Health Care Reform Begins at the USDA | Civil Eats

Health Care Reform Begins at the USDA

“The less we spend on food, the more we spend on health care,” said Michael Pollan last week 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 of 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 garden, but most of us don’t yet live in that world. With picky eaters, limited time and a limited budget, we are trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got and are frustrated by the price discrepancy between conventional food and “organic” food at the grocery store.

But have you ever wondered why organic food costs more?

Organic food costs more than its conventional counterparts because our taxpayer dollars are not used to support organic farms to the same extent that our dollars are used to support conventional farms. Under our current system, it is more profitable for farmers to grow crops laced with chemicals than organic ones because they will receive larger government handouts from the USDA farm subsidy program, more marketing assistance and stronger crop insurance programs.

If farmers do choose to grow organic crops, it costs them more because not only do they not receive the same level of financial handouts from the government, but they are also charged a fee to prove that their crops are safe. On top of that, they are then charged a fee to label their crops as “organic.” As a result, organic farmers have a higher cost structure–with added fees and expenditures required to bring their products to market–while our taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize the crops with the chemicals.

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Wouldn’t it make more sense to use our taxpayer dollars to subsidize the crops without chemicals given the increasing evidence pointing to the impact that these environmental insults are having on our health? What if our most powerful weapon in the war on health care is a farm subsidy?

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 and by eliminating the organic certification fee farmers are required to pay in order to label their crops as “USDA Organic.”

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

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

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According to the New York Times, Robyn O'Brien is "food's Erin Brockovich." As the founder of AllergyKids, an organization designed to protect the 1 in 3 American children with autism, allergies, ADHD and asthma, Robyn has appeared on Good Morning America, CBS Evening News with Katie Couric and CNN highlighting the role that chemicals in our food supply are having on our health. Born and raised in a conservative Texas family on supply side economics and the Wall Street Journal, Robyn earned a Fulbright Fellowship, an MBA and served as an equity analyst on a multibillion dollar fund prior to moving to Boulder, Colorado with her husband and four children. She is the author of the book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It. Read more >

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  1. I don't understand how people can continue to pay $3 for a latte but continue to say organic food is too expensive.
    The price of organic food much better reflects the actual cost of production, without all the subsidies that appear to push down the cost of conventional produce. Yes, there is a cost to label food as organic, but with that label comes a certain level of consumer trust, trust that I fear would be diluted if big business got more involved.
    If there's money to spend, I would rather see it spent on re-educating people about cooking real food,and have the drive for organic produce come from consumer demand not oversupply. That way, the true value of the organic label doesn't become diluted by green washed conventional producers.
  2. We have found this inverse investment Pollan posited to be true. In 2008 (eating the Standard American Diet), we spent 11% of our net income on food and 23% on medical expenses. In 2009 (our first year eating a real food diet) we spent 20% on food and 9% on medical. When we embarked on our real food journey, I was hoping maybe, someday to see some difference in our health. I had no idea the correlation would present so soon and so dramatically.
  3. While the reasons for more expensive organic food that you mentioned are very valid, there is even a bigger one that somehow was left out in the dark - real organic food (let's call it "natural" to distinguish it from the hydroponics and other pretty un-natural techs that somehow pass organic certification with flying colors) is more human labor-intensive. So, it will be expensive by definition for as long as labor is expensive.

    Food can be cheap, healthy and ecologically responsible - pick any two. No, you can't have all three, even the government can't alter laws of physics and economics. And no amount of government subsidies (by the way, they sure did a lot of good to conventional farmers over the last 50 years) will help until consumers are ready to spend 30 or 40 cents of each dollar on natural food, realizing that they still saving money on their and their children's health care bills.
  4. While health is wealth most of our people no good health and it is the reality that they have no wealth to keep health well. To keep good health we also need wealth. Health is wealth? Not always that!

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