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February 28, 2006

Subsidizing What's Bad For You Corporations, Globalization  Environment  Politics

Why do Americans — especially, poor Americans — eat such unhealthy diets? Why are American obesity and diabetes rates skyrocketing? Partly it's because government policy, policy shaped by the lobbying muscle of agribusiness giants like ADM, makes an unhealthy diet a lot cheaper than a healthy diet. The USDA tells people to eat fruits and vegetables, but it pays farmers to grow corn. Grist:

If you're going to talk about poverty, food, and the environment in the United States, you might as well start in the Corn Belt.

This fertile area produces most of the country's annual corn harvest of more than 10 billion bushels, far and away the world's largest such haul. Where does it all go? The majority — after accounting for exports (nearly 20 percent), ethanol (about 10 percent, and climbing), and excess (another 10 percent) — anchors the world's cheapest food supply in purchasing-power terms.

Our food system is shot through with corn. It feeds the animals that feed us: more than 50 percent of the harvest goes into domestic animal operations. About 5 percent flows into high-fructose corn syrup, adding a sweet jolt to soft drinks, confections, and breakfast cereal. All told, it's a cheap source of calories and taste. Yet all this convenience comes with a price — and not just an environmental one.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the amount Americans spend on food as a percentage of disposable income has fallen from 15.4 percent in 1980 to 10.8 percent in 2004. But while we've spent less money on food, our waistlines have expanded. The obesity rate, after hovering around 15 percent from 1960 to 1980, surged to 31 percent in the last 25 years, USDA figures show. The percentage of overweight children tripled in the same time period. Meanwhile, incidence of type II diabetes, a diet-related condition with a host of health-related complications, leapt 41 percent from 1997 to 2004.

This trend has hit low-income groups particularly hard. The obesity rates for "poor" and "near-poor" people stand at 36 percent and 35.4 percent, respectively, against an overall average of 29.2 percent for "non-poor," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. While the CDC doesn't break down diabetes rates by income, a look at the disease through the lens of ethnicity shows that those rates tend to align with economics: African Americans and Mexican Americans, for instance, have higher diabetes rates than whites, and lower median incomes.

Why do low-income people tend to exhibit more diet-related health problems? Adam Drewnowski, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, posits a simple answer: people are gaining weight and getting sick because unhealthy food is cheaper than healthy food — thanks in large part to federal policies.

If the USDA's food pyramid recommends two to five cups of fruits and vegetables per day, its budget — mandated by Congress through the Farm Bill — encourages different behavior altogether.

Under the Farm Bill, the great bulk of USDA largesse flows to five crops: corn, soy, cotton, wheat, and rice. Of the $113.6 billion in commodity subsidy payments doled out by the USDA between 1995 and 2004, corn drew $41.8 billion — more than cotton, soy, and rice combined. By contrast, apples and sugar beets, the only other fruit or vegetable crops that draw federal subsidies, received $611 million over the same period. (The latter are generally processed into sweeteners.)

The huge corn payouts encourage overproduction, and have helped sustain a long-term trend in falling prices. According to figures from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, the inflation-adjusted global commodity price for corn plunged 61 percent between 1983 and 2002. Today a bushel, roughly 56 pounds, fetches about $2.

Cheap corn, underwritten by the subsidy program, has changed the diet of every American. It has allowed a few corporations — including Archer Daniels Midland, the world's largest grain processor — to create a booming market for high-fructose corn syrup. HFCS now accounts for nearly half of the caloric sweeteners added to processed food, and is the sole caloric sweetener for mass-market soft drinks. Between 1975 and 1997, per-capita consumption jumped from virtually nothing to 60.4 pounds per year — equal to about 200 calories per person, per day. Consumption has generally hovered around that level since. [...]

From a short-term economic viewpoint, ...Ding Dongs present a better deal [than wild salmon]: 360 calories per dollar, and no need for the time or skill to cook. "If you're on a limited income trying to feed a family, in a sense you're behaving rationally by choosing heavily sweetened and fat-laden foods," Drewnowski says.

The price gap between these two categories is growing. Drewnowski and Monsivais show that the overall cost of food consumed at home, when adjusted for inflation, has been essentially unchanged since 1980. But over the same time, the price of soft drinks plunged 30 percent, and the price of candy and other sweets fell 20 percent. Meanwhile, the price of fresh fruits and vegetables rose 50 percent.

"Energy-dense foods ... are the cheapest option for the consumer," Drewnowski says. "As long as the healthier lean meats, fish, and fresh produce are more expensive, obesity will continue to be a problem for the working poor."

Thus far, government efforts to address diet-related health problems among low-income Americans have done little to reduce incidence of obesity and diabetes. One reason may be that even when they do account for the economics of different types of foods, such programs often neglect other pressures faced by low-income families.

