Articles by Tom Philpott
Tom Philpott was previously Grist's food writer. He now writes for Mother Jones. Follow
The United States has made two great contributions to world cuisine over the last century: the fast-food franchise and the supermarket.
Temples of the cheap-food revolution, both institutions flourished in the 20th century, offering consumers convenience and the cachet of fast life. At the height of the post-war prosperity boom, before the yuppie-led backlash, fast-food and the supermarket occupied the cutting edge of food fashion in a rapidly suburbanizing nation.
At a Grocery Manufacturers Association convention in 1962, an air of hubris and self-celebration held sway that would not have been out of place at, say, a tech trade show in Silicon Valley, circa 1998. As Harvey Levenstein writes:
Yesterday, I reported that top Bush administration officials have been openly discussing deep cuts in farm commodity subsidies. But the program, a $14.5 billion per year cash cow, is also a sacred cow.
Farm-state politicians, and the agribusiness giants that love them, speciously portray farm subsidies as a "safety net for the family farm." In reality, the program helps push commodity prices down -- and arguably helps drive farms out of business. In 1935, around the time the program started, there were 7 million farms in the U.S. By 1997, the USDA reports, only 1.9 million remained. Some safety net.
Well yesterday, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R.-Ga.), a man who reveres the free market so long as it doesn't impede his state's beloved cotton trade, lashed back.
The sustainable-food movement has a class problem.
Slow Food, for example, is an essential organization, with its declaration of a universal "right to taste" and its mandate to ...
... oppose the standardisation of taste, defend the need for consumer information, protect cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguard foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defend domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.
The group has undeniably done important work internationally toward those goals; yet its U.S. branch tends to throw pricey events accessible only to an economic elite.
Examples like this abound.
Long the bane of environmentalists and sustainable-agriculture proponents, the U.S. agriculture-subsidy system has drawn some unlikely new critics: top Bush administration officials.
92 percent of commodity program spending was paid on five crops -- corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice. The farmers who raise other crops -- two thirds of all farmers -- received little support from current farm programs.
Later, he deplored what he called "trade-distorting subsidies. "
And Monday, U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman published an op-ed in the Financial Times offering to slash farm support, so long as Europe and Japan follow suit.
The U.S. subsidy system, rooted in the Great Depression and most recently ratified by the 2002 Farm Bill, rewards gross output. The farms that churn out the most product -- so long as the product in question is one of the Big Five commodities mentioned above by Johanns -- grab the most cash. And from 1995 to 2003, reports the stalwart Environmental Working Group, that cash averaged a cool $14.5 billion per year.
Now, the subsidy system is beloved of politically powerful grain-processing giants like Archer-Daniels Midland, because it pushes down the price of the stuff they buy and then resell at a profit (or "add value" to, as in the case of high-fructose corn syrup). Environmentalists tend to hate the system because (among other evils) it encourages farmers to maximize production through the use of fossil fuel-derived fertilizers, which in turn foul up groundwater. (In his 2004 Harper's essay "The Oil We Eat," Richard Manning elegantly teases out the environmental impact of government-funded industrial agriculture.)
Why, then, is the Bush Administration, generally friend of industry and foe of environmentalists, breaking ranks?