A new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine1 has studied food prices over 20 years’ time and compared those to average caloric intake to find an association between food prices, dietary intake, and weight assessments. The study concluded that adding a tax to increase the price of soda or pizza by 10% would produce a weight loss of -7.12% (an average of 5 pounds) per year. In other words, by adding a “sin tax” to foods considered “junk,” the average American would be forced to lose 5 pounds of body fat in a year’s time. The problem here is that the study completely ignores what makes most North Americans obese (cheap, highly processed, bad-for-you food) and why it’s so cheap. Subsidies.
The United States Government subsidizes crops grown by American farmers to the tune of $10-$30 billion per year, depending on market prices for crops and disaster payments for lost crops. About 35% of those subsidies go towards corn, 14% to wheat, and 7% to soybeans. This means that 56% of all federal subsidies go towards crops that are used as the base for nearly every kind of junk food you can name.2
Corn is made into high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and is the second ingredient in most sodas after water. Corn is also used to artificially fatten beef and other livestock before slaughter (with questionable nutritional outcomes) while wheat and soybeans are the base for thousands of breads and filler items.
Compare those subsidies and their food outcomes to the subsidies given to vegetables and organic growers. Those amount to less than 1% of all federal subsidies through the Department of Agriculture (USDA).
It’s a proven consequence of subsidizing food crops for lower-class foods (helping to keep the prices at the fast food joint and soda fountain low) that a disparity exists between nutrition and income. A lower income means a lower nutritional value even if the caloric intake is above hunger or starvation levels statistically. In fact, children who are obese or overweight are more likely to have nutrient deficiencies.3
Yet these farm subsidies persist and opposition to them is met with cries of “We have to protect the farmer!” Yet the largest agricultural recipients (making up 10% of all recipients) received a whopping 72% of all subsidy payments in recent years, yet other agricultural commodities that do not receive subsidies make up 64% of all agricultural production. Most small, family-run, and organic farms receive no government money at all.4
In New Zealand, farm subsidies were cut back and nearly eliminated in 1984 and yet agriculture there has thrived, grown, prospered, and even moved towards more sustainable methods to cut costs. The result is that today, New Zealand has a thriving agricultural sector.4
It’s obvious that subsidizing the foods that make us unhealthy, overweight, and prone to chronic disease is not the way to happiness in America. Rather than adding taxes upon those already levied to raise the money for farm subsidies, why not remove the subsidies altogether and refund the money to the American people? This would force corporate farming interests into reconsidering their current methods of mono-crop growth and eliminating biodiversity through GMO seeds. It would also change consumer’s viewpoints on foods and what they really cost.
Overall, the new market competition would likely change the landscape of food and agriculture – both figuratively and literally.
1 – Food Price and Diet and Health Outcomes by Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD, et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 170 No. 5, March 8, 2010 (abstract, full article requires subscription)
1a – Food Charges and Subsidies editorial by Michael H. Katz, MD and Rajiv Bhatia, MD, MPH, same issue.
2 – Agricultural Subsidy, United States Wikipedia
3 – The Fat of the Land: Do Agricultural Subsidies Foster Poor Health? by Scott Fields, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 112 No. 14, October 2004.
4 – Agricultural Subsidies by Chris Edwards, CATO Institute, June 2009