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Farm Subsidies and Obesity - Study Results

Many health professionals now consider excessive body weight to be the key health problem in the United States today. The high and rising rate of obesity among children is of particular concern.

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Farm Subsidies and Obesity in the United States

Julian M. Alston, Daniel A. Sumner, and Stephen A. Vosti
A study by the University of Califoria Davis

The claim that farm subsidies have contributed significantly to making Americans fat by making fattening foods relatively cheap and abundant has become accepted as “fact” in the popular media.

The researchers present their findings that there is no evidence to support this claim. While many arguments can be made for changing farm subsidies, even entirely eliminating the current programs would not have any significant influence on obesity trends.

Writing in the New York Times, October 12, 2003, Michael Pollan claimed: “[Our] cheap-food farm policy comes at a high price: …[with costs including] the obesity epidemic at home – which most researchers date to the mid-70s, just when we switched to a farm policy consecrated to the overproduction of grain. Since that time, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day; each of us is, heroically, managing to pack away 200 of those extra calories per day. Presumably the other 300 – most of them in the form of surplus corn – get dumped on overseas markets or turned into ethanol.”

U.S. farm subsidy policies include both farm bill programs and trade barriers that raise U.S. farm prices and incomes for favored commodities. These policies support farm incomes either through transfers from taxpayers, or at the expense of consumers, or both. Thus, they might make agricultural commodities cheaper or more expensive and might therefore increase or reduce the cost of certain types of food.

Given the importance of the issue and the potential significance of the claim, a project was jointly initiated with colleagues from the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis and the Department of Economics at Iowa State University to examine the links between farm commodity subsidies and obesity. This is a summary of the research findings.

The policy economics of the sweetener market raises some issues that merit some explicit discussion. Farm subsidies are responsible for the growth in the use of corn to produce high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a caloric sweetener, but not in the way it is often suggested. The culprit here is not corn subsidies; rather, it is sugar policy that has restricted imports, driven up the U.S. price of sugar, and encouraged the replacement of sugar with alternative caloric sweeteners. Combining the sugar policy with the corn policy, the net effect of farm subsidies has been to increase the price of caloric sweeteners generally, and to discourage total consumption while causing a shift within the category between sugar and HFCS.

In this context, eliminating the subsidy policies would result in cheaper caloric sweeteners, and if anything more rather than less total consumption of sweeteners, with a switch in the mix back toward sugar.

Simple causation from farm subsidies to obesity is also inconsistent with international patterns across countries. For example, obesity trends for adult males and children in Australia are similar to those in the United States and the proximate causes (among them dramatic increases in fast food and soft drink consumption) are essentially the same, but Australia phased out its farm commodity programs over the 1980s and 1990s.

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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