Are Agricultural Policies Making Us Fat?

“Are agricultural policies making us fat?”

This is the provocative question that Alston, Sumner and Vosti (professors and associates at UC Davis) asked in their 2006 paper of the same title. In response to an increasingly accepted idea that agricultural subsidies are an important contributor to obesity, the authors wrote this paper to address the potential effects of such policies on obesity in the U.S. and abroad. Notably, the Farm Bill which passed Congress in January of this year ended direct payment of subsidies to farmers ,many of whom had received payments even in years when they did not farm, instead funneling many of those $5 billion toward crop insurance programs for major crops such as corn, wheat and soy and some specialty crops. Many of the findings from the 2006 paper, however, remain salient:

  • Obesity is the direct result of consuming more food energy than we expend.

  • Agricultural policies, and research and development (R&D), have contributed to lower relative prices of energy dense foods, and have made increased portion size affordable.

There is an important distinction between the price of commodities and the price of food, which directly affects our consumption choices. While the prices of many commodities have steadily dropped over the years, processing costs have ensured that the prices of foods made from those commodities have remained relatively the same. In theory, this means that processed foods comprised of corn and soy could be even cheaper if not for the cost of production.

Since the 1970s, downward trends in farmgate prices (what the farmer receives) for many products, including fruits and vegetables, are clear. This means that the perceived ever-increasing expense of eating healthy, whole foods is not due to prices on the farm. The increase in cost can, in part, be attributed to enhanced quality of and extended seasons for fruits and vegetables (made possible by technological advancements). This leads us, the consumer, to an important question: how highly do we value the ability to eat anything we want any time we want? I love tomatoes as much as anyone you’ve met, but eating them in the winter unfailingly leaves me disappointed.

Changes in household structure, income and taste have also contributed to the evolution of consumption patterns, notably in the amount of convenience and away-from-home meals consumed. Again, these foods are largely comprised of commodity items such as corn and soy. Numerous case studies show that commodity subsidies are certainly not the only cause for an increase in obesity. In Australia, where there are no large farm commodity programs, obesity is still linked to an increased consumption of fast food and sugar sweetened beverages. It is abundantly clear that the power of energy dense foods high in sugar and fat to impair our judgment persists across many settings.

As usual, there is no simple answer to the many important questions regarding our food system and public health. Many other factors in addition to agricultural policies affect our food choices and their health outcomes. Regarding the future of R&D, we should strive to create programs that make healthy, whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, affordable to consumers without sacrificing quality.

Simply making commodities more expensive is not an appropriate solution, particularly in developing countries, where many people rely directly on commodities rather than processed foods to sustain their families. The importance of reducing food costs to combating hunger should not be overlooked; simultaneously, there is evidence that cheaper food contributes to obesity. Clearly a balance must be struck, one that guarantees farmers a living wage, reflects the ‘real’ price of ‘real’ food, and makes commodities available and affordable to those who rely upon them directly, all without sacrificing the feasibility of production of ‘specialty’ crops, including fruits and vegetables. It’s a daunting task, with many moving parts, and goes a long way toward explaining the current broken state of global food systems. Farmers have already demonstrated significant support for the crop insurance measures outlined in the new Farm Bill by spending millions of dollars on new policies; hopefully this step indicates a pattern for the future repair of food and agricultural systems. Hopefully, this can lead to policies that promote food that is healthy, and not foods that contribute to the obesity epidemic.