Marion Nestle excels at distilling complicated issues into digestible morsels.

A professor emerita at New York University, she has graduate degrees in molecular biology and public health. She served as senior nutrition policy adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services. She has written six prizewinning books on food politics.

But when she decided to teach a class on the legislative quagmire known as the US Farm Bill, she met her match.

“It was an act of hubris,” Nestle says. “When you look at how complicated the Farm Bill is, it makes you wonder if it wasn’t designed that way on purpose to keep people from understanding it.”

The legislation that drove Nestle “insane” has been around since 1933, when it was introduced to stabilize crop prices in the midst of the Great Depression. Congress renews the Farm Bill roughly every five years. The latest version — more than 1,200 pages at last count — is limping along with a looming deadline of September 30, when the 2014 version will expire.

But passing the Farm Bill is no small thing. In the decades since its first iteration, it has grown into a gargantuan, unwieldy beast whose tentacles reach into every corner of the economy. Today, the Farm Bill’s nearly infinite stipulations cover forestry, insurance, electricity, conservation, broadband, waste management, weather, pests and diseases, international trade, food aid and — of course — farming.

The bill dictates the spending of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Yet it is at once so complicated and so tedious that it rarely makes the national conversation. Its arcane programs — there are more than 100 — are typically parsed only in obscure agricultural journals and special-interest-group dossiers.

But as American waistlines have grown, so too has the number of experts arguing that the Farm Bill — especially one key part of it — is bad for America’s health.

More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese. That has wrought a crush of costly chronic health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Public health officials, nutritionists and foodniks alike see America’s unhealthy “food environment” as a major part of the problem.

For more than 25 years, more than half of the adult population of the U.S. has been overweight or obese. Poor diet quality is one contributing factor.  This graph shows how the American diet doesn’t match dietary recommendations for different categories of foods.

For more than 25 years, more than half of the adult population of the U.S. has been overweight or obese. Poor diet quality is one contributing factor.

Subsidies in the Farm Bill are often blamed for helping to foster this poor food environment. Processed foods and sugary drinks dominate our diets, the argument goes, because they are cheap. And they’re cheap, critics say, because far more financial support is given to farmers who grow plants classed as “commodity crops” — such as wheat, soybeans and corn — than to farmers who grow fruits and vegetables. That lowers the price of the oils, sweeteners, flours and meat that go into fattening junk foods.

“Why are we subsidizing childhood obesity?” ask physicians from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York in a commentary decrying US agricultural policy. “How the government supports your junk food habit,” a New York Times column charges. “Blame for the country's obesity crisis should fall on agricultural subsidies in the farm bill,” states a policy piece in Mic.com.

Not so fast, say agricultural economists who have studied the matter. Farm subsidies may make a compelling scapegoat, but today’s sorry food environment emerged from an array of factors that were at play long before the arrival of subsidies, they say. According to their data, eliminating subsidies would have little effect on the American diet.

“If we killed the Farm Bill entirely, the price of a Coke wouldn’t go up one cent,” says Barry Popkin, an agricultural economist and expert in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“We created a farm system that was based on the belief that we needed cheap grain and cheap animals. It was a different set of nutrition needs and perspectives.”

Barry Popkin

But that doesn’t let the Farm Bill off the hook. Agricultural economists, nutritionists and public health experts say that other, non-subsidy changes to the bill could make a real difference in people’s eating habits — by expanding the supply of fruits and vegetables, augmenting programs that make those nutritious foods more available, and investing in infrastructure and research to help growers bring more produce to the masses. Taken together, all could play a role in nudging diets for the better.

“When I think about the Farm Bill’s implications for nutrition and public health, it’s not so much damage done, but opportunities missed,” says Parke Wilde, an agricultural economist at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Commodity overload

Research does connect some dots between Americans’ dismal diets and farming corn, wheat and other crops designated as commodities by the US Department of Agriculture. In a 2016 report, for example, scientists analyzed data on what people eat and zoomed in on basic ingredients in foods — say, a slice of pizza. They found that more than half of US adults’ calories come from five commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and sorghum), as well as dairy and livestock (animals that eat commodity crops). The study also found that people who eat more commodity-rich foods are more likely to be overweight and at risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

And while we’re crushed by heaps of commodity-based foods, fruits and vegetables are far less abundant. In fact, if the nation went on a collective health binge and started eating government-recommended quantities of produce, there would be brawling over broccoli, carrots and peas in the supermarkets.

