The Current Debate Concerning Obesity and Crop Subsidies: Why Farmers Should be Concerned



By: Rebekah McKinney, Staff Member

It has become almost impossible to watch the morning news or catch up on current events without being confronted with America's losing battle against obesity. Current efforts to battle the epidemic were announced by First Lady Michelle Obama, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin in 2010 in the "Healthy Fit America" plan.[1] While this plan promotes grassroots efforts to improve availability of supermarkets, recreational facilities, and limiting unhealthy food advertisements, some believe altering the current crop subsidies would address the root of the problem.[2]

Progressive organization Think Progress discussed the findings of the California Public Interest Research Group (CALIPRIG) which reported that current crop subsidies contribute to driving down the prices of ingredients used in "junk food."[3] The organization opined that this was "particularly alarming" in light of the growing prevalence of obesity and such subsidies especially affect the poor due to the relatively inexpensive cost of unhealthy food.[4]

However, others claim farm subsidies have negligible effects on food prices and, consequently, America dietary choices. In an article examining the contribution of farm subsidies to the American obesity rate, Dr. Julian M. Alston, Professor of Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics at the University of California at Davis and previous Chief Economist in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in Australia, identified three elements which must be true for subsidies to have an impact on American dietary choices: farm subsidies must have resulted in cheap and abundant commodities used in junk food, the abundance of farm commodities must result in cost savings for the food industry which are passed on to the consumer, and food consumption must have changed significantly in response to the price differential.[5] Dr. Alston illustrates that a simplistic view of the American crop subsidy program may lead to overly simplistic conclusions concerning the relationship between subsidies and obesity. For example, the effects of price-depressing subsidies are often contained or reversed by policies such as restricted acreage and production.[6] He concluded that altering current subsidy programs would have only a modest effect on the cost of production and prices and the overall effect on food prices would be small due to the declining and already small influence of farm commodity prices on food.[7]

With the failure of the House of Representatives to pass a comprehensive farm bill in 2012, coupled with the increasing prevalence of obesity in America, farmers should pay special attention not only to future farm bill discussions but also to the current obesity discourse. American Farmland Trust President Jon Scholl described this failure as leaving "U.S. farmers less secure" and placing important programs in "limbo."[8] This failure coupled with the recent spotlight on how subsidies may contribute to the obesity crisis will surely be of great importance to farmers in the months to come.
________________________
[1] Press Release, Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Secretary, and Surgeon General Join First Lady to Announce Plans to Combat Overweight and Obesity and Support Healthy Lifestyles (Jan. 28, 2008), http://www.HHS.gov/News/Press/2010pres/01/20100128c.html.
[2] Id.
[3] Zach Beauchamp, Farm Bill Contributing to America's Obesity CrisisThink Progress (July 26, 2012), http://ThinkProgress.org/Health/2012/07/26/589041/Crop-Subsidies-Obesity/; see California Public Interest Research Group, Applies to TwinkiesCALIPIRG (Sept. 21, 2011), http://www.CALIPIRG.org/Reports/Cap/Apples-Twinkies.
[4] Id.
[5] Julian M. Alston, Farm Subsidies and Obesity in the United States: National Evidence and International Comparisons, 33 Food Policy 470, 472 (2008). See University of California at Davis, Julian Alston: Biographical SketchAgricultural and Resource Economics (last visited Jan.30, 2013), http://AgEcon.UCDavis.edu/People/Faculty/Julian-Alston/Biographical-Sketch/.
[6] Id. at 472.
[7] Id. at 473.
[8] Press Release, American Farmland Trust, Press American Farmland Trust Calls Extension of Old Farm Bill a Missed Opportunity (Dec. 31, 2012), http://www.FarmLand.org/News/PressReleases/2012/FarmBillMissedOppl.asp.