In 1999, for example, the USDA began promoting a revised "Thrifty Food Plan," designed to help people choose low-cost, healthy foods. But as Diego Rose of Tulane University's Department of Community Health Sciences showed in a 2004 study, the plan failed to account for time stresses on working-class families. Rose calculated that it would take an average of 16 hours per week to prepare the meals outlined in the Thrifty plan, and that working women tended to have only about six hours per week to devote to the kitchen at the time the plan was unveiled. [Emphasis added]

It's crazy. We subsidize a diet that makes people sick, then wonder why health care costs are sky-high. Meanwhile, the agribusiness giants and pharmaceutical and health care giants use campaign contributions to keep the juggernaut rolling along. Their profits are built on our disease. Is this any way to run a civilized society?

Posted by Jonathan at February 28, 2006 09:48 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb


Thank You! For years I have been struggling mightily to improve my family's diet by buying better food; and our grocery bill skyrocketed. I can buy two weeks worth of "food" for 4 people at the local big box for $160, or I can buy a weeks worth at the Belfast Coop for $140.
This pattern is similar to another discussion at Ran Prieur's forum - how our culture is forcing people to live within it's parameters - not by physical force, but economic.

Posted by: Steven at March 1, 2006 06:50 AM

Two things. Bill Maher has been ranting about the corn industry for years calling it one of the biggest causes of problems in the U.S. Your posting here backs him up pretty well.

Also, on Air America last night (Feb 28, 2006) they had a show discussing overweight people and the dialysis industry in the U.S. which is subsidized by the goverment and totally exploits poor people who can not afford proper care while reaping HUGE profits (sounds like the oil industry doesn't it). Apparently they re-use the filters 30-40 times vs. European clinics where the replace the filter each time. And clinics that have deaths and medical mistakes are not monitored at all. Sigh...

Posted by: empty [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 1, 2006 11:54 AM

There is a great book "Eating Well For Optimum Health: The Essential Guide to Bringing Health and Pleasure Back to Eating" by Dr Andrew Weil. It goes into the problem with HFCS. I've recently tried to ban as much as possible form my intake. Let me just say its in pretty much all packaged food. It's cheaper then sugar. The other problem is our diet is way to processed. This book is excellent reading for those interested in their diet. It's nothing new just a gathering of scientific fact taught most 1st year med students, layed out in easy engish.

Posted by: mark at March 1, 2006 12:17 PM

Cheap subsidized corn dumped in Mexico under NAFTA has driven Mexican farmers off their land because they can't compete with US industrial agriculture. The dispossessed farmers become part of the vast army of the unemployed which helps to lower wages both in the US and in Mexico.

Of course, this serves the ultimate goal of international capital--lower wages, increased profits.

Posted by: Iowan at March 1, 2006 03:46 PM

This is one topic democrats take too far. There is no replacement for personal responsibility, and the food we put in our mouth and our children’s mouths is our decision, not the governments. In order for a civilized, free society to work, each member of that society needs to act with personal responsibly and can't rely on a government to tell them what to eat (regardless of the fact that our government tells us what a healthy diet is).

I understand the point being made here saying we should eat a healthy diet following one of the food pyramids and then subsidizing producers of food who make things that aren't necessarily healthy for us. But it seems a stretch to suggest the government has an agenda, or is ignorant or thoughtless when it comes to caring for the health of its nation. I'd say humans biological makeup (designed to store fat and therefore somewhat genetically programmed to seek-out fatty foods), our capitalist economy and ignorance are to blame more than government subsidies and programs.

Education is the solution to the American diet, not the American government.

As far as cost goes, rice is cheep and good for you. Frozen vegetables are less expensive and more nutritious than fresh vegetables (all vegetables begin loosing nutrients as soon as their picked - frozen vegetables, especially vegetables flash frozen on the field, retain their nutrients much longer than fresh vegetables). Not all fresh fruits are expensive; apples and bananas for example are still affordable. Meats can be cut back on.

It's unfortunate but organic foods still cost considerably more. But going organic is a choice you make (there are no reports yet of someone sticking an apple in there mouth and instantly dieing from pesticides) and if you're insistent on going organic you must take the responsibility to balance your budget accordingly. [I'm a big fan of organic and buy when I can afford it - but I don't worry that my life will be cut short by eating non-organic food].

Planning in advance and getting the kids involved in preparing dinner and clean up can save time for the parents.

Eating healthy can be done by just about everyone and is a choice each adult makes for themselves. Better nutritional education can help families break an unhealthy diet cycle. Although poor people are more limited in their food choices, they can eat healthy if they choose to. Waiting for government 'to get it right' only prolongs what we can do for ourselves today. What a civilized society needs to do.

Posted by: Jeff West at March 3, 2006 02:50 PM

Jeff, your argument is analogous to the argument of a lobbyist for a tobacco company: hey, nobody's forcing people to smoke, so you can't blame us -- which is a self-serving rationalization.

If government didn't tilt the playing field by subsidizing corn so heavily, you might have more of a point, but government is intervening massively to make corn products -- corn sweeteners, in particular -- dirt cheap, and as a result they're ubiquitous in processed food. The upsurge in obesity and diabetes was significantly correlated with the switch to corn sweeteners and their introduction into pretty much all processed food. The switch to corn sweeteners, in turn, was based on government subsidizes.