Current dietary guidelines recommend eating about 2.5 cups of vegetables per day. By one USDA estimate, producing enough vegetables to meet that demand would require planting about 15 million acres. The US grows about 4 million acres of vegetables.

The combined acreage for corn, soybeans and wheat: about 219 million.

A graph showing how Americans consume more added sugars than the recommended limit of 10 percent of daily calories. Two main sources of added sugars in U.S. diets are sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks and sweets, which often provide few or no essential nutrients or dietary fiber.

Most Americans overindulge on added sugar, despite recommendations that we limit our intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories. Two main sources of added sugars in U.S. diets are sugar-sweetened beverages and snacks and sweets, which often provide few or no essential nutrients or dietary fiber.

So how did we get here?

This bias toward planting commodity crops like corn and wheat arose from a suite of forces, some from within the Farm Bill but many others beyond its scope and stretching far back in time. “We created a farm system that was based on the belief that we needed cheap grain and cheap animals,” Popkin says. “It was a different set of nutrition needs and perspectives.”

As early as 1862, a series of homestead acts granted land to settlers to farm in the West. Policies were geared toward feeding the country’s growing population: Networks of railroads and canals were installed to ship grains and livestock, and newly established experimental stations and agricultural schools developed and shared information on machinery, farming and the latest breeds of plants and animals.

The effect of these infrastructure and research investments — and later ones such as dams enabling irrigation and the arrival of electricity to rural America — can’t be overstated, says Popkin. A “food landscape” that favored cheap feed for meat animals and cheap carbs for people was developing. This was largely considered a good thing: The medical community wasn’t worried about obesity, it was worried about malnutrition.

Though policies were geared toward plenty, that didn’t mean farmers always did well. There were periods of prosperity, but by the time the Great Depression hit, prices for farm goods had plummeted. One key reason was a dwindling market: US crops had fed much of Europe during World War I, but demand dried up as Europe recovered.

The very nature of farming also played a role. Any individual farmer will tend to always overplant because it’s the only way they can be sure to make money, even if prices are high and especially if prices are low. This creates a treadmill of overproduction and low prices, says Harwood Schaffer, director of the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, an independent think tank in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The original Farm Bill of 1933 was created to deal with this problem. It bought excess crops from farmers and kept them off the market, housed in clusters of squat granary bins that came to dot the US landscape. And it paid farmers not to plant all their land. These supply-management programs mostly worked. They avoided the “plant more” treadmill and leveled out year-to-year variation in crop yields caused by weather and disease.

But in the 1970s, the government began to dismantle these programs. Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz argued that free trade and exports were a better answer and urged farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow.” The 1996 Farm Bill got rid of the last of the programs that kept farmers from overplanting and it eliminated grain reserves that helped to manage supply. Prices for commodity crops began to drop. Farmers jumped back on the treadmill — planting as much as possible to try to make up for lost income. Prices dropped further.

And that leads to the subsidies that incur so much outrage today. These federal payments to farmers were enacted as emergency Band-Aids to deal with the super-low commodity crop prices that followed the 1996 Farm Bill.

This shift, to protect farmers after supply management went away, effectively remains in place today.

Do subsidies make processed food cheap?

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of subsidies, says Bruce Babcock, a food and agricultural policy expert at the University of California, Riverside. But the notion that less expensive raw ingredients — corn, for example — mean less expensive junk food (Froot Loops, say) is a myth.

“If we eliminated subsidies tomorrow, there would be no change in the price of the products,” Babcock says. “And by no change, I mean almost literally none.”

That’s because for many foods, the price of raw ingredients — the money that goes to the farmer — is a tiny fraction of the price of the finished product. For a 2016 dollar spent on food and drink eaten at home, the farmer gets about 10 cents, according to USDA data. The bulk of the rest of that dollar goes to food processers (26 cents), wholesalers (16 cents), and retailers (22 cents). In other words, even though subsidies to a farmer may boost his or her income, they have little to do with a food’s retail price.

Graphic showing how farmers receive a small portion of each dollar a consumer spends on food and drink eaten at home — just 10.2 cents. Most of the money goes to those who process, package and trade and sell products after they leave the farm.

Farmers receive a small portion of each dollar a consumer spends on food and drink eaten at home. Most of the money goes to those who process, package and trade and sell products after they leave the farm.

