By Danielle Nierenberg and Dan Morrison
The Obama campaign hit a home run last month, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act can constitutionally require every American to have health care insurance. The ruling will make it difficult for the Romney campaign to hang President Obama on the cross of health care, although they will still try.
But the real health care bill is sailing through Congress without public knowledge or debate. It's called the Farm Bill, or the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012. Each year, the average American eats 1,996 pounds, or nearly one ton, of food -- food that has a real and direct impact on their health. More than any other piece of legislation, the Farm Bill influences what America grows -- and ultimately eats.
Consider this: 93 percent of Americans want GMO food labeled, 81 percent are concerned about the obesity epidemic, and 57 percent believe the government should address the health risks associated with obesity. And generally, Americans want food that is healthy, safe, and sustainable. The Farm Bill addresses none of these concerns.
The Bill, for example, does not require that GMOs be labeled. And despite public opposition to government support of mass produced cash crops like corn, the Farm Bill supports large scale, mono-cropping operations in lieu of small-scale, locally owned family farms.
Between 1995 and 2011, U.S. corn production skyrocketed by 99 percent. But only 2 percent of corn produced in the U.S. is eaten as corn. The vast majority is used to feed cows, fuel cars in the form of ethanol, and produce high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Since HFCS was introduced to the American diet on a mass scale in the 1970s, it has grown to a $2.6 billion industry producing 9 million tons of HFCS every year. The Corn Refiners Association estimates that the average American now consumes 38 pounds of HFCS annually. The major increase in the consumption of HFCS corresponds to the increase in diet-related illnesses in America.
Between 1970 and 2003, beef production in the U.S. increased from around 10 million metric tons to over 12 million metric tons. The beef industry scaled up production by turning to a cheap food substitute for grass: corn. But as it turns out, corn makes cows extremely sick. To compensate, the beef industry now doses cows with 29.8 million pounds of antibiotics, hoping to keep them healthy enough to make it to the slaughterhouse and onto your plate. In excess, meat consumption -- which has doubled in the last 50 years -- causes heart disease and cancer.
The subsidies and policies of the Farm Bill made these dramatic production gains possible, by encouraging consolidation of the farm sector and the overproduction of corn. The Farm Bill influences what we eat, what we eat influences our health, and as a country we are very unhealthy. Over 35 percent, of American adults are obese, around 6 percent of adults have heart disease, and nearly 26 million Americans have diabetes. Correlation doesn't always imply causation, but it does here.
The bottom line: We are growing too many cash crops and eating too much processed food. Biotech and agro-industrial companies know that people can't eat all of the corn they produce as corn-on-the-cob. So they endeavor to find innovative ways for Americans to eat modified corn products, like corn-fed beef and high fructose corn syrup, which can cause diet-related illnesses. The Farm Bill is making us sick -- it is promoting a system that causes obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
The Farm Bill, however, has the potential to positively affect the health of Americans. It has the potential to encourage the production of nutritious fruits and vegetables, locally and sustainably raised beef and chicken, and other foods essential for human health.
The House of Representatives has not yet passed the Farm Bill. If you eat, you should call your House representative and tell him or her what kind of food you want to see on your plate. If you want a healthy diet that is good for the environment and promotes social justice, say no to the Farm Bill. If you are comfortable with the way things are, vote yes. But remember that childhood obesity has tripled since 1980.
Dan Morrison (@DanCitizen) is the founder and executive director of Citizen Effect www.citizeneffect.org; Danielle Nierenberg (@NourishPlanet) is the Director of the Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet projectwww.nourishingtheplanet.org.