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Questioning the Link Between Subsidies and Obesity

This post, which could be filed under “food for thought,” addresses an October Food and Water Watch (FWW) report which turns a critical eye to the supposed correlation between food subsidies and obesity. The arguments for the connection claim that subsidized crops such as corn and soy are turned into high fructose corn syrup and other common ingredients found in processed (junk) food.  In turn, the costs of these products are cheapened and consumption increases.

It is important to note that soy, corn, wheat (all heavily subsidized) drastically and disproportionately benefit animal agribusiness by providing them exceptionally cheap feed, thereby externalizing the true cost of animal-sourced foods (meat, dairy, eggs).

FWW claim that the argument, although compelling, bears little resemblance to any academic research.  Instead, economists and agricultural policy analysts site deregulation, not subsidization, of corn and soybeans as the culprits behind our present public health crisis.

The “obesity crisis” has been receiving a lot of attention in mainstream media and although there seems to be a momentum toward healthier living our numbers are still staggering: according to the CDC one third (33%) of adults in the U.S are obese.  Additionally, 17% or 12.5 million children and adolescents are also considered obese.

A little history: In the 1980’s and ’90’s the federal government withdrew previous policies that had limited the production of “commodity” crops and helped to stabilize prices paid to farmers.  This deregulation significantly impacted the price of commodities which benefited food processors, marketers and retailers as well as had a substantial impact on the availability of high calorie, processed foods.

FWW is not making a claim that subsidies are not in need of desperate reform, they just want to clarify that they were instituted after the deregulation, and were the cause of plummeting prices and bankrupting small farms.  The saturated fats found in animal-sourced foods combined with  the bankrupting of small farms, benefits the large agribusiness corporations, increasing their vertical and horizontal integration and, thus, their control of the market.

If the goal is to provide access to healthy foods, FWW calls for developing responsible “federal supply management programs” aimed at reducing overproduction while stabilizing supply.

We are interested in your thoughts on this topic. Please feel free to comment.

One response »

  1. Hi Well Fed World,

    I took a look at their report and I agree with it. In an ideal world, the first thing we would do is to regulate agriculture to guard against overproduction. Going back to the policies of the Food and Agriculture Acts of 1965 and 1977 would be a good place to start. That way you would limit the amount of crops grown by farmers. You might also want to deal with subsidies as well, for example shift them to fruits and veggies and away from corn and soybeans. But the main thing is to limit the overproduction which creates cheap feeds which rewards the livestock and junk food industries. Overproduction also depletes soil and water resources.

    Speaking of commodities, there is an analogy in the Texas Railroad Commission which regulated (despite its name) oil production in Texas before 1970. The reason was the same as given for the earlier Food and Agriculture Acts — if everyone produced as much oil as they could, then you’d have an oil glut and the price of oil would collapse, and the resource would be depleted that much sooner as well, to everyone’s detriment. The Texas Railroad Commission established quotas. After oil production in the U. S. peaked in 1970 and started to decline, this policy was no longer necessary.

    There are other things you could do with such regulation, such as control soil erosion (through limiting land use), shift towards small farms (perhaps by establishing quotas based on size?), and shift away from animal products (by regulating feed grains more sharply than food grains). The free market does not work well with natural resources — a basic point which most economists miss, but which the ecological economists (Herman Daly, etc.) are quick to point out. With natural resources, you get into “tragedy of the commons” type of situations, where it is in everyone’s individual interest to exploit the resource until it is depleted, even though our collective interest is to limit the use of the resource sustainably.



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