Is a piece of agricultural legislation actually contributing to obesity?
While Congress debated the merits of this year's farm bill, a progressive California-based activist group put out a report suggesting that the bill's many subsidies favored foods that contribute to the nation's obesity epidemic.
In its report, titled "Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies for Fresh Produce and Junk Food," the California Public Interest Research Group argues that too much of the nearly $300 billion the government has given in agricultural subsidies since 1995 has gone to the crops that are used to create junk food.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture...recommends that fruits and vegetables make up half of the food on Americans' plates," reads the report. "Yet there is a huge discrepancy between what the government suggests we eat and what they subsidize."
In addition to supporting the country's agricultural industry, farm subsidies are, at least in theory, designed to keep food cheap enough so Americans don't go hungry. However, as the report argues, by giving the majority of agricultural funding to commodity crops like corn (about $84 billion in subsidies since 1995), wheat ($35 billion) and soy ($28 billion), all of which are primarily fed to livestock or used as sweeteners or other additives, the government makes unhealthy food comparatively more attractive to consumers than healthy food.
While over $19 billion has funded corn and soy, which in turn show up in processed foods as sweeteners, thickeners and other additives, over the past 18 years, only $689 million has been spent subsidizing apples. What's more, apples have been the only fruit or vegetable to get significant federal support in that same period.
The group argues that these disparate levels of government funding help make unhealthy foods less expensive than healthful alternatives.
"Had these subsidies gone directly to America's 146 million taxpayers," the report notes, "the apple subsidies would enable each taxpayer to buy half an apple each year--but the annual junk food subsidies [meaning corn and soy] would add up to nearly 20 Twinkies each."
The argument that the structure of the United States' system of farm subsidies contributes to obesity isn't new. For example, a 2012 editorial in Scientific American, which called for a rethinking of agricultural subsidies, noting:
Fruits and vegetables do not have to be more expensive than a corn-laden chicken nugget or corn syrup–sweetened drink. One reason they are costly is that the current farm bill categorizes them as "specialty crops" that do not receive the same direct payments or crop insurance that commodity crops do.
There is no dearth of policy options. Research groups such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J., recommend leveling the playing field by extending subsidies and insurance programs more widely to fruit and vegetable producers. The government can also use its own purchasing power, through school lunch programs and institutional buying decisions, to fill people’s plates with healthy choices. The imperative, however, is clear: any new farm bill should at the very least remove the current perverse incentives for people to eat unhealthily.
While the disparity of funding between commodity and fruit and vegetable crops is undeniable, there is research that suggests farm subsidies don't really matter that much when it comes to individual health. A study published last year in the journal Health Economics suggested that the billions of dollars the government pumps into the country's agriculture system each year don't actually have a huge effect on what people consume. The study found that removing subsidies on major grains would likely only result in a small decrease in the total amount of calories consumed by the average American and that all effects of the US agriculture policy have been gradually decreasing over time.