Monday, April 23, 2007

Farm Policy and Fat People

Why are Americans so fat? We’ve heard the theories: It’s our sedentary lifestyles. It’s McDonalds’ fault. Our built environment makes it easier to drive a couple of blocks that it is to get up and walk around.
Michael Pollan, writing in the New York Times Magazine, offers a different perspective. He explains that our entire food economy is structured to deliver cheap calories via packaged foods:
As a rule, processed foods are more “energy dense” than fresh foods: they contain less water and fiber but more added fat and sugar, which makes them both less filling and more fattening. These particular calories also happen to be the least healthful ones in the marketplace, which is why we call the foods that contain them “junk.”
It’s not that junk food is inherently more efficient at delivering nutrition:
This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market. Compared with a bunch of carrots, a package of Twinkies, to take one iconic processed foodlike substance as an example, is a highly complicated, high-tech piece of manufacture, involving no fewer than 39 ingredients, many themselves elaborately manufactured, as well as the packaging and a hefty marketing budget. So how can the supermarket possibly sell a pair of these synthetic cream-filled pseudocakes for less than a bunch of roots?
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.
Federal farm policy is designed to help agribusiness, not those farmers who actually deliver real live fruits and vegetables to the marketplace:
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. . . 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.
The perverse result of this distorted system of subsidies is that those of us who want to eat healthy food have to pay a premium for healthy calories in comparison to the junk calories. In economic terms, the obesity epidemic is a negative externality of the way we as taxpayers support farmers.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post:

The other half is Americans lack of exercise. Recently someone I knew, put a pacer on, doctor's orders, and after the first day, took it back to see if it was broken, because the results were so unbelievable! Nope, they said, it wasn't broken.

With a new pacer on the next day the results were the same. From dawn to sleepy time, the results were the same. 1000 paces.

If you commute and sit down at work, my guess is that most reader's results would be the same.

2:06 AM, April 24, 2007  
Blogger Tom Noyes said...

The lack of physical exertion among so many Americans is not just due to laziness or sloth. Much of the built environment precludes actually walking anywhere.

For instance, many suburban office parks are designed to make it necessary for people to drive to lunch. Many suburban housing developments are designed so that it's just not possible to walk anywhere. Hence the odd phonomenon of mall walkers: people who drive to shopping malls to go walking.

6:53 AM, April 24, 2007  

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