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The 9 foods the U.S. Government is Paying you to Eat article via The Atlantic

In 2009, the federal government spent $12.3 billion in payments to America’s farmers. The number was cause for celebration, and not only among the tractor and overall industries. $12.3 billion was nearly the lowest payment in the past decade, as high food prices surpassed the threshold for subsidies.

By and large, most subsidies function as a form of so-called “farm income stabilization.” The Department of Agriculture sets a price floor for a given crop. If market prices rise above that level, farms sell on the open market. If prices fall below, the government reimburses farmers the difference between the market and the floor price for every unit grown – or not.

Even as farmers profit from increased demand, the government remains a major player in the food business. While assessments of the subsidies’ quality varies — with many commentators labeling them indigestible –attempts to cut have thus far been unsuccessful.

So what is the Department of Agriculture putting on your plate? We present the top nine products that the government most heavily subsidizes.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010):$77.1 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010):+24%

Biggest Producers: Archer Daniels Midland

Corn is, by far, the biggest crop in the United States. The nation grows some 13 billion bushels over 80 million acres. It’s only proportional that federal subsidies should be similarly high.

Yet corn is even more expensive than this table shows. Department of Agriculture accounting does not include the effects of ethanol subsidies. Analysis of ethanol varies — from ineffective topromising but unsustainable. One constant, however, remains the cost, approximately $6 billion a year. If this cost is accounted for, corn’s subsidy is double the second-place crop.

Even without the ethanol supports, corn runs away with the title: the #1 food the government pays you to consume.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010):$32.4 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010):+141%

Biggest Producers: Entenmann’s, Pepperidge Farm, Sara Lee

Atkins diet aside, it’s been a good decade for wheat producers. With wheat demand (and prices) souring worldwide, regulators are worrying about shortages, not surpluses.

So why do wheat subsidies persist?

To start, while the subsidies may be unpopularamong Americans at large, they accrue disproportionate benefits to those withdisproportionate power. Further, the political contours of Congress (ie, over-representation of farm states) make it far easier to add subsidies than remove. Thus, WTO warnings have had little effect, and the payments appear likely to continue.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010):$24.3 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010):+1,047%

Biggest Producers:Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland

Soybeans are a major crop in the United States and around the world. Though America got into the soybean game relatively late, the nation has joined with a vengeance — today, some 75% of all soybeans worldwide are grown in the United States.

Consumers see soybeans in two forms on their plate. The first is as meat – soybean meal is a major food for animals. The second is as soy products, predominately soybean oil. The two are more connected than one might think.

In fact, the soybean oil used to cook bacon might just have fed the same pig. The so-called “soybean crushing” industry serves to split the legumes — the oil going to consumers and the remains to animals. The size of this industry? A cool $22 billion.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010): $12.9 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010): -52%

Biggest Producers: American Rice

Rice may just be the biggest product you never realized was grown here. In fact, rice has been a feature of North America since the 17th century. By the American Revolution, the nation producedsome 80 million pounds a year, and the crop continues to increase.

Today, the American rice industry is riding high, partially as a result of consumers seeking healthier diets, and partially a result of immigration changing diets. Still, the remaining subsidies prove powerful enough to drive down worldwide prices by an estimated 4 to 6 percent — good for consumers, but painful for third-world farmers.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010): $10.6 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010): -4.3% (Sorghum) -1.4% (Barley)

Biggest Producers: Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors, Pabst

No, you can’t get direct payments for happy hour. Still, farm subsidies do have the effect of making beer that much cheaper. Two of the primary beer ingredients — barley and sorghum — are among the most heavily subsidized grains. According to the USDA, a little under half the barley crop, and 15 percent of the sorghum grown, go to making alcohol.

These subsidies are somewhat perverse, given the government otherwise strongly discourages and regulates beer production. Indeed, the federal government collects an estimated $3.6 billion in excise taxes on beer per year. What comes in in taxes, however, goes back out in payments. About a fifth of the government’s income in taxes return to brewers in the form of crop subsidies.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010): $4.9 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010): 1.5%

Biggest Producers: Dean Foods, Dairy Farmers of America

Milk is one of the most popular products in the United States. The average citizen consumes 3/4 cups a day. It’s also one of the most populist. The so-called “price of a gallon of milk” test is a common method on which to judge politicians. (Rudy Giuliani’s inability to pass presagedproblems for his presidential campaign).

So it’s no surprise that governments have frequently attempted to lower milk prices. (The one exception — Richard Nixon — took campaign contributions from dairymen in exchange for higher prices). Still, there may be signs that the regime could be coming to an end. In 2009, the WTOcriticized the American subsidies, labeling them violations of the world body’s rules.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010): $3.6 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010): 256%

Biggest Producers: Fairbank Farms, Cargill

America both produces and consumes the most beef in the world. So it’s no surprise that the nation also leads in beef subsidies too. The average American eats some 66 pounds of beef, and the government provides millions in federal livestock payments.

Nonetheless, there may be implications to federal payouts beyond cheaper burgers. In this Atlanticroundup, one author argues that meat would be “meatier, purer, far less fatty…before feedlots and farm subsidies changed ranchers and cattle,” while another points to the delirious health consequences of beef over-consumption.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010): $3.4 billion

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010): 675%

Biggest Producers: The J.M. Smucker Co., Unilever

There’s little more American than baseball, apple pie, and peanut butter. According to the National Peanut Board (yes, there is such a thing), 90% of American households eat peanut butter, and Americans in total consumed an astonishing 4 billion pounds of peanuts in 2010.

There’s also little more American than peanut butter subsidies, apparently. The government has subsidized peanut farmers at least since 1933. Yet the majority of today’s expenditures owe to a more recent cause: NAFTA.

After the signing of the free-trade pact, farmers feared the influx of low-priced Canadian peanuts. Eager to save this crucial domestic industry, politicians pushed through a substantial support package, protecting consumers from the specter of foreign control over their PB&Js.


Total Subsidies (1995-2010): $880 million

% Change in Annual Subsidies (1995-2010): 540%

Yes, the flowers look good in the garden. But they’re also surprisingly big business. According to theUSDA, sunflower production covers some 2.5 million acres across the United States. Businesses and restaurants use sunflower oil for frying, since it is relatively healthy and neutral in taste. One of the biggest consumers of the oil, for example, is Lay’s potato chips.

Still, dreams of finding gold in your garden might be a little overstated. The vast majority of the sunflower subsidies came in 1999 and 2001, when market prices dropped dramatically. As prices now remain above those historic lows, sunflower growers may have to sell their products to consumers, instead.

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