostly in Africa. Great right? Free food for impoverished countries.

Well unfortunately it set off a horrible chain of events. The sudden influx of food caused a crash in the local economies (agri-based). Suddenly it cost farmers more to grow their own food than walk the 100+ miles to the nearest refugee camp. The sudden influx of lots of free food also caused a population boom. The US caught heat for ruining the economies, and those countries stopped accepting the food to try to revert back to the old situation. Unfortunately it caused massive starving that continues today.

Evil? Yes. Unfortunately it's a lose-lose situation.
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Old 12-02-2004, 09:07 PM   #34 (permalink)
guy44's Avatar
Location: corner of No and Where
Seaver - I totally agree. 100% That is exactly why I supported the removal of subsidies: if we can reduce American domestic surplus, we will dump less into the world market, undercut LDC ag growth less, thus avoiding many of those problems. Furthermore, since LDC economies will be doing better in general, and ag-based economies will be better able to feed its own people (not to mention imcreased real wages and buying power), U.S. foreign food aid will no longer be as necessary, and can be scaled back.
"You have reached Ritual Sacrifice. For goats press one, or say 'goats.'"
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Old 12-03-2004, 04:20 AM   #35 (permalink)
This vexes me. I am terribly vexed.
Superbelt's Avatar
Location: Grantville, Pa
Like Seaver said, It's an artificial means of subverting nature to try to feed the worlds starving countries. It might work for a little while, and in the mean time their population again booms because there is food available. One day the world won't be able to keep that level of support for their food needs up and then rather than a few starvation deaths here and there, a massive famine happens and you get thousands or hundreds of thousands dead.
Western Agriculture changed many of the african peoples from a subsistence agriculture and hunting/gathering method that worked for that continent, to one that was being used by industrial nations on much more fertile soil.

We won't be slowing down our production. It's a matter of our national security. Perhaps instead, these LDC's should be, without reprisals from the MDC's, imposing huge tariffs on any MDC agricultural imports.
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Old 12-12-2004, 05:28 PM   #36 (permalink)
Location: Bowling Green, KY
America has too many farmers and high property taxes (our own tacit version of England's "Reclamation"). My thoughts end here.

Newt Gingrich tried to end farm subsidies, and he was sent home.
"Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn't do any good if you lose." Dick Cheney

Last edited by Jizz-Fritter; 12-12-2004 at 05:31 PM..
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Old 12-12-2004, 05:36 PM   #37 (permalink)
martinguerre's Avatar
Location: New England
Originally Posted by Superbelt
Like Seaver said, It's an artificial means of subverting nature to try to feed the worlds starving countries.
The US imports more food than it exports. Our subsidies are not nearly so altruistic.
For God so loved creation, that God sent God's only Son that whosoever believed should not perish, but have everlasting life.

-John 3:16
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Old 12-19-2004, 07:25 AM   #38 (permalink)
Location: Bowling Green, KY
Originally Posted by martinguerre
The US imports more food than it exports. Our subsidies are not nearly so altruistic.
I am reminded by the fact that during the potato famine, Ireland was exporting potatos to England.
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