By Jenna Segal, MPH Nutrition Candidate, MSc. in ARE Candidate
What if farmland in North and South Dakota resembled the bucolic hills of Southern France? What if they were blessed with warm ocean breezes, mild winters, and delicate summers that were ideal for producing fruits and vegetables? If the majority of farmland in the United States were like this, then our entire farming culture and subsidy program might be different.
This is just one of the images painted in my mind on the evening of Tuesday, March 4th, during GradFood’s* monthly dinner discussion series.
Caption: Painting of a Nebraska Farm by Patty Baker
The talk featured Professor David Zilberman who has been teaching in the Agriculture and Resource Economics Department at Berkeley for over forty years. His research interests are in agricultural and nutritional policies and, needless to say, Professor Zilberman knows a lot of about agricultural subsidies.
The night began with a meal featuring tamales from Fusion Latina Restaurant**, a 5-person women-run startup cooperative based in Richmond. It was a great opportunity to support a new business model while enjoying a mix of savory tamales, fresh mango and cabbage coleslaw, and refreshing chia lemongrass lemonade.
After giving a thorough yet brief overview of the history of agricultural subsidies in the United States, Professor Zilberman provided a perspective on agricultural subsidies that was new for many.
To summarize Professor Zilberman’s main points:
• Agricultural subsidies remove much of the risk of farming for commodity crops (corn, wheat, soy)
• The Food Stamp Program is incredibly important to both farmers and the general public
• Agricultural subsidies make it more difficult for new farmers to enter into farming, while providing a security net for most existing commodity farmers
• If the agricultural subsidies were removed for corn, wheat, and soy products, there would be little change on the price of food products containing those items
In addition to these arguments, Professor Zilberman stressed that subsidies to promote sustainable agricultural practices and taxes imposed upon farms using environmentally harmful techniques would be a better use of the subsidy system.
This argument left me wondering: Can Public Health Nutritionists quantify the human health benefits or harms of our agricultural system? How can this be done in a similar way that environmental conservation organizations structured their economic arguments for environmental health?
Many public health professionals are arguing for subsidies on fruits and vegetables. But, Zilberman argued, because food items like grapes are relatively inelastic goods, people will continue to consume them, regardless of changes in price. Therefore, subsidies are not necessary for many specialty crops (fruit and vegetables).
As Public Health Nutritionists, if we can make the case that the foods that the types of foods consumed in the United States are (1) a direct result of the agricultural subsidies programs and (2) causing negative health outcomes, then a fair argument can be made for changing the agricultural system in the US.
I left the talk feeling invigorated, while others may have left feeling hopeless. I left with a heightened sense of how important the field of Public Health Nutrition can be in changing our agricultural practices in the United States.
Educating people on nutritional (and agricultural) concerns is key to changing the structure of our current agricultural system to promote solutions that are sustainable for human as well as environmental health.
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