Babcock does a back-of-the-envelope calculation to illustrate: Corn accounts for about 38 percent of the cost of growing a pig to be market-ready. And the cost of the pig is about 28 percent of what you pay when you buy pork chops. Do the math, and the cost of the corn is only about 11 percent of the cost of the chops.

Here’s another Babcock number-crunch: If changes in farm subsidies led to a 5 percent increase in the price of corn, the price of the pork would go up by less than 1 percent. So if the pork chops were $3 per pound, more expensive corn would raise the price of chops by less than 2¢ per pound.

Unfortunately, by the same math, going back to the old way of doing things — managing supply of commodity crops by purchasing excesses and paying farmers not to plant — might not fix the cheap junk food problem either, agricultural economists say. (Some of them are studying just this.) Yes, it could raise the price of corn and soy and other raw materials of processed foods. But since the cost of those ingredients contributes so little to the foods’ retail prices, it’s hard to say what effect this would have on the food environment.

If commodity crop prices don’t matter, what does?

Many researchers argue that instead of focusing on commodity crops, the USDA needs to toggle the other side of the equation and figure out ways to prod more farmers to grow fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries — items that for reasons of history are dubbed “specialty crops” — and coax consumers to eat more of them.

“We have to increase the availability — from a convenience side and from a cost side — of healthier foods,” says physician Robert Lawrence, an expert in food production systems at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

In the past few decades, these specialty crops have become a larger and larger contributor to the economy of US agriculture. The 2012 agriculture census — the latest data — valued specialty crop production at nearly $60 billion for that year, about one-fourth of the total value of US crop production. Even so, specialty crops occupy only about 3 percent of harvested farmland.

“The only people who understand the Farm Bill are people who are paid to understand it, and they only understand the part they are paid to understand.”

Marion Nestle

One way to increase acreage of specialty crops is to make it easier for commodity crop farmers to switch some land to fruit and vegetable production, says Wilde. But that’s not easy. Farm Bill support programs are structured to actively discourage commodity-crop growers from growing the stuff nutritionists think we need more of: fruits, vegetables, nuts and berries.

These restraints aren’t crazy — they were intended to keep things fair. Since fruit and vegetable growers aren’t eligible for the support programs that pay commodity farmers when prices are low, commodity crop farmers shouldn’t be able to plant fruits and vegetables. If they could, they would drive down prices for other farmers whose livelihood depends on these crops. And, indeed, the prohibitions do seem to keep a lid on fruit and vegetable production.

Another approach is giving established fruit and vegetable growers, and fruit and vegetable growers-to-be, more financial help. Barriers to entry tend to be high for these crops, which often require specialized knowledge and seasonal labor. Produce farmers have gotten more support in recent years, but it’s still paltry compared to what’s devoted to commodity crops.

“The fact that fruits and vegetables are called ‘specialty crops’ says it all,” says Lawrence. “Their support in the bill is little more than a rounding error.”

But much of the reason that produce items are more expensive than commodities like corn is that they are entirely different crops. Produce is generally more difficult to grow and requires more labor to harvest, says agricultural economist Daniel Sumner of UC Davis. And produce is perishable, adds Schaffer. “With an excess of tomatoes, you either eat them, can them or lose them.”

So if we want bargain-basement prices for the likes of lettuce, lentils, watermelons and leeks, how do we get there? “Policymakers should explore opportunities to subsidize fruits and vegetables given how low consumption is and how serious the public health needs are,” Wilde says.

But Wilde’s not talking about subsidies for the produce farmers: Most experts don’t think commodity-crop-like subsidies are the answer. Unlike commodity crop growers, produce growers have workarounds that curb overproduction and keep cauliflower, carrots and their ilk from selling for pennies in the grocery store and hurting farmers’ incomes. (Subsidies, says agricultural economist Schaffer, are used when it costs farmers more to grow a crop than they can make selling it, which isn’t the case here.)

Graph showing fluctuation in crop prices and cost of food for consumers between 1992 and 2016. Prices fluctuate for “field crops” such as corn, wheat and soy, while restaurant and grocery-store prices remain fairly consistent. This suggests that crop prices have a small impact on food prices.

The relationship between the low price of farm goods and the low cost of junk food is not direct. Prices fluctuate for “field crops” such as corn, wheat and soy, while restaurant and grocery-store prices are fairly consistent. This suggests that crop prices have a small impact on food prices.

