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Is Our Agricultural Policy Making Us Fat?

So long as I'm having a food-policy sort of day (you've checked out the new column, right?), I may as well talk up this paper significantly complicating the picture on the relationship between agricultural policy and obesity.

It's a pretty common complaint that we subsidize food that makes us sick. And it's true. In their working paper exploring the relationship between agricultural policy and obesity, John Cawley and Barret Kirwan put the relationship pretty simply: "The most direct way that agricultural subsidies may affect obesity is by encouraging overproduction and low food prices. If consumers respond to these low prices by consuming more food without changing their lifestyle, the result is obesity." And obesity, of course, makes us sick. Even better, a quick look at the data suggests that subsidies and obesity have been rising alongside each other, as you can see from this graph:


It would be very convenient if this effect was very large. The implication would be that we could substantially reduce obesity by doing something we should do anyway: dismantling our systems of agricultural supports. But Cawley and Kirwan find very little evidence for that view. Their best estimate is that commodity subsidies lower food prices by 1.6 to 2.7 percent. That reduction in price, in turn, probably accounts for about 0.75 percent to 1.2 percent of the total increase in American BMIs between 1984 and 1999. Americans, as we learned for the umpteenth time today, are getting very fat and very sick. But arresting that trend won't be as easy as removing a few subsidies.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 1, 2009; 4:19 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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"americans, as we learned for the umpteenth time today, are getting very fat and very sick. but arresting that trend wont be as easy as removing a few subsidies."

many things, known and unknown, make us sick and fat.
but the food we eat doesnt have to be one of them.
people have a choice to decide what to eat.
i have never heard of anyone being forced to eat a frosted doughnut.
here is the best way to eat in a healthy manner.
only shop in the fruit and vegetable section of your market.
it is easy to find.
it is the only aisle without hermetically sealed packaging, and food that is still living.
eating healthy does not need to be particularly complicated or expensive.

Posted by: jkaren | July 1, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Have you considered that by taking control of their healthcare we gain the moral authority to tell them how to live?

That would be good for them, right?

Posted by: whoisjohngaltcom | July 1, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I blame it all on Coke. If you drink just one 12 oz can per day more than you did previously you will add 150 calories to your diet.

It will take about a month to turn this into an extra pound of weight. Do this for a year and you've added about 12 pounds. Do it for 3-5 years and you have a weight problem.

If you don't like picking on Coke then just look at all the gratuitous uses of sweeteners (mostly high fructose corn syrup) in everyday foods: ketchup, salad dressing, yogurt, etc.

I don't believe the subsidy numbers either. You can get 3000 calories at McDonald's for a couple of bucks. If you try to spend the same amount on fruits, vegetables and grains you will be luck to buy 1/3 as much. If you can sell a hamburger for $1 without a subsidy I'll eat it.

Posted by: robertfeinman | July 1, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

The problem, as I see it, is that mass production techniques make very labor-intensive & unhealthy food very cheap and easy.

Look at potato chips. They're never expensive, but if you make them yourself at home, they're a big pain in the tush. You're chopping potatoes thin, you're deep frying, there's splatter and mess...the whole process takes at least an hour, with cleanup. Much more difficult as a quick snack than, say, eating an apple.

Compare that to opening a bag of chips. Easy, fast, and because it's efficiently produced, it's incredibly cheap.

I think the problem is less direct subsidies and more the industrialization of food at every level.

At this point, the yummiest food is also the cheapest and easiest. What I find amazing is that we're not all obese.

But I don't know how to fix it.

Posted by: theorajones1 | July 1, 2009 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Which also means removing those subsidies would not increase the food price much. Then why waste those Billions of dollars?

Posted by: umesh409 | July 2, 2009 12:41 AM | Report abuse

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