Health Reform Should Begin at USDA

Friday, February 5, 2010

Guest blog posted by EWG Action Fund board member Robyn O'Brien

“The less we spend on food, the more we spend on health care,” author and food activist Michael Pollan said on Oprah.

Today, Americans spend almost 20 cents of every dollar managing disease -- diabetes, allergies, asthma, cancer, obesity -- and only 10 cents of every dollar on food.

The jury is still out on what exactly may be causing all these epidemics, but genetics don't change that quickly. The environment does. And increasing evidence points to the role that diet is playing in the onset of disease.

In a perfect world, we'd all be growing our own organic vegetable gardens, but most of us don't live in that world. With picky eaters, too little time and limited budgets, we are trying to do the best we can with what we've got and are frustrated by the price discrepancy between conventional and “organic” food at the grocery store.

Have you ever wondered why organic food costs more?

It’s because our taxpayer dollars aren’t used to support organic farms to the same extent that they support conventional farms.  Under our current system, it is more profitable for farmers to grow crops laced with chemicals than organic ones because they get larger government handouts from the Department of Agriculture’s  Farm Subsidy program, more marketing assistance and stronger crop insurance programs.

If farmers do choose to grow organic crops, it costs them more. It’s not just that they don’t get the same level of subsidy support from the government. They are also charged a fee to prove that their crops are safe, and on top of that, they are charged another fee for the right to label their crops “organic.”  As a result, organic farmers have a higher cost structure, while our taxpayer dollars subsidize the crops with the chemicals.

Wouldn't it make more sense to use our taxes to subsidize the crops without chemicals, given the increasing evidence pointing to the impact that these environmental insults are having on our health? Could it be that our most powerful weapon in fight for better health care is farm subsidy reform?

Health care reform could  begin at the USDA, with an equal allocation of our taxpayer dollars between organic and conventional farming.  The USDA could continue health care reform by providing equivalent marketing assistance and crop insurance programs to organic crops and by eliminating the organic certification fee farmers must pay in order to label their crops as “USDA Organic.”

If we invite the USDA to be part of health reform, the department could level the economic playing field for farmers, enabling more of them to grow crops free of chemicals and synthetic and genetically engineered ingredients. That, in turn, would increase the supply of these crops in the marketplace. And that, as any good economist knows, would drive down costs. Organic food would be more affordable.

Safe food is a social justice issue that our taxpayer dollars could support. Perhaps it's time to invite the USDA into the health care debate and to ask it to address the current system under which our taxes are shifting the costs of these chemicals onto our families’ health care bills. With the USDA at the table, health reform could begin on the farm.


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