The Fat of the Land: Do Agricultural Subsidies Foster Poor Health?

Scott Fields

Environ Health Perspect. 2004;112(14) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Since the 1920s, American farmers have received various forms of federal support in an effort to keep farmers farming and provide Americans with an affordable, stable food supply. Wheat, soybeans, and especially corn are currently the most highly subsidized crops; products made from these crops, including high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats, have flooded the market as cheap means for making foods tastier, though not healthier. Now critics are asking whether subsidies for these crops are actually driving the U.S. epidemic of obesity.

Ever since the Great Depression, American farmers have been the beneficiaries of a medley of subsidies and support programs meant to stabilize crop prices, keep farmers farming, and provide U.S. families with an affordable, reliable supply of food. But these programs may have had an unintended side effect. Rather than keep Americans healthy, critics say, these policies have contributed to today's obesity pandemic and other nutrition problems as well.

Writing in the 2004 Annual Review of Nutrition, James Tillotson, a professor of food policy and international business at Tufts University, argues that U.S public policy encourages obesity at the expense of sound nutritional practices. "You have a whole régime here that's worked to increase agricultural efficiency," Tillotson says. And what U.S. farmers are most efficient at producing, he says, are just a few highly subsidized crops—wheat, soybeans, and especially corn.

Support for these few crops, critics say, has compelled farmers to ignore other crops such as fruits, vegetables, and other grains. The market is flooded with products made from the highly subsidized crops, including sweeteners in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), fats in the form of hydrogenated fats made from soybeans, and feed for cattle and pigs. This flood, in turn, drives down the prices of fattening fare such as prepackaged snacks, ready-to-eat meals, fast food, corn-fed beef and pork, and soft drinks. Worse yet, some scientists say, paltry support for foods other than these staples increases the contrast between prices of fat—laden, oversweetened foods and those of healthier alternatives, offering poor folks little choice but to stock their pantries with less nutritious foods.

Hogwash, say other researchers and agricultural industry professionals, who cite a number of other changes that are making Americans fat. Less physical activity is one major lifestyle change that has led to more obesity. Longer work weeks and more two-worker households both mean less time for nutritious home-cooked meals. They also mean more "latchkey children" left home alone from the time they leave school until their parents get home from work—children who tend to be less active and eat more fattening snacks. Technological innovations have contributed as well—for example, advances in cutting and peeling technology, freezing technology, coating technology (McDonald's fries have a coating of sugar and beef flavoring), transportation technology, and cooking technology have put fattening french fries on nearly every restaurant menu in America. Persuasive television commercials and just plain personal taste are also making Americans fat, they contend.

Even if price supports were eliminated entirely, says Larry Mitchell, CEO of the American Corn Growers Association in Washington, D.C., prices for subsidized commodities wouldn't increase significantly, and they might even drop. Furthermore, says Sam Willett, senior director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association, also in Washington, demand for products, not agricultural subsidies, determines what farmers choose to grow. "Connecting farm programs to obesity is quite a leap," he says. "When you examine the data, it doesn't support the theory. The fact is, farmers are capturing less and less of the total food dollar."

Any way you look at it, the number of factors involved makes it hard to encapsulate the relationship between farm support and obesity in a neat cause-and-effect equation. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—which administers both the agricultural subsidy programs and a host of nutrition research and education programs—has put scant, if any, thought into a possible relationship between the two, says Elizabeth Frazao, a nutrition scientist for the USDA Economic Research Service. Department spokeswoman Jean Daniel says USDA research indicates simply that overweight children and adults are eating too much and not getting enough physical activity.

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