The obesity epidemic. You’ve heard about it; I’m sure. According to numerous studies, more of us are getting fat than ever before. Considering that being overweight puts you in a higher risk category for so many other diseases of modern civilization, it’s not surprising that the statistics are so alarming.
Everyone who comments on the obesity epidemic points fingers at various culprits. We don’t exercise like we used to. We eat more calories than we used to. We eat more fat than we used to. We eat more refined carbohydrates than we used to. It’s the wheat! It’s the gluten! It’s the polyunsaturated fats found in vegetable oils! It’s the lack of play! The extra TV time!
But, would you believe that for the first time ever, a report has actually pointed the blame at agricultural subsidies?
A report recently issued by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group is blaming our lopsided subsidy structure for the societal damage. The report looked at subsidy spending for the last 15 years:
But while $262 million has gone to apples — the only fruit or vegetable with a significant subsidy — nearly $17 billion has spent on four common food additives — corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils — known to contribute to weight gain. The group says the taxpayer contribution amounts to 19 Twinkies per taxpayer every year.
And speaking of Twinkies, the report says that of their 37 ingredients, at least 14 of them are made with federal subsidies.
“At a time when childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, it’s absurd that we’re spending billions of taxpayer dollars to make the problem worse,” said Mike Russo, a policy analyst for U.S. PIRG. “It’s absurd that junk food is subsidized by taxpayers, while fresh fruits and vegetables barely get a bite at the apple.”
The report notes that one in five children ages 6 to 11 are now obese, a rate that has tripled over the last three decades.
“These increases in obesity rates will translate into kids who are at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes, undermining the health of our country and driving up medical costs by hundreds of billions of dollars,” the report reads.
The Farm Bill comes around once every five years, and it’s due for a re-hash next year. This giant bill pours hundreds of millions of dollars into subsidies which artificially create cheap corn, soy, and wheat. Without these subsidies, growing these crops in the quantities we do would be cost prohibitive for farmers. They would actually LOSE money.
It’s a matter of supply and demand. Subsidies ensure a huge supply. This, of course, floods the markets with these crops and then cheapens the price. Farmers are forced to sell the crop for less than it cost to plant, raise, and harvest it. Then they receive federal subsidies for the crop, ensuring that they make a marginal profit depending on how productive their acres of cropland were. It’s a seemingly endless cycle.
And what do we do with these mountains of corn and other subsidized crops? Well, we use a healthy portion to feed our livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). We use a small portion to feed ourselves. And, in the case of corn, we use what’s left to flood the market with unbelievably cheap food additives like high fructose corn syrup, maltodextrin, corn starch, corn oil, and hundreds of other industrially produced waste products that fuel the processed foods industry.
Unfortunately, getting rid of farm subsidies out of hand would wreak havoc on our nation’s farmers. If you’re against subsidies, you’re against farmers. (Or so they would argue.)
But surely there must be a way to phase out these subsidies which have not only created an imbalanced (although cheap) food supply but which have arguably contributed to this country’s obesity epidemic.
As the Farm Bill comes up for review again next year, it will be our job as vocal consumers to let our representatives know that we’ve had enough. What do you think? Do you have any thoughts on alternatives to the current subsidy structure that could reform the way our nation’s agricultural sector does business?
(photo by ConanTheLibrarian)