Subsidies, Food, and National Security

by Lotta Chan, CFJC Research Associate

As re-authorization of the Farm Bill is swiftly approaching, the contents of your dinner plate are beginning to take center stage in a national debate surrounding food sovereignty and national security.

A few congressional members, including Kristi Noem (R-SD) and Vicky Hartzler (R-MO), have argued that large government subsidies to crops are necessary to protect the national security of our country, because subsidies ensure domestic production and decrease dependency on food imported from other countries. This logical argument, however, falls apart when taking a closer look at our current food system.

The most highly subsidized commodities in the U.S. are corn, wheat, soy, cotton, rice, and sorghum, accounting for roughly $8.3 billion of paid subsidies in 2010 alone. But this is probably not what’s on your dinner plate each night. I for one had never even heard of sorghum, much less eaten it. The truth behind U.S. sorghum is that half of it gets directly exported, and another 12% gets turned into ethanol. Furthermore, only 12% of U.S. corn goes to food products, including the notorious high-fructose corn syrup; the rest goes to feed domestic animals to supply cheap meats high in saturated fats. None of this is to say that subsidies are inherently bad; the problem is the broken food system that these subsidies are a part of. These subsidies do not go to support healthy fruits and vegetables, and the U.S. has actually been increasing its imports of produce. Additionally, the bulk of these grain subsidies go to large, industrial farms pushing smaller family farms out of business. Among the subsidy recipients are Congresswomen Kristi Noem (partial owner of a ranch that received $3 million over 15 years) and Vicky Hartzler (whose farm received more than $774,000 over 15 years).

Meanwhile, tax payers are fronting the bill for these commodity subsidies to large, industrial grain farms, which in return produce nutritionally-deficient, high caloric foods at a low cost. This is why for one dollar you can get 600 calories of Doritos corn chips, but only about 50 calories of broccoli. The prevalence of unhealthy foods is leading to a national epidemic of obesity that costs the country in the way of decreased work productivity and an increasing number of sick days and worker compensation claims. According to a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, lost worker productivity in the U.S. translates to an estimated loss of $73.1 billion per year. And in a report released last year by retired military leaders, many Americans are now “Too Fat to Fight” for their country. So what is a larger threat to national security: a loss of sorghum, corn, and cotton subsidies, or the loss of a productive, healthy American workforce and military?

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2 Responses to “Subsidies, Food, and National Security”

  1. Michael Goldberg Says:

    Well said, thank you for the specifics on Noem and Hartzler’s take at the trough. I’d like to see a complete list of sitting congressperson’s families’ take in farm subsidies, I think we have some opportunity to make this a more visible part of the fight.
    Those kinds of attacks of course not as important as the excellent framing you provide in terms of the economy and national security. “Too Fat to Fight” is part of it for sure – but so is the over-dependence on food from foreign (and distant domestic) sources. I know the DoD thinks about this too – anyone have a line on anything published by military about those national security implications?

  2. Lotta Chan Says:

    Great points Michael. I have actually found a list compiled by the Environmental Working Group that details the Congress members’ farm subsidies over the years:

    I haven’t come across anything from the military on the national security implications of dependence on foreign food. It can be a concern, especially as I said the US is importing more and more fruits and vegetables. But we are also giving away large amounts of our harvest. The point is we need a diversity and balance of crops.