Fat Farm? 

Some activists think agricultural subsidies are driving obesity, but regional farmers disagree.

In Memphis, many things seem super-sized — the musical legacy, the portions of barbecue ribs, and, well, the butts.

In 2004 — the most recent numbers available — 26 percent of Memphians were overweight or obese. That means that over one-quarter of the city's population is at an elevated risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, and heart disease.

A recent New York Times article by Michael Pollan suggests that America's obesity epidemic may be linked to the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill and the $25 billion in agricultural subsidies it provides to farmers each year. The bill, which gives financial assistance to those who grow certain commodity crops (namely, corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton), is due for renewal this year.

Many junk foods are made from those subsidized commodities. Pollan argues that the government subsidies lead to the overproduction of those crops, thus driving down prices. In the end, it's cheaper for a consumer to purchase a Twinkie (ingredients include wheat flour, corn syrup, and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, among other things) than vegetables. And that can mean a huge difference for shoppers on a budget.

"Cost is a large consideration," says Marian Levy, a dietician with Healthy Memphis Common Table, a group dedicated to improving the health of Mid-Southerners. "It's been shown that families with lower [income] levels have ... a higher association with obesity."

But Mid-South farmers say the argument that subsidies indirectly cause obesity is ridiculous.

"[The obesity argument] is about as illogical as blaming General Motors for highway deaths," says Stanley Reed, a cotton and grain farmer from Marianna, Arkansas, about 60 miles southwest of Memphis. "There's got to be some personal accountability in how you use products and how you consume food. If someone was giving away Brussels sprouts, most people would still prefer to buy a cheeseburger. They may know it's worse for them, but they like the taste."

Farmers also say the subsidies are necessary to protect the country's future food production. Supply and demand drive market prices, but at planting time, farmers cannot know what the market will be like when they harvest their crops.

"These [subsidies] are designed to give farmers a safety net in the event that prices tumble to an incredibly low level," says John Alter, a fifth-generation farmer who grows rice, soybeans, wheat, and corn on 2,000 acres in Dewitt, Arkansas, about a two-hour drive southwest of Memphis.

Local farmers are hoping that the subsidy program in the 2007 Farm Bill mirrors that of the 2002 bill, but food-justice activists like Pollan hope for a bill that "makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones." He's not alone.

"Taking an honest look at the current state of agribusiness in the United States is vital to the health and welfare of Americans," says Congressman Steve Cohen. "The prevalence of obesity, particularly childhood obesity, is alarming, and yet historically, the Farm Bill has not provided incentives for local farmers producing fresh, healthy produce. Rather, it has been designed to support big agribusiness. ... We must step back and rethink outdated programs that no longer serve our citizens and, indeed, may actually be harming their health."

Even Shelby County Farm Bureau president Tommy Morrison says that a bill guaranteeing fair prices would trump the need for subsidies.

"We're getting the same prices we were getting 20 or 30 years ago, and you know what a car costs today compared to 20 or 30 years ago," says Morrison. "The middlemen and the retail folks aren't paying the farmer any more for food that they ever have, and they're making a killing off consumers. The American consumer is being manipulated."

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