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Currently showing: Funding longer lives > Health/medicine

07 Aug 13 06:14

The New York Times reports on a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (accessible through the story), which claims that shifts in agricultural policies, ending subsidies for junk foods and encouraging healthy eating could deliver $11 trillion in economic benefits.

That number seems a little... ummmm... made up, but the study does highlight the vast gap between policy and the public interest. Fruit, in particular, are categorized as "specialty crops" in the U.S. which do not receive subsidies and are not eligible for crop insurance. Corn, on the other hand, is so heavily subsidized that it is actually cost effective to generate bio-ethanol from U.S. corn, even though it takes approximately 1.2 liters of fuel equivalent of gasoline to produce just one liter of the stuff.

According to the UCS report, increasing fruit consumption in the U.S. by just one portion per person per day could cut the cost of treating heart disease by $17 billion a year.

How do we address the misalignment in public policy that appears to contribute to unhealthy eating, soaring health costs and often carries a significant environmental cost, particularly in the face of the powerful lobbying groups and special interests that originally campaigned for the subsidies and market protection they now receive? Should companies like insurers, which have a vested financial interest in improving public health, become more activist in promoting healthy eating?

Category: Funding longer lives: Health/medicine, Food security: Diet/alternatives


Alicia Montoya - 7 Aug 2013, 9:20 a.m.

Brilliant, thanks, Gavin!! Am now following @UCSUSA on twitter - thankfully there ARE concerned (and hopefully objective) scientists out there looking out for us.

And wow. 11 trillion. I'm still trying to digest that. But I'd love to see the full equation, including:
- Donations to political parties from big food groups
- Food subsidies & policy incentives from government in favor of these big food groups
- Jobs & growth that would come from giving smaller players (offering healthier options) a chance of competing against the food giants.

As an Economist, I understand the benefits of economies of scale and why one would argue that subsidizing corn was meant to help create more abundant and cheaper calories for us all. But hello (I want to believe) unintended consequences, it's now included in a shocking number of products and has become a health hazard. Not to mention what those mono-cultures are doing to our agricultural land and driving the need for more and more pesticides, which are again another health hazard. Please add that too to the equation above.

As a European, I also understand that variety is the spice of life and no, everybody eating the same industrially produced, next-to-zero nutrient foods is *not* good. Felicity Lawrence points out in her brilliant "Not on the label" book on food that 98% of British "bread" is made by two bakeries. By comparison, +90% of French bread is made by independent bakers. It may be less efficient but when it comes to food, I say bring it on!! Bring on the variety, the nutrients, the specialization and the freshness.

So for our health's sake, but also for the benefit of jobs and the economy, I say we need to end subsidies, incentives and advantages to (junk) food giants. And yes, that also means no junk food concessions at schools or offices.

Gavin Montgomery - 7 Aug 2013, 11:12 a.m.

If you look through the U.S. Department of Agricultural's budget for 2014, you will find substantial payments still being made to the tobacco industry:

That's because the department administers The Tobacco Trust Fund, which was set up to compensate former producers and beneficiaries of earlier programs subsidizing tobacco as they make the transition to other crops. What that tells me is that there are complex legacy issues relating to subsidies. Decision made 20 or 50 years ago, still effect the allocation of resources today and of course there are strong interest involved in maintaining the status quo.

The USDA also administers a number of programs, like farm insurance programs, funds to counter particular pests like Borer Beetle, farm product export schemes, and many others. Larger corporations are far better positioned to access these funds because their scale allows them to dedicate resources to managing state aid and lobbying for direct support. They also have more power because they are more "economically significant". Large food distributors, from supermarkets to burger chains, have another advantage in that they can often circumvent taxation through offshore holding companies and, of course, their diversification across markets gives them a natural advantage in that they are not vulnerable to any given risk.

So there are inherent biases in our food supply chain which favor large producers at the cost of local companies.

To its credit, the USDA does recognize that and is running programs to support local producers (details on page 20 of the report above), including a Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, and has set up a strike force to reach under-served agricultural communities and improve the distribution of farm aid.

That is not to say giant producers don't have extraordinary lobbying powers. For example, about a dozen U.S. States are considering or have passed laws making it illegal for animal rights groups to secretly film animal cruelty on livestock farms after companies caught abusing animals complained.

That is pretty horrific and almost certainly unconstitutional - the first ammendment clearly bars government from establishing any impediment to free speech - and it reflects the power of big farming conglomerates to influence public policy, at least a regional level.

Even this might be changing. Public pressure and campaigning is forcing companies to change their attitudes. One example that stands out is Smithfields Foods, the biggest pork producer in the U.S. which was recently sold to a Chinese companny. Smithfields owns more than 500 pig farms and turned some 27 million porkers into bacon at 49 factories across the country in 2010. In the past, the company has been criticized and even prosecuted for its handling of animal waste, but in recent years customers like McDonald's and Walmart have forced it to clean up its act. They still butcher Babe & Friends on an industrial scale, but now all their facilities are ISO 14001 certified and they are at least looking to deal with their industrial waste.

The reality is that public attitudes to food are changing fast and regulators and providers are slowly beginning to catch up. Attitudes have changed a lot over the last decade and social media campaigning, ugly videos of animals being slaughtered, the meteoric rise in obesity, soaring food prices, and a fightback by small and local producers continue to drive awareness. The big questions are whether this change is happening fast enough, how we can accelerate the process and, as I ask earlier, what role will vested interests like insurers or food distributors play in encouraging healthy eating and forcing powerful interests to change profitable behaviors.

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