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How the US Government Subsidizes Obesity

Jomo Kwame Sundaram was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.

KUALA LUMPUR , Dec 29 2016 (IPS) - Until the turn of the century, the United States of America (US) was the country with the highest share of overweight and obese people. Soon after the former president of Coca-Cola Mexico became the new president of his country, Mexico overtook the US.

In late 2014, the McKinsey Global Institute announced that 2.1 billion of the 7.3 billion people in the world were overweight or obese. This represented a fifty per cent increase over the previous WHO estimate of 1.4 billion less than a decade earlier. The Institute also estimated that about 2.8 percent of world income is spent dealing with the consequences of associated ill health.

While almost 800 million people are estimated to be ‘chronically hungry’, higher real incomes for many as well as globalized lifestyles, including food consumption, have changed micronutrient deficiencies and increased diet-related non-communicable diseases, many associated with overweight and obesity. With the United Nations General Assembly calling for a global Decade of Action against malnutrition from 2016, there is greater interest in the role of food systems in contributing to various dimensions of malnutrition.

A recent study found that those who most consume government subsidized foods had a 37 percent greater risk of being obese. They were significantly more likely to have belly fat, abnormal cholesterol and high blood sugar. While it could not prove cause and effect, this strong association is consistent with other research showing that diets higher in subsidized foods tend to be of poorer quality and more harmful to health.

American junk food
Almost three-quarters of the US population is overweight or obese. Junk foods are the largest source of calories in the American diet, with sweet desserts, bread, pizza, pasta and sweetened drinks the major culprits. These foods are largely products of seven food items heavily subsidized by the US government, namely maize, wheat, rice, soy, sorghum, milk and meat. Hence, such foods are cheap and plentiful.

Between 1995 and 2010, the US government paid out US$170 billion in agricultural subsidies to produce these foods. While many such foods are not inherently unhealthy, only small shares are eaten as produced. Most are used as feed for livestock, converted into biofuels or processed into cheap products such as sweeteners, industrial oils, processed meats, refined carbohydrates and other processed foods.

While the US government’s latest dietary guidelines recommend that people eat much more fruits and vegetables, only a very small fraction of its subsidies actually support fresh produce. Most agricultural subsidies go to crops processed into foods linked to obesity. Thus, such subsidies damage health and raise medical costs to treat the effects of overweight and obesity.

US farm subsidies
US farm subsidies were introduced decades ago to secure its food supply and to support struggling farmers. Since 1995, the US government has provided American farmers with almost $300 billion in agricultural subsidies. Typically, these have been included in the US farm bill, besides financing its food stamps program. The US farm bill is renewed by Congress every five years, with the 2014 bill approving US$956 billion in expenditure.

But the subsidies program no longer serves its original intent. Instead of supporting small farmers who grow fruits, nuts and vegetables – considered ‘specialty crops’ by the US government – the program now primarily subsidizes large commodity crop producers.

Small, including ‘specialty’ farms use three-quarters of the country’s cropland, but receive only 14 percent of government subsidies. Large agribusinesses specializing in growing the major commodity crops represent 7 percent of cropland, but receive half of all subsidies.

Thanks to public awareness and pressure, the 2014 farm bill allows farmers who grow commodity crops to use 15 percent of their farmland to grow fruits, vegetables and other specialty crops. It now supports organic farmers, including US$100 million for research to improve such production.

A ‘healthy incentives’ program encourages food stamp recipients to consume more fruits and vegetables by increasing the value of food stamps used to buy fresh produce at retail stores or farmers’ markets. However, such funding is still paltry compared to the billions in subsidies for commodity crops.

Of course, many factors influence what people eat. While it is impossible to prove that farm subsidies directly cause obesity, they clearly contribute as agriculture and food policies are not aligned with public health goals.

A national food policy should ensure that farm laborers gets decent incomes, everyone has affordable access to healthy foods and is effectively discouraged from consuming unhealthy foods, and that governments coordinate their nutrition goals with their food and agricultural policies.

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