TFHealthy FoodWhy is healthy food so expensive in America? Blame the Farm Bill that Congress always renews to make burgers cheaper than salad
TFHealthy FoodWhy is healthy food so expensive in America? Blame the Farm Bill that Congress always renews to make burgers cheaper than salad
Healthy Food

Why is healthy food so expensive in America? Blame the Farm Bill that Congress always renews to make burgers cheaper than salad

The 2023 Farm Bill is projected to spend $700 billion over the next five years, with powerful industry lobbyists directing funds to enrich themselves at the expense of agricultural communities, human health, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. It’s far from its original intention: to help struggling farmers and hungry citizens during The Great Depression and Dustbowl. This year, with growing awareness about the myriad harms of our factory farm system, we have a critical opportunity to shift Farm Bill programs to serve our nation and our planet better.

Most Americans have never heard of this massive omnibus bill, which Congress reauthorizes every five or so years, yet it impacts us every day. It shapes our food system–from subsidizing factory farms to funding food and nutrition programs, and that is why burgers are artificially cheap and salads cost more than they should.

How did this happen? Farm Bill has been hijacked, resulting in the demise of family farms, the proliferation of food that makes us sick, and widespread ecological destruction.

After World War II, to meet the needs of a booming US population and a growing export market, the Farm Bill invested heavily in monocrops, including millions of acres of corn and soy, used to feed animals on industrialized farms. We subsidize the overproduction of fat-laden animal products and highly processed foods, making unhealthy food cheap and accessible. This contributes to heart disease and other chronic diet-related illnesses that cost our nation billions of dollars annually in preventable health care costs.

Farm Bill programs should be revised to incentivize fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods and to make them more accessible and affordable. Nine out of 10 US adults do not consume nutritionists’ recommended fruits and vegetables, and access to fresh produce is especially limited in lower-income communities. The Farm Bill can be crucial in supporting Americans’ nutritional needs by making healthy food accessible where it’s most needed.

Factory farming is capital and resource intensive, and it is inefficient. In the US, 10 times more farmland goes to feed farm animals than to feed people, destroying ecosystems and biodiversity, while wasting water and other increasingly scarce resources.

News reports recently covered western states vying for a dwindling supply of Colorado River water. Still, they failed to comprehensively address that the river’s water is running out because most of it is used to grow crops to support animal agriculture. Bottom line: plant-based agriculture can feed more people with less land, less water, and fewer resources.

Embedded interests

Agribusiness has wielded undue political influence and profited from the misdirection of billions of dollars in public funding. One of the most entrenched lobbies in Washington, DC, is the dairy industry, which receives government support to produce more cows’ milk than we consume. Besides funding overproduction, the USDA uses additional tax dollars to purchase and market the glut of dairy products to our school children and through exports. One 2015 study found an astounding 73% of the US dairy industry’s income came from government programs. Dairy industry interests are so embedded that before his appointment as the USDA Secretary by President Biden, Tom Vilsack was the CEO of the US Dairy Export Council. The revolving door between USDA leadership and employment for the dairy, meat, and commodity industries is staggering.

Farm Bill programs have followed the industry’s “get big or get out” mantra for decades and incentivized large farms and industry consolidation. Besides causing animals, workers, and residents living near these polluting operations to suffer every day, the fragility of our factory farm system was exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic when slaughterhouse closures led to supply chain back-ups. Millions of animals grew past their scheduled slaughter date and were brutally killed, including by suffocation through “ventilation shutdown,” and their carcasses discarded at taxpayer expense.

Instead of bailing out factory farms and paying to clean up their mess, including animal carcasses, excrement, and other waste, public funds should support sustainable farmers who grow food that nourishes their communities. The Farm Bill should invest in enterprises that act with integrity, not unethical profiteers who lobby for unconstitutional “ag-gag” laws that prevent free speech, transparency, and accountability.

Our industrial animal agriculture model undermines the health and well-being of people and communities and harms animals and our shared planet. All of us can benefit from a more just, resilient, and ecologically sustainable plant-based food system, and shifting Farm Bill spending can help to bring about this much-needed transformation.

Gene Baur is the president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, the world’s first farm animal sanctuary and advocacy organization.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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