Stand back and look at the big picture. Government makes corn dirt cheap. Corn sweeteners get added to pretty much everything that average Americans eat. American obesity and diabetes skyrocket. Now you can take a superior attitude and say that people should figure out something else to eat. Or you can look at what's actually happening and say, this has been a really bad idea.

You say, "It seems a stretch to suggest the government has an agenda" -- are you kidding? Of course, government has an agenda. That is not to say that government subsidizes corn BECAUSE they think it's bad for poor people. It subsidizes corn because of political pressure from farm states and because of big campaign contributions from the agribusiness giants. But it does so IN SPITE OF the fact that it's bad for Americans generally -- poor Americans, most of all. If they think about it at all, Congressmen and women probably rationalize it more or less the way you did: nobody's forcing anyone to eat poorly and get fat, so don't blame us.

But the policy has real effects on real people. If the effects are to produce an epidemic of ill health, it's a dumb policy.

And, for what it's worth, I'm not a Democrat.

Posted by: Jonathan at March 4, 2006 01:51 AM

"Don't blame us" is exactly my point with regards to personal responsibility. A perfect government is an oxymoron. Take all the bias and money changing hands out of a horrible, dumb subsidized corn policy and what you're left with is simply an imperfect policy.

Each American has a choice while living with this imperfect policy. I can sit back and say that because the big bad wolf has made an imperfect decision that has left me fat and unhealthy I'm going to blame the wolf and may even go as far as demand the wolf fix it. Or, I can empower myself and create a healthy lifestyle without the wolf.

EASY: Pointing fingers and being dependant on external sources for my personal welfare.

HARD: Empowering myself (while helping others to so) and taking responsibility for my own welfare.

I see your point. There is a direct relationship between this subsidized corn policy and the health of our nation. A truly free society will never be easy because it demands that each and every citizen be personally responsible for themselves, regardless of what the wolf throws our way.

Should we try to change this policy? Absolutely. But let's create change with the knowledge that being poor does not equate to being stupid, by educating ourselves and most importantly, without the finger pointing.

Posted by: Jeff at March 5, 2006 12:45 PM

Jeff, if the government were subsidizing cigarettes to the point where they were almost free, I hope you wouldn't just say oh well, it's an imperfect world but people have to take responsibility for their actions. I hope you'd say that's a crazy policy that's killing people. And I hope you wouldn't accuse anyone who says so of "finger-pointing".

Nobody's saying that poor people are stupid. They're not stupid, they're poor. Because they're poor, they have limited choices. And all people, not just poor people, constantly make all sorts of choices that are detrimental to their own health. Smokers, for example. But just because people have a choice not to smoke, that doesn't mean the government should start handing out free cigarettes.

Most people, most of the time, take the path of least resistance. If people in government create a policy that makes the path of least resistance lethally unhealthy, they bear a degree of responsibility for the outcome. It is a moral cop-out to say that people COULD be more perfect than they are, that they COULD take extraordinary measures to avoid the effect of a policy, to avoid the path of least resistance. Policy needs to be directed at human nature as it exists, at what people are actually going to do in reality, not at what people COULD do in some alternate reality.

Of course people should try to eat healthily no matter what the government does. That goes without saying. But the government corn subsidy amounts to the government paying people to ruin their own health. You can say that people COULD refuse the bribe, but that doesn't change the fact that most people have not done so. We've seen the result. And it affects us all, whether we eat healthily or not. It's a huge anchor around the neck of the US health care system, it inflates the cost of everyone's health insurance, etc.

Posted by: Jonathan at March 5, 2006 05:47 PM

It's late; I'm tired and cannot debate anymore. I’ll concede to being somewhat idealistic, but am going to take some to mull this over a bit before concluding anything.

Posted by: Jeff at March 5, 2006 08:34 PM

If I understand this policy correctly only 5% of it goes into HFCS. Should the whole policy be abandoned just because cheap HFCS is one of the byproducts? I don't know enough about the policy as a whole to answer that, but I believe the 5% going to the production of HFCS should be abolished - it's clearly having a negative effect on a significantly large group of people (no pun there).

And yes, AT THE SAME TIME, people need to take responsibility for themselves. It's only finger pointing when someone who's affected by the policy stands up and says "bad policy" AND DOES NOTHING ELSE for themselves.

Lastly, where would we be if the free market produced cheap products high in HFCS (and other unhealthy ingredients), without any subsidies creating the same health problems we have today? Do we divert our attention to a new bad wolf and ask them to fix us?

I got to stick to my guns and say education is the best way out of this particular problem. There's nothing wrong with educating ourselves and at the same time trying to change policy.

And no, I didn't deliberately wait for this article to reach the bottom of the list to get the last word in. :)

Posted by: Jeff at March 7, 2006 09:56 PM