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Mark Bittman: My New Hero?

by: Jill Richardson

Tue Mar 01, 2011 at 23:32:22 PM PST

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I swear, ever since Mark Bittman's taken over his new role at the New York Times, every week has felt like Christmas. Once a week, without fail, someone emails me his column because every week, without fail, it's worth reading. Mark Bittman is a really smart man. And, thankfully, with his platform at the New York Times, he's got a really loud bullhorn. Even better than reading a great column by Mark Bittman is knowing that thousands or even millions of others around the U.S. read it too.

This week, he's got a column on ag subsidies. He says, "Don't end them. Fix them." HELL YEAH.

Oddly enough, I read his email just hours after getting off the phone with a farmer. A farmer who understands subsidies about as well as anyone can understand them. He's with Bittman: A government-provided safety net for our farmers is needed. And what we've got now stinks.

The complexities of the subsidy system are endless (seriously) and even my farmer friend noted that there are some things that just make sense to nobody. Well, they probably make sense to about 5 very highly paid people on Wall Street or something. Like how the relatively new crop insurance scheme gets financed.

But one thing makes very good sense: Paying farmers a set amount whether they need it or not (the so-called "direct payments" that Obama has proposed cutting for the richest farmers) is stupid.

In the past, we had a pretty smart system. We set a "loan rate" that was a certain amount per bushel. Something that served as a fair price floor (or at least, it was supposed to be fair). When prices dropped, farmers could give the government their crop as collateral in exchange for a loan. Let's say the loan rate is $2/bu and you have 200,000 bushels, then your loan is $400,000. If prices recover, you pay back the loan with a little bit of interest and sell your crop. If prices stay low, you keep the loan money and the government keeps the crop.

But today, we have to consider the rules of the WTO when making our ag subsidy policy. And that old system would violate the rules. Direct payments, stupid as they are, do not violate WTO rules. Which, in my opinion, goes to show how stupid the WTO is. At least for agriculture. Why on earth would we sign an agreement that ties our arms from making good policy?

So on top of our already complex and confusing subsidy policies, we've also got government subsidized crop insurance, which insures farmers against yield loss and income loss. It seems to me that crop insurance is essentially an outsourced, privatized subsidization program. That is, we pay the insurance companies no matter what, and then they pay (or you could say subsidize) the farmers who need it. And they keep a profit, courtesy of the tax payers. What's the sense of that?

Jill Richardson :: Mark Bittman: My New Hero?
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Great line... (4.00 / 2)
Too sad, and too true -

Indeed, if all Americans decided to actually eat the five servings a day of fruits and vegetables that are recommended, they would discover that American agriculture isn't set up to meet that need. They grow what they're paid to grow: corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice.

The first two of these are the pillars for the typical American diet -- featuring an unnaturally large consumption of meat, never-before-seen junk food and a bizarre avoidance of plants -- as well as the fortunes of Pepsi, Dunkin' Donuts, KFC and the others that have relied on cheap corn and soy to build their empires of unhealthful food.

Well, beyond corn and soy obviously but I know what he means...


Over the years, prices of fresh produce have risen, while those of meat, poultry, sweets, fats and oils, and especially soda, have fallen.

At the Plaid Pantry across the street from my apartment, you can buy 2 sodas for $2 right now (in an establishment where there is nothing even remotely close to resembling an actual fruit or vegetable - the best you can do is maybe a prepackaged sandwich containing a sorry slice of slave labor tomato and half a leaf of lettuce, or a cup of yogurt with "fruit"); while the nearest grapefruit will run you $1.50 at the produce stand about seven blocks down the street where a bunch of carrots also goes for more than $2.

And I'm now in no way in any kind of neighborhood that could even conceivably be considered anything close to a food desert / food swamp.  So it's no wonder why so many of us eat as we do.  There really isn't much of a choice for so many of us, right?

Heh heh heh... (4.00 / 3)
Not surprisingly, many Tea Partiers happily accept subsidies, including Vicky Hartzler (R-MO, $775,000), Stephen Fincher (R-TN, $2.5 million) and Michele Bachmann (R-MN $250,000). No hypocrisy there.

Not to mention government healthcare and taxpayer-paid salaries, but hey.  That's "their money", right?  Like Ayn Rand when she took the evil Social Security and Medicare herself.  

"Oh, I'll take it but..."


I am SO happy (4.00 / 4)
he is now on the opinion page..

and I can't wait to watch his new show on the Cooking Chanel

I didn't even know about that (4.00 / 2)
I guess I wouldn't, not having a TV and all. But very cool. Maybe if people love his TV show they'll read his column?

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
that's how things work.. (4.00 / 3)
my guess is that a lot of folks have never heard of him and his attitude towards eating and cooking. I'll review the show...

[ Parent ]
Another new tax idea (4.00 / 2)
I like the idea of taxing big food companies.  Here's another idea for a new tax in the food system:  "The Protection and Development of Antibiotic Effectiveness Tariff".  When a livestock company buys antibiotics to dump into their animals' feed (or to treat sick animals), they pay a tax that goes to fund antibiotic research by the National Institute of Health.  The indiscriminate use of antibiotics is causing trouble for the public, so let's have the users of these drugs help solve the problem.  We might even consider taxing antibiotics given to humans, as overuse in humans has negative consequences.

Cool (4.00 / 2)
so lets tax people who have a hard time affording antibiotics in the first place. Great idea. I supose you'd like to tax the antibiotics that I use to save my animals' lives as well?

Capitol Idea old chap.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
13.1 million kg of antimicrobial drugs for animals in 2009 (4.00 / 1)
It doesn't have to be a very large tax, just enough to fund some serious research, and only large enough to be noticed by the companies that buy antibiotics in massive quantities (i.e., CAFOs).  A new paper in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP) called
Dose Imprecision and Resistance: Free-Choice Medicated Feeds in Industrial Food Animal Production in the United States says that "[t]he FDA reported that 13.1 million kg of antimicrobial drugs were sold or distributed for use in food-producing animals in 2009."  So, to raise, say, $100 million for research, levy a tax of $7.63 per kilogram of antimicrobial drugs.  Do you use so many kilograms of antibiotics that your budget will be broken?  

The National Institute of Health's Congressional Justification for the 2012 budget (PDF) says that "The cost of developing a new drug is estimated to range from $500 million to $2 billion, when all of the failures are taken into account," so $100 million per year might be too low.

The EHP paper also says, "The increasing number of antimicrobial-resistant infections and their costs in the United States, estimated to be $400 million to $5 billion per year in 1998 (Institute of Medicine 1998) and $16.6 to $26 billion per year in 2009 (Roberts et al. 2009), are of growing concern," so antimicrobial-resistant infections is a pretty big deal.

[ Parent ]
Feed prices and drug prices at the feed store (4.00 / 1)
are already high enough.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

[ Parent ]
Stone Barns Center (4.00 / 1)
Liz and Tim Young visited Stone Barns Farm on a vacation trip a few months ago and talked about that on a podcast. They commented that the farm was very well funded - the best equipment and a lot of it, and a surprising number of people on the farm. If the Youngs knew the source of the money, they didn't say.

Now we know, thanks to Mr. Bittman.

One Can't Think of Everything Department

In fact, Rockefeller, inspired no doubt by his late wife Peggy (a founding board member of the American Farmland Trust), is a major force behind this country's sustainable agriculture movement, most notably as the patron of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in New York. When it comes to U.S. agriculture David Rockefeller is not the problem (not even close.) Just wanted to make that clear. Mea culpa.

Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture

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