The argument that won’t go away: Farm subsidies are making us fat


Here we go again. Another blogger/columnist (this one a home design columnist, no less) posing the question: “Are farm subsidies making Americans fat?


The argument goes something like this: The government subsidizes production of a crop. Farmers grow more of that crop. Supply goes up and prices go down. Food manufacturers buy more of that cheap input and create [unhealthy] processed food. Consumers buy this inexpensive food and get fat. Therefore, subsidies are to blame for today’s obesity problem in the United States. Get rid of the subsides and we’ll slim not only the budget, but our waistlines.

Except that commodity crops aren’t inherently unhealthy. And farm subsidies aren’t connected to the super-size-me, lack of nutrition education in today’s society. Farm subsidies don’t prevent shoppers from buying more whole grains, or lean meats, or fruits and vegetables. Or from eating moderate-size portions. Or from exercising.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that obesity is a huge problem in this country. About one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents are obese.

But here’s a radical idea — why don’t we eat less and exercise more? Why isn’t there clamoring for more recess time in schools instead of less physical education? Why don’t we come up with better ways to educate parents and caregivers and children about healthy eating? (So many people simply don’t know how to cook.) Why don’t we look at root triggers of eating disorders, like depression, or illness, or stress? Why don’t we consider a two-worker household where food preparation time is a rare commodity?

It is a complex issue.

“I support the view that the root cause of epidemic obesity is everything about modern living,” says David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. “It will take the aggregation of a lot of effective programming to change our course.”

And a 2008 report out of the University of California found that “even entirely eliminating the current [farm] programs could not be expected to have a significant influence on obesity rates.” The economists found that eliminating the corn subsidy would reduce corn-based food consumption by, at most, 0.2 percent.

But foodies like Michael Pollan still make the argument this way: “…when food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat… Where, exactly, did all those extra calories come from in the first place? And the answer takes us back to the source of all calories: the farm.”

Overproduction of farm products, you see, is the problem, Pollan proclaims. Cheap food means we’ll eat more. And weigh more.

An interesting thing, however, happened on the way to the Twinkie aisle. A 2008 USDA report found that the price of commonly consumed fresh fruits and vegetables, whose production is not subsidized, has declined similar to that of dessert and snack foods. So it’s just as cheap, or cheaper, to buy that apple than the Hostess apple pie.

When it comes down to it, reminds Iowa State ag economist Bruce Babcock, there’s an oft-ignored disconnect between the price of farm products that the farmer sees, and the price of food in the grocery story. The farm value share of cereals and bakery products, for example, was just 7 percent in 2009.

There are lots of reasons for the increase in obesity in the U.S. I’m just not buying the argument that farm subsidies are the major villain. If you want to oppose farm subsidies, that’s fine. Just don’t do it hiding behind an overweight person.


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  1. More than 90% of farm subsidies go to just five crops: wheat, cotton, soybeans, rice and CORN. Certainly, there’s much more to the the obesity problem than simply farm subsidies, they do reduce the cost of the junk-food essential ingredients and discourage farmers from going into the fruit and veg business. Why start an apple orchid and get zero government help when you can get billions to grow corn and in some cases be paid to *not grow* corn. So many farmers are growing these subsidized crops, lowering the prices, that the government actually pays farmers to not grow so much. What sense does this make? So, subsidies aren’t the full story, but they need to be part of the conversation.


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