As Congress returns from the Independence Day celebration recess, it is an ideal time for all of us to reflect on how dependent political figures and big agribusiness seem to be on each other.
Last month -- in what I considered an outrageous political shell game --key figures in the House of Representatives quietly blocked a bipartisan plan to cut $167 million in government subsidies to agribusiness and wealthy farmers which was included in the House Agricultural Appropriations bill, as they took a chainsaw to funding for food aid and food safety programs in the House Agricultural Appropriations bill.
This penny-foolish, pound-foolish maneuver cut muscle from vital public health efforts and left a huge chunk of budgetary fat untouched. And it continues subsidies that encourage production of unhealthy foods that feed America's costly obesity and diabetes epidemics.
At a time when life-threatening outbreaks of E. coli and other foodborne illnesses surface almost weekly, the House leadership aims to cut the Food and Drug Administration's budget almost 12 percent -- thereby killing much-needed efforts to improve food safety.
And even as many American families struggle to put meals on the table, House leaders are cutting food aid to low-income mothers and children and gutting efforts to improve school lunches.
The food aid and food safety cuts are especially disturbing because agricultural subsidies go mostly to some of the wealthiest people and corporations in the nation. From 1995 to 2009, the largest and wealthiest top 10 percent of farm program recipients received 74 percent of all farm subsidies, according to the Environmental Working Group.
But under the House leadership's new plan, rich recipients of agricultural subsidy payments -- including those making as much as $750,000 a year -- won't see any decrease in subsidies.
We've been here before. Powerful agricultural interests have blocked most efforts to reform agricultural subsidies for decades. But finally, we were seeing progress on a commonsense bill that included cuts in taxpayer-funded payments to the richest of the rich farmers. The cuts, which had been approved by a key House committee, were the most bipartisan possible, with support from both Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers and President Obama.
Then the House leadership stepped in to stop this reform effort in its tracks. And that could harm the physical and economic health of Americans for many years to come.
In addition to funneling limited resources to farmers who clearly don't need them, subsidies contribute to chronic diseases that kill millions of Americans every year.
Earlier this year, the federal government issued new dietary guidelines that urge Americans to reduce their intake of saturated fat and sweeteners. That means consuming less meat, cheese, and high fructose corn syrup -- and more fruits and vegetables.
Yet more than 60 percent of agricultural subsidies for domestic food products in recent history have directly and indirectly supported meat and dairy production. Another substantial chunk has supported the production of high-fructose corn syrup. Less than 1 percent of these subsidies have gone to fruits and vegetables.
We can't afford to subsidize unhealthy foods. In 2008, the direct medical costs associated with obesity totaled $147 billion. We already spend more than $190 billion a year to treat diabetes and pre-diabetes -- and those costs will rise to $500 billion a year by 2020. The American Heart Association estimates that, by 2030, direct costs related to cardiovascular disease will triple to around $818 billion.
The risk of these life-threatening and expensive-to-treat conditions can be greatly reduced by eating diets low in animal products and sweeteners and rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. But those healthy choices are actually discouraged by current agricultural subsidies.
The last thing our country needs is a taxpayer-funded subsidy system that favors the very foods that contribute to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. All Americans deserve access to healthful foods -- and should be able to eat their lunch without worrying about E. coli.
Saving money is a good thing. But let's start balancing the national checkbook by cutting subsidies to big agribusiness -- not by chopping away at programs that improve food safety and keep kids from going hungry. We must make sure that the Senate takes more sensible actions in its agricultural appropriations bill.
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