You Can Have Your Own Opinion, You Don’t Get To Have Your Own Facts

food-pyramid-and-subsidies

Readers Digest ran a short article in their October issue called Why That Salad Costs More than a Big Mac. The main point was:

Government subsidies help ensure that healthy food tends to cost more than meals that pack on pounds.

I completely agree with that. Unfortunately, the way they arrived at that conclusion is so wrong that I wish they hadn’t said anything at all.

What they claim

Let’s start with the food pyramid. Since it was introduced it has become shorthand for “healthy” in the U.S., and people have been eating a diet progressively more in line with the recommendations. Which seems to suggest a successful government program.

Except that in that same time, the rates of obesity and diabetes have been skyrocketing. Some people might look at this outcome and conclude that maybe the guidelines weren’t right after all. That’s just what a group of food scientists have done in an article in the journal Nutrition. You should read Tom Noughton’s review of this report. But here’s the main conclusion:

In the three decades since [the dietary guidelines known as the Food Pyramid were released], carbohydrate consumption has increased; overall fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol consumption have decreased to near or below targeted levels; caloric intake remains within recommended levels; and leisure-time physical activity has increased slightly. At the same time, scientific evidence in favor of these recommendations remains inconclusive, and we must consider the possibility that the “potential for harmful effects” has in fact been realized.

In short, Americans have on average done exactly what the guidelines say we should, and things have gotten worse.

So the Readers Digest article I mentioned uses the Federal Dietary Guidelines (aka the Food Pyramid) as its definition of “healthy”. I disagree with that and just explained why. But that is still the official government position.

Here’s the problem

The other part of that graphic shows that government subsidies focus primarily on meat and dairy. There’s no citation for that, so I went looking. I found this blog post about subsidies, which states:

About a quarter of the land in cultivation in this country is planted in corn. We spent about four billion dollars on subsidies to corn farmers last year, and about $75B over the last fifteen years or so. That is more than twice the value of any other agricultural subsidy over the same period.

There are numerous citations to source data, if you want to check those numbers. Or you can go straight to this Environmental Working Group summary of subsidies.

1  	 Corn Subsidies**
	 	1,639,547 	  	$73,775,277,671
2 	Wheat Subsidies**
	 	1,374,499 	  	$30,726,213,559
3 	Cotton Subsidies**
	 	264,850 	  	$29,715,272,513
4 	Conservation Reserve Program
	 	855,784 	  	$26,057,941,270
5 	Soybean Subsidies**
	 	1,044,247 	  	$22,776,514,081
6 	Disaster Payments
	 	1,321,411 	  	$17,883,953,290
7 	Rice Subsidies**
	 	69,990 	  	$12,551,853,937
8 	Sorghum Subsidies**
	 	615,604 	  	$5,904,106,527
9 	Dairy Program Subsidies
	 	157,978 	  	$4,799,603,993
10 	Livestock Subsidies
	 	797,725 	  	$3,455,429,926

Dairy and Livestock are #9 and #10 on that list. I’m not clear how the Readers Digest story can show meat and dairy as having nearly three-quarters of total subsidies. (In fairness, they’re simply relaying a report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.*)

The basic premise — subsidies are going to the things that make us fat — is true. But it’s the corn, wheat and soybean that’s doing it, not the meat and dairy.

The first fruit or vegetable on that list, by the way, is apples at #18.

* Epilogue: Follow the Money

So how did the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine get their facts so wrong? Newsweek reports that:

[PCRM president Neal] Barnard has co-signed letters, on PCRM letterhead, with the leader of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, an animal-rights group the Department of Justice calls a “domestic terrorist threat.” PCRM also has ties to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. An agency called the Foundation to Support Animal Protection has distributed money from PETA to PCRM in the past and, until very recently, did both groups’ books. Barnard and PETA head Ingrid Newkirk are both on the foundation’s board.

PCRM is an activist group opposed to the use of animals in medical research. They are associated with PETA, which opposes killing animals for ethical reasons. I happen to disagree, but I can respect their positions.

Where I have a problem with them is inventing false statistics to support their cause. If they can’t make their argument without lying, there’s no point in addressing what they have to say.

Comments

  1. But wait…. isn’t over 60% of corn being used in non-petroleum fuel and other non-food items (like Febreze and New kinds of Cat Litter)?

    Oh wait… sorry, I don’t want to get you into more trouble.

  2. To be fair, a good part of that corn subsidy is an indirect subsidy to beef production – but it still nowhere near makes up the numbers shown.

  3. This should be submitted to newspapers, and a short summary sent to the editor of Newsweek in hopes of it being published.

  4. Virtually all animals raised for food in the US are fed corn and soybeans–including animals that provide eggs and milk. If you add the subsidies for corn & soybeans that go to feed animals plus the direct subsidies to the meat & dairy industry, the total probably is pretty high. I don’t have the time to try to figure all that out, but I’m guessing that’s how PCRM came up with their number.

