Junk Subsidies?

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The US Department of Agriculture spends millions of dollars each year promoting healthier habits and ways of eating, such as through its Web site. However, as a recent article in the New York Post mentions, the USDA seems to be undermining its own recommendations by doling out agriculture subsidies that result in cheaper junk-food ingredients and, as a result, cheaper junk food.

The Post article references a report by US PIRG, a consumer advocacy group that has made junk-food subsidies one of its key priorities. Released late last month, the report finds that the USDA spent $1.28 billion in 2011 to subsidize four ingredients that often end up in junk food: corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn starch, and soybean oil (which is often partially hydrogenated for use in processed foods, leading to unhealthy trans fats). This is not a new development; the USDA spent $18.2 billion between 1995 and 2011 to support these ingredients. In contrast, the agency spent only $637 million over this period of time on subsidies for apples, one of few fresh fruits or vegetables that receives a federal subsidy of significant value. This means, according to the report, that the USDA spent about $7.58 per taxpayer per year subsidizing junk-food ingredients but only 27 cents subsidizing apples.


The USDA spent a total of $16 billion last year on agricultural subsidies, according to the Post article — mostly to support the growing of corn, wheat, and soy in their various forms. According to the report from US PIRG, 75% of these subsidies went to 3.8% of farmers in the Unites States, indicating that they disproportionally benefited extremely large, profitable farming operations.

While USDA subsidies may not be the lifeline to struggling family farmers that some people imagine them to be, their beneficiaries naturally deny that they are responsible for any increase in obesity in the United States. In a 2004 article published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, two spokesmen for the corn industry argue that while subsidies may have a very small effect on the price of consumer products, ultimately there must be demand for a product in the first place. Furthermore, food manufacturers, not farmers, set the course for what ingredients are used. Some critics of the current system counter that while subsidies may not be the root cause of the obesity crisis, they can actually be part of the solution. As Mark Bittman wrote in a column last year for The New York Times, money that currently subsidizes corn, wheat, and soy could instead subsidize fresh produce, reducing its cost and therefore making it a more attractive alternative to junk food.

What do you think — does price play a role in whether you choose fresh fruit over a junk-food snack, or vice versa? Should subsidies for corn, wheat, and soy be scrapped because some portion of these crops are used as ingredients in junk food? Should keeping the tradition of family farming alive play any role in government subsidies? Should subsidies be abolished altogether, or redirected toward farmers of fresh produce? Leave a comment below!

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