Archive for April, 2011

FOX NewsLast week, FOX News ran a story on farm subsidies under the guise of being on the lookout for the taxpayer. 

The story predictably attacked the usual suspects: direct payments and conservation programs.  And while the reporter, William LaJeunesse, talked to someone from the American Farm Bureau Federation as well as a farmer from Illinois, the story didn’t exactly frame the discussion in a way that could lead a viewer to make up his or her own mind.  After all, it was titled “Subsidies Bloat Agriculture Budget.”

The story quotes Steve Ellis from Taxpayers for Common Sense, whose argument originates from the typical misunderstanding of the programs.  Mr. Ellis says, “We cannot afford to lavish these subsidies on corporate agribusiness.”

Mr. Ellis misleads when he calls farmers who receive support ‘corporate agribusiness.’  Technically, any farmer who sells more than $1,000 worth of products could be called ‘corporate agribusiness.’  But the more a farm produces, the more vulnerable it is to risk and wild income swings; it’s also more expensive to run.  Therefore it is vital these larger farms remain stable. Viewers also weren’t told that payments are based on how much is produced—farmers aren’t receiving disproportional payments hand over fist.  And in some years, based on crop yields, crop conditions and market prices, many farmers don’t receive any federal payments. 

Illinois corn

Corn growing in Illinois, 2010

Mr. Ellis also falls back on the mischaracterization that farmers get paid not to farm.  Viewers weren’t told that ‘getting paid not to farm’ is part of being enrolled in land conservation programs.  These programs, which are subject to federal guidelines, help to: reduce soil erosion; restore wetlands and buffers; reduce carbon dioxide emissions; provide wildlife habitats and refuges; protect environmentally sensitive land; and safeguard ground water and surface water sources.

It’s important for taxpayers and the media to understand why this issue needs fair examination.  Farmers and farm organizations are aware of—and greatly concerned about—the federal deficit.  And they would prefer to rely on the marketplace for their income.  But while U.S. farm income was expected to be up 24% in 2010,  it was DOWN 38% in 2009.  Those are the kinds of wild market swings that can put a farmer out of business.

And as Illinois farmer Steve Pitstick said in the FOX piece, “It is kind of a national security thing.”  He’s absolutely right.  It is vital to our nation that farmers stay in business from one year to the next. History shows a hungry nation—or a nation dependent on others for food—is a vulnerable and unstable nation.

One last bit of information with regard to the title of the story—“Subsidies Bloat Agriculture Budget.”  Ag programs are expected to make up only 2% of total federal spending over the next ten years.  75% of total farm bill spending will go to nutritional programs—programs that have literally helped put food on people’s tables during these tough economic times.  9% of farm bill spending will go to crop insurance; 7% to conservation, and 7% to “subsidies.”  In other words, a miniscule .14% of all federal expenditures go to farm program payments. (Said another way, just over one tenth of one percent of the entire federal budget.)

Including ALL of that information would have been fair and balanced.

Read Full Post »

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to rule on a petition to rename High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as corn sugar.  We’re guessing the Corn Refiners Association filed the petition in part because of the persistent consumer concern that HFCS “is just so…processed.”

Generally, with boxed and canned foods in stores, more processing equals less nutritional value.

But, processing isn’t always a bad thing.

According to the Food Information Council Foundation, the definition of a processed food is “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it’s available for us to eat.”

By that definition, food has been “processed” for about two million years, when prehistoric humans discovered cooking. 

If you don’t think cooking counts as processing, take the informal definition offered by  ‘natural’-food enthusiasts: any ingredients their grandmother wouldn’t recognize.  But surely the process of preserving food with salt curing or smoking would be recognized by one’s grandmother.  Food has been cured with salt since the end of the 16th century, and smoking has been around almost as long. 

Other processed items that might be recognized by grandparents: beer (made at least as early as 7,000 BC), cheese (animal milk treated with enzymes), bread (dough treated with eukaryotic micro-organisms, a.k.a. yeast), American-style chocolate (milk chocolate treated with butyric acid), pickles (cucumbers soaked in brine and fermented), and even water (recycled, cleaned and fluoridated to flow through a modern tap; distilled, flavored and bottled for sale in markets).

Cane sugar, before processing

One other processed food your grandparents would have used—sugar.  That’s right, good old sugar.  Whether it’s cane sugar or beet sugar, it has to undergo processing before it ends up in food.  Cane sugar has to be milled, liquefied, treated with lime, boiled, and spun in a centrifuge before it’s useable.  Turning it into table or powdered sugar requires even more processing.  Beet sugar undergoes a similar process.

Sugar beets

Sugar beets, before processing

As with all foods, processed or eaten straight from the ground, the key is moderation.  Drinking a six-pack of cane sugar-sweetened soda a day will make a child obese and at extreme risk for diabetes just as quickly as a six-pack of corn sugar-sweetened soda.

Read Full Post »

Yesterday, the Associated Press ran a story on food prices.  Ordinarily, that in and of itself is not newsworthy, but it was the headline that caught our attention:

Experts: Farmers not to blame for high food prices

Of course, this is something folks in agriculture have known all along.  Unfortunately, farmers have been singled out in the past by certain trade groups, politicians, members of the media and opponents of ethanol.

You can read the whole story for yourself, but here’s a short excerpt:

“[E]experts say those prices have little to do with what shoppers pay at the grocery store, and farmers and ethanol producers aren’t responsible for recent increases in the cost of groceries.

‘It’s a whole slew of things that have influenced that price,’ said Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. He ticked off some of them: ‘When you look at the cost of our food, it is related to the cost of corn, soybeans and wheat and cattle but also the cost of oil, gas, diesel and unrest in other parts of the world.’”


“The U.S. Department of Agriculture report released last month that broke down where each dollar spent on groceries goes. Farmers received an average of 11.6 cents per dollar in 2008, the latest year data was available. That was down from 13 1/2 cents 10 years ago and from 14 1/2 cents in 1993, the USDA report showed.

The rest of the money goes to processing, packaging, transportation, retail trade and food service, which includes any place that prepares meals, snacks and beverages for immediate consumption including deli counters and in-store salad bars.”

Kudos to the reporter, Michael J. Crumb, for looking into the story and getting it right, and not just offering up a convenient scapegoat.

Follow Illinois Farm Bureau – News & Issues on Facebook

Read Full Post »