Do farm subsidies cause obesity?
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."