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Do Farm Subsidies Cause Obesity?

Lauren Appelwick, Publicity

Robert Paarlberg, author of  Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a leading authority on food policy, and one of the most prominent scholars writing on agricultural issues today. He is B.F. Johnson Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College and Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. He was invited to testify in front of the House Committee on Agriculture on May 13th, and shared his thoughts with us here last week. Now, after presenting his testimony on obesity, Paarlberg reflects on the experience.  You can read an excerpt from his book here.

Picking up the story, recall that I was invited to testify before the House Agriculture Committee on May 13, to share my views on new farm legislation for 2012. I was expecting a frosty reception, since I have expressed some disparaging views of farm subsidies, and also of the House and Senate agriculture committees, in my newest book. Yet the hearing took a surprising turn. The Committee wasn’t that interested in my views on farm subsidies (they have well established views of their own). Instead they wanted to talk about obesity.

In both my written testimony and in my oral statement I bravely repeated my view that farm bills were too wasteful of taxpayer money, thanks in part to the “logroll” tactics used by the House Agriculture committee. When I was asked by a senior member what I thought the chances were that this tactic could work again in 2012, I said “100 percent.” He said he “took it as a personal compliment” that I had noticed and remarked on the success of this strategy.

What got the committee’s attention, however, was my warning that drafting another business-as-usual farm bill in 2012 was going to be more difficult, because of a strengthening belief that the farm subsidies are contributing to our nation’s obesity crisis by making unhealthy foods too cheap. The committee knew, and I confirmed in my testimony, that this is in fact an unfounded charge. When the farm bill places restrictions on sugar imports to protect the income of American sugar growers it actually make all sweetened products – from candy to ice cream – artificially expensive rather than cheap. And when Congress enacts subsidies and mandates to divert 30 percent of our corn crop to the making of ethanol for auto fuel, it is making both corn and other animal feeds – and hence all meat products – artificially expensive as well. Nor is it true that corn-based sweeteners are more obesity-inducing than natural sugar. Nor is it true that the price of junk food has fallen in America while the price of healthy foods (fruits and vegetables) has remained high. All of these misconceptions about farm programs are explained in Chapter Eight of my Oxford book, my chapter on “The Politics of Obesity.”

Yet the House Agriculture Committee also knew, and I confirmed, that over the past several years a number of highly influential non-scholarly books such as Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, plus various documentary films such as King Corn and Food, Inc., had blamed the farm bill for at least a part of our obesity crisis, so they were looking for ways to correct that impression.

Until now, the Committee has tried to address this problem in a characteristic way, by spending still more taxpayer money (through government nutrition programs like the SNAP program, which used to be called the Food Stamp program) hoping to deliver healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables to low-income consumers. This is also a central tactic embraced by First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2009 initiative against childhood obesity. It is noteworthy that almost nobody in Washington, D.C. wants to vote for regulations, taxes, or even warning labels on calorie-dense snack and junk foods or on sweetened beverages. Food, Inc. would push back.

In my testimony to the committee I suggested, as a new approach, that caloric sodas might be removed from eligibility for purchase under the SNAP program, a bit like we already disqualify purchases of tobacco, alcohol, and pet food from SNAP benefits. This would not be the imposition of a tax, only the removal of a subsidy. And the total dollar value of SNAP benefits to recipients would not be reduced at all. The benefits would simply be re-deployed to encourage purchases of products more healthy than sweetened sodas. Hearing this idea, the Committee Chairman offered his opinion that “This is clearly something we need to take a look at.” His remark caught the attention of journalists sitting in the back of the room, and led to several follow up news stories. (See Reuters.)

So, just another lesson in food politics. While the proponents of farm subsidies were less angered by my views than expected, I have now made myself persona non grata with the soft drink industry.

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  2. Scott

    “Nor is it true that corn-based sweeteners are more obesity-inducing than natural sugar. Nor is it true that the price of junk food has fallen in America while the price of healthy foods (fruits and vegetables) has remained high.”
    Care to elaborate with some evidence?

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