    The meat & dairy available in most grocery stores and butcher shops comes from animals fed an unnatural diet of corn & soybeans. It’s deficient in nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, that American desperately need. Anyone who wants to find truly healthy meat & dairy should avoid shops altogether and go directly to (completely unsubsidized) farmers who are raising animals on pasture. You can find them at EatWild.com.

  5. Very interesting. Over the past two or three years I’ve begun to find nutrition and diet to be quite fascinating.

    I hope you do a follow-up to this post!

  6. Actually I’m sending it to Readers Digest. They might like to know that they’ve reprinted false information from a special-interest group masquerading as a doctors’ group.

    Chris, even if we assumed for the sake of argument that 100% of the corn and soybean subsidies ended up in livestock feed, that would be just over $100 billion in the time covered in that chart. Add the direct dairy and livestock subsidies and it comes to about $109 billion. Out of a total of $245.2 billion. There’s no reasonable way to get to nearly 75%.

  7. I’ve been getting your emails for a few weeks now, and enjoy your recipes but I love this post!! Along with the comments, especially the one from Chris, I am more determined than ever to find pastured meat and wild caught seafood. Thanks!

  8. Anyone who expects to find thoughtful, fact-based scientific articles in Readers Digest is delusional. Read it for the heartwarming stories and the “Kids Say the Darndest Things,” but DON’T read it and form opinions from it on important subjects.

    In my opinion.

  9. Great post. I didn’t realize you were a Tom Naughton fan.

    • Tom is great. He gets the science right, but makes it entertaining enough to not want to gouge your eyes out reading it.

  10. I have been in such a research stage the past few days… It really makes me laugh on the amount of FALSE information that is out there.

    Love you site!

  11. It should also be noted that there are a number of farmers who do NOT accept government subsidies. One example of this includes Florida citrus farmers. Just something for everyone to keep in mind, though I appreciate your encouragement to buy locally. Our farmers need all the support they can get!

  12. Another Drew says:

    I wouldn’t look to R.D. for anything in the way of accurate scientific reporting. That said, what do you think most of the livestock in this country eat? Corn and soybeans!

    Also, I don’t see any vegetables in that list of subsidies. R.D. offered an inaccurate oversimplification of the problem, but there sure are some problems with our food system and our way of eating. I would suggest watching Food Inc and reading Michael Pollan for starters.

    On a related note, I would encourage everyone to support your local farmers whenever possible.

  13. I eat low-carb, ala Atkins Diet (which is why I love this site and you should seriously consider the low-carb SEO with some specific higher fat, low carb recipes) but I regularly cook high-carb items for my dinner guests. What I’ve noticed: while I am truly satisfied with a single, heaping serving of something like chicken doused in homemade alfredo sauce, my guests who eat the same with pasta and bread often return for second servings, extra bread and still have room for dessert. The big question everyone asks is, “Is it skinless chicken breast?” Yeah. That’s the deal breaker.

    For some dense, unenjoyable reading on this same subject, be sure to check out Gary Taubes, Good Calories, Bad Calories.

  14. Do you realize that corn subsidies artificially lower the cost of the feed that is used by the dairy and meat industries? Your naive article undermines the veracity of the original article. Just because you do not see a DIRECT link does not mean that the industry is indirectly benefiting from corn subsidies.

    You need to think twice before you post garbage that other people naively believe.

    • I’m a little confused by your comment. You do realize that the whole point of my post was to undermine the veracity of the original article?

      And in my previous comment I addressed the indirect subsidy to livestock via corn and soy subsidies.

  15. For what its worth, the numbers are not that far off if you include the % of each grain crop that is eventually used as animal feed, and delete line items that have nothing to do with food production. I did a (quick) look and found the following percentage of crop used in animal feed: corn 80%, wheat 22%, soybean 83%, sorghum 35%, peanut 25%, barley 22%, sunflower 24%, oats 95%. If you allocate those percentages of the subsidy amount to meat / dairy you get something like 60% for the base of the pyramid. (of course you should drop from the denominator the line items for cotton, conservation, disaster, etc that have little/nothing to do with food subsidy. Also, I only used the top 20 subsidies listed)

  16. Paul Rudd says:

    80% of corn grown in the United States is used as livestock feed.

    You are a complete buffoon.

    • Look at my previous reply:

      Even if we assumed for the sake of argument that 100% of the corn and soybean subsidies ended up in livestock feed, that would be just over $100 billion in the time covered in that chart. Add the direct dairy and livestock subsidies and it comes to about $109 billion. Out of a total of $245.2 billion. There’s no reasonable way to get to nearly 75%.

      Since I already addressed this, I’d say I’m at most a partial buffoon.

  17. You should really think about taking this article down, or rewriting it to reflect the truth more accurately. It’s quite apparent you don’t know much about this topic.

    You even admit your journalistic buffoonery in the comment section, but if one weren’t to read the comments, they might take your self-admitted poorly researched blog post as fact.

    As your ironic headlines states, “You can have your own opinion, you don’t get to have your own facts.”

    • Way to miss the sarcasm, Kirk. What I was telling Paul was that he was raising a point that I had already addressed, and which didn’t materially alter the points made in the post in any case.

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