Fat or the land?

The debate over the true cause of obesity is a real food fight

Burgers, fries, shakes—is it nutrient-poor foods that make Americans obese, or is it federal farm subsidies?

Burgers, fries, shakes—is it nutrient-poor foods that make Americans obese, or is it federal farm subsidies?

UC Davis’ “Farm and Food Policy and Obesity” workshop is this Friday and Saturday, May 21-22, at the UC Davis Conference Center. For more info, visit http://aic.ucdavis.edu/obesity.

Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese. There’s no arguing that fact, or the devastating health consequences of obesity. But when it comes to assigning blame for the epidemic, the debate’s a veritable food fight.

One side links federal farm subsidies to obesity, the other calls subsidies a nonissue in the discussion about the causes of obesity. Who’s right? Well, it’s complicated.

Everyone seems to agree that junk food, filled with sugar and fat, is packing on the pounds.

Some argue that the billions paid out in federal subsidies since the 1970s for wheat, soy and corn have flooded the market with ingredients that make cheap food taste good. Eliminating subsidies—particularly corn, which is planted on nearly a third of the country’s farmland and has found its way into about one-quarter of all supermarket foods—would be a step in the right direction in the battle against obesity.

Not true, according to Julian Alston, professor of agricultural economics at UC Davis, who, along with colleagues from the University of Iowa, is studying the issue under a five-year program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Getting rid of crop subsidies, they conclude, “would not even make a dent in America’s obesity problem.”

That’s because the cost of commodities such as corn and soy make up only a small part of the ultimate price of a Big Mac or a Big Gulp, Alston argues. So keeping or eliminating subsidies would have only a tiny impact on the price of those nutrient-poor foods. Americans pay less for food—just under 17 percent of their incomes—than at any time in history. The bottom line is that Americans are not going to stop buying cheap food until it becomes, well, “uncheap,” Alston said.

Alston said that food policy that restricts sugar imports—not overproduction of corn—is what’s responsible for the widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup today, in things as varied as soda, yogurt and salad dressing. According to Mother Jones, Americans in 1975—20 years after HFCS was invented—consumed more sugar than HFCS, an average of 70 pounds per year, vs. just 4 pounds of HFCS. By 2009, after nearly four decades of big corn subsidies, the switch was evident: Consumption of HFCS had grown to 39 pounds, while sugar slid to 45 pounds a year.

Michael Pollan, professor of journalism at UC Berkeley and author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, takes a lot of heat for arguing that subsidies contribute to obesity. Alston singles him out for getting it wrong, but researchers at Tufts University walk a middle path. In their 2009 report, they acknowledge the problems of sugar policy, but say Pollan was right that huge stores of corn made the switch to HFCS possible.

Pollan isn’t the only one to link farm subsidies to obesity. The argument’s being made by food activists and sustainability advocates, university professors and physicians.

Aimee Witteman, who recently left the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to join the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, also believes there’s a relationship to obesity and pointed out that subsidies don’t even parallel the government’s own recommendations for a healthy diet. Alston, too, agreed there’s a lot wrong with farm subsidies.

Some of those tackling obesity from a public-health perspective call the emphasis on subsidies an oversimplification of the epidemic’s cause. The “did not,” “did too” food fight narrows the focus to a battle between agribusiness profits and individual responsibility, obscuring the view toward solving the complex problem.

“Certainly all individuals have a responsibility,” said Matthew Marsom, director of public policy for the Oakland-based Public Health Institute. “But we all need to take responsibility for the food system we’ve allowed ourselves to create that doesn’t allow healthy choices for many Americans.”