Do farm subsidies cause obesity?

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A white paper released by Food & Water Watch and the Public Health Institute challenges the common assumption that government subsidies to farmers growing corn, soybeans and other commodity crops is a primary factor in increasing rates of obesity. Acknowledging that the current system of farm subsidies is in need of reform, the paper, Do Farm Subsidies Cause Obesity? Dispelling Common Myths About Public Health and the Farm Bill, finds that there is little to no academic research that supports the belief that crop subsidies make junk food cheaper and more plentiful, leading to higher rates of obesity.

As the debate over deficit reduction rages on, it seems likely that one type of farm subsidies, direct payments, will soon end. While cutting farm subsidies has been a rallying cry for many groups, the paper explains how simply ending direct payments will not make processed junk food more expensive or healthy food cheaper.

"It's convenient to blame farmers for making Americans fatter, rather than putting the blame squarely on the corporations that lobbied for the deregulation that led to overproduction of cheap corn and soy," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "Cutting subsidies without fixing commodity policies will do nothing to address the overabundance of heavily advertised junk food in our country or help more people access healthy foods, but it could have a devastating impact on the thousands of small to midsize family farmers who rely on subsidies to stay afloat."

In fact, the review of the literature summarized in the white paper demonstrates that a clear link exists between deregulation of agricultural markets and oversupply of the building blocks of processed food—commodities such as corn and soy.

In the 1980s and '90s, the federal government eliminated long-standing policies that limited the production of commodity crops and helped stabilize prices paid to farmers. This led to the overproduction that sent crop prices plummeting. Subsidies were only introduced after the fact as an emergency measure to keep farmers from going out of business and losing their land.

"To find real solutions to the obesity epidemic, we must move beyond the current debate between cutting subsidies or maintaining the status quo and deal with the more fundamental issue of commodity policy reform that supports a food and agriculture system that's healthier for eaters and the people who grow our food," said Carmen Rita Nevarez, M.D., MPH, PHI vice president for external relations and p0reventive medicine advisor and immediate past president of the American Public Health Association. "Diet-related diseases are costing the nation billions in added health care expenses. We must address the disparities caused by policies that favor the food industry, and while supporting small and midsize family farms, give consumers real choices for healthy food options."

The paper includes evidence that removing subsidies would not make commodities scarcer or more expensive.  For example, economists at the University of Tennessee found that if government subsidies were removed, the supply and price of commodity crops like corn would change very little, but U.S. farm incomes would decline by 25 to 30 percent. This would lead to more farmers going out of business and selling their land to larger agribusinesses, so there would be no reduction in supply, just a reduction in the number of small and midsized farms.  

"Crop prices might be high now, but it's only a matter of time until they come crashing down. Until we restore government commodity programs that allow farmers to get a fair price for their crops, small and midsized farmers will always be one planting season away from going out of business," said Hauter. "Blaming subsidies for our broken food system only drives a wedge between the family farm community and public health advocates, which is not productive if we want to rebuild a healthy food system."

The paper concludes with several long- and short-term policy recommendations including:

  • Engage in the long-term campaign to reform commodity policies by developing responsible federal supply management programs that reduce overproduction and stabilize price and supply, such as a grain reserve and land set-asides, undoing the damaging deregulation that took place in the 1980s and 90s.
  • Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other healthy foods through strategies that promote increased access and affordability for underserved communities and protect and strengthen federal food assistance programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
  • Expand the supply of healthy foods by helping farmers diversify their production and supply local and regional markets with healthy food.
  • Build the infrastructure needed to better link farmers and consumers and aid in the delivery of healthy foods.

The paper and a corresponding issue brief can be downloaded at

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Francisco Cunha    
Sao Paulo - Brasil  |  October, 23, 2011 at 09:10 PM

I recommend to read Omnivore's Dilemma: a natural history of four meals, by Michel Pollan. A realistic analysis of the influence of subsidies on changes in eating habits of Americans.

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