Obesity and Farm Subsidies:

I just came across this article that argues that one cause of rising obesity, especially among lower-income families, is farm subsidies. The key, it seems, is that the nature of farm subsidies has changed over time. They were once designed to keep prices artificially high, which of course, would have made food more expensive. The article says that today, by contrast, farm subsidies are tied to production, thus subsidizing increased output. The result is to drive down the price of the least healthful foods relative to others:

For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill. This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world's food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

That's because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

Rather than the many silly ideas for combatting obesity that we often hear today, one would think that getting rid of farm subsidies for less-healthy foods would make sense, not to mention the budget savings. But I'm not holding my breath.

(When I initially posted this I had a grammatical glitch in the final paragraph which I have tried to remedy).