A good bet, says Wilde, would be to subsidize the cost of fruits and vegetables for us — the consumers — especially those who are struggling financially (obesity disproportionately affects poor people). Such efforts, seen in food aid programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, have a proven track record.

SNAP actually is part of the Farm Bill (the bulk of Farm Bill spending doesn’t go to agricultural programs, despite its name). It provides nutrition assistance to some 42 million low-income individuals (more than half of the recipients are children or the elderly). In a 2011 pilot program in Massachusetts that offered a 30 percent rebate on fruit and vegetable purchases through SNAP, participants increased their produce intake by 26 percent. A study by Wilde that modeled various dietary policies suggests that a 10 percent consumer subsidy on fruit and vegetables nationwide could prevent some 150,500 deaths from cardiovascular disease by 2030.

Children in low-income schools also receive Farm Bill funding through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which gives cash grants to states and Indian reservations to provide free snacks of produce to elementary school children during the school day. Kids in the program also eat better. A case study in Arkansas, which has one of the highest child obesity rates in the country, found that students participating in the program also lost weight compared with nonparticipants.

Programs like these are worth investing in, says Schaffer, as are programs that put more research dollars into improving yield, fighting disease and extending growing seasons for specialty crops. “We ought to put the same research effort into them that we have for [commodity] crops,” he says.

The way ahead

Though it may not be as simple or direct as critics imagine, just as the Farm Bill has influenced the American diet it has power to help reshape it, researchers say. But given that more than 100 years of convoluted policy has spawned the behemoth the legislation has become, some argue that the best remedy is to scrap it and begin from scratch.

Nestle is in this camp. “We need to start over,” she says. The status quo is “a stimulus for corn and soy production, not what people eat.” She says that the legislation is so opaque that consumers and legislators don’t even know what needs fixing: “The only people who understand the Farm Bill are people who are paid to understand it, and they only understand the part they are paid to understand.”

Some legislators have taken heed. Last year, Oregon congressman Earl Blumenauer introduced the Food and Farm Act, a major Farm Bill rewrite that would encourage spending on healthy foods, incentivize farmers to diversify their crops and make changes to commodity support programs. (But it doesn’t, says Schaffer, manage supply in a way that ameliorates the chronic low prices that farmers get for commodities — a big problem for farmers.) There is even talk of bringing back supply management programs to help farmers make a living. (This would alter the subsidy scene but might have little effect on the food environment.)

“Sugar tastes good. And there’s nothing the Farm Bill can do to make sugar not taste good.”

Harwood Schaffer

Other experts think that a total do-over is unrealistic. “We're not going to get rid of the infrastructure that we have today,” Popkin says. In any case, he adds, the Farm Bill didn’t cause the obesity crisis and shouldn’t be expected to cure it. A far-reaching bill, it’s small in the larger scheme of things. Popkin and others think it will take major restructuring both within the Farm Bill and far beyond to set us on the right dietary road.

If a national nutrition goal is to get everyone in line with the nation’s dietary guidelines — eat less red meat, dairy and processed food and more vegetables and whole grains — then society needs to do the work to figure out which carrots and sticks are effective, many experts say.

“Sugar tastes good,” says Schaffer. “And there’s nothing the Farm Bill can do to make sugar not taste good.”

Therefore, a willingness to experiment is crucial. Popkin suggests that nutrition should be a guiding principle of programs like SNAP (as do three former US Agriculture secretaries, who recently penned an op-ed arguing that case). To ensure that health is at the forefront, a drastic move like moving the nutrition program to the Department of Health and Human Services, whose primary focus is on human health, might make sense. And the government might encourage healthier diets through means beyond the Farm Bill. Some researchers urge trying taxes for animal products or junk food or limiting the accessibility of soda vending machines. Warning labels on unhealthful foods and nutrition education campaigns should be on the table, says Babcock. Bring back home economics class, says Lawrence, and teach people how to cook.

“We have deliberately pursued a cheap food policy as a country,” Schaffer reminds us. Peeling away from that past to what’s relevant today will mean a giant leap of mindset and a battleship-like turn. But, say proponents, it’s high time we did it.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on September 9, 2018, to correct the affiliation of Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, which scholar Harwood Schaffer directs. It is no longer affiliated with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. A version error required updating the story again, with the same correction, on September 14.