MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris. These days, farm subsidies are blamed for lots of things, even the nation's obesity epidemic. Critics say the billions of dollars in annual subsidies encourage farmers to grow too much grain. Prices drop, food gets cheaper, and we eat too much. Seems like a simple equation, except it's not. Reporter Frank Morris of member station KCUR and Harvest Public Media has this look at what's really going on.
FRANK MORRIS: It's a fact that Americans eat cheap. We spend, on average, less than 10 percent of our money on food. And though a lot of people, like the patrons of this Kansas City Burger King, are buying too much fast food, it's still a good economic decision.
Dr. DAVID WALLINGA: The smartest, most rational decision is to eat the crappiest food, because everywhere you turn, it's more accessible, more affordable and more convenient.
MORRIS: Dr. David Wallinga at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis is one of the people who say federal farm subsidies lead directly to overeating.
WALLINGA: What we've had is a cheap feed grain policy or a cheap calorie policy, and that's been pretty consistent from farm bill to farm bill over the last 30-odd years.
MORRIS: So the farm bill, that big bundle of legislation that includes agricultural subsidies, helps make us fat, right? Hmm, maybe not. Let's take a closer look at this whole picture.
KEN MCCAULEY: I'm Ken McCauley. I'm a farmer from White Cloud, Kansas. We're standing on a farm just west of Highland, Kansas.
MORRIS: McCauley says that, yes, he's growing more corn but not because of subsidies.
MCCAULEY: The expansion that you're hearing about in agriculture today, or for the past several years, is all about the machinery and the ease of work. Your work is easier because of technology. Our work is easier because of machinery and technology.
MORRIS: As we talk, McCauley's son Brad charges back and forth over the land in a self-propelled sprayer. This thing looks like a monster bug, a green tractor on stilts with booms stretching 90 feet like enormous wings, trailing a finely calibrated mist of herbicide.
BRAD MCCAULEY: It steers itself, shuts itself on and off, so I basically just turn around and make sure everything's running right.
MORRIS: The spray kills everything but the corn because the corn has been genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. And for good measure, the corn has also been designed to produce its own insecticide. So now the corn plants grow much closer together than they used to and, weather permitting, produce twice as much grain per acre.
JULIAN ALSTON: Food productivity is more than double, so the real cost is less than half what it was 40, 50 years ago.
MORRIS: Julian Alston is an economist at UC Davis.
ALSTON: That's the big story. And that wasn't caused by subsidies. That was caused by improvements in productivity on the farm.
MORRIS: Farmers are proud of all that productivity, and it has driven crop prices down. But productivity aside, surely, farm subsidies themselves make food cheaper. When the government picks up part of the cost of something, the price should go down, right? Julian Alston says not necessarily.
ALSTON: What's wrong with that line of thinking is that it doesn't pay attention to how actually farm subsidies do work.
MORRIS: You see, subsidies are not the only way the government influences farmers. Some federal programs do make crops cheaper. Things like subsidized crop insurance and other traditional price supports make food more abundant and reduce prices. But some policies actually increase prices. In that category would be getting paid not to plant: Some farmers get federal money to let land lie fallow. That cuts production and raises prices.
Another example would be tariffs. There's a tariff on imported sugar that tends to boost the price of all sweeteners, including corn syrup. And ethanol production, which is supported by a federal mandate, now buys up about 40 percent of the corn crop, again, raising prices. Julian Alston has done the math on the whole thing.
ALSTON: The net effect of the whole set of farm supports is to make food more expensive and actually to discourage obesity.
ROBERT PAARLBERG: So farm subsidies really have nothing to do with it.
MORRIS: Robert Paarlberg, who teaches political science at Wellesley and Harvard, has tried pointing this out.
PAARLBERG: You almost never get any interest in trying to make the counterargument. People assume that you're a crank if you dare to challenge what everyone knows to be true.
MORRIS: But there are some obesity experts who agree with Paarlberg and Alston.
Dr. MARGO WOOTAN: I'm very concerned about how hard it is to eat well in America today.
MORRIS: Margo Wootan is the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
WOOTAN: Our food environment has evolved in a way that it's almost perfectly engineered to promote or cause obesity.
MORRIS: And Wootan says that environment isn't shaped by farm policy nearly as much as it is by food processors and marketers. Even when corn prices doubled, the price of cornflakes barely moved. That's because ingredient costs are miniscule compared to other expenses. On average, less than one in five dollars consumers spend on food actually goes to farmers and ranchers. Shipping, packaging, processing, marketing and selling make up the rest of your grocery bill.
WOOTAN: Companies are really competing very aggressively to try to sell their food instead of somebody else's food, and that's promoting more and more food that Americans are eating, and as a result, we're gaining a lot of weight.
MORRIS: So the obesity epidemic in this country is driven by lots of factors, and U.S. farm policy probably doesn't play a big part in the problem. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.