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.
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