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How U.S Agricultural Subsidies Distort the Food System - A Brief Overview

Envision a field - any field.

What do you see?

I see grain stalks on the horizon.

I see plants sprayed with chemicals.

I see harvesters rattling through crop fields.

This image of U.S agriculture is a shining example of modern efficiency. You might have been told - even as kids - that these fields are where most of our food comes from.

But what if I said these farms mainly grow just five crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice? What if I told you that these crops are all heavily subsidised by the U.S government, done in such a way that they worsen global grain prices, affect citizen health and increase soil degradation?

Let’s look at the figures. The U.S government had been generous over the years, handling over $67 billion in crop insurance between 2005 and 2014. Years 2015 to 2024 brought further subsidy increases, inflating the former price of $24 per acre of grain to $60-$200 an acre alone. Generous as they seem, a large percentage only goes to a tiny minority. Between 1995 and 2016, the top 10% of farms received a staggering 78% of all crop subsidies.

It is not surprising, then, that the global market will be affected. After all, American farmers are paid to produce the same yield regardless of price fluctuations. By choosing to export excess grain rather than store, American farmers consequently saturate the world market and drive down global prices. These prices are usually below what smaller farmers or farmers from low-income countries can compete with, hurting what is their only form of livelihood. Oxfam International itself notes that more than 10 million people who rely on the cotton trade in Africa lose up to $250 million yearly due to U.S subsidies.

Additionally, much of the corn and soybean crops are not grown for direct human consumption—they are processed or used as feedstock for livestock production. Intensive rearing not only increases greenhouse gas emissions (escalating global warming) but saturates meat supply so rearing animals is cheaper than growing produce. The excess of corn also meant vegetable oils, sweeteners and flours are readily processed into junk food. Ironically, we tell Americans to fill 50 per cent of their plates with fruits and vegetables. Instead, studies by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that half of US adults’ calories currently come from the five subsidised crops, dairy and livestock. Their studies also found that people who ate more commodity-rich foods are more likely to be overweight and at risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Therefore, they concluded that we need a greater emphasis on increasing the availability — from a convenience side and a cost side — of healthier foods.

Furthermore, subsidising commodity crops presents farmers with no incentive to change their farming practices into sustainable, soil-regenerative methods. Usually, plants photosynthesise and produce glucose (sugar); any remaining sugar is pumped back into the soil to support microbes and fungi. However, monocropping discourages fungi diversity, consequently affecting the nutrition density of our fruits and vegetables. We should, therefore, think carefully about intensive farming. They may encourage larger yields in the short run. Still, long-term pesticide and fertiliser over application only discourages soil microbe growth, while tilling rips living roots out of the soil and reduces a soil’s water capacity. Our pursuit for high yields is leading to immense changes in the landscape, negatively affecting our land.

So what can you do to help? Start by asking yourself: where does your food come from? Educate yourself on the food system. Eat local and limit your meat consumption to reduce your food miles and carbon footprint. Support ethical brands that treat their workers and the environment with respect.

Focusing on sustainable food choices means we tell producers what we want: a fairer food system, more fruits and vegetables, a healthier farming practice. We can achieve this by working together; by slowly changing our diets for the better, in our little way.

By Kadence Wong

Edited by Aiswarya Rambhatla


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