How Congress Makes You Fat

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Michael Pollan's piece in the NYT magazine is a minor masterpiece—a holy union of anti-obesity grumbling and anti-government pork righteousness. As Pollan tells it, farm subidies (especially the version of the farm bill that rises up every few years) are to blame for unhealthy eating habits.

This resolutely unglamorous and head-hurtingly complicated piece of legislation, which comes around roughly every five years and is about to do so again, sets the rules for the American food system — indeed, to a considerable extent, for the world's food system. Among other things, it determines which crops will be subsidized and which will not, and in the case of the carrot and the Twinkie, the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support to the cake than to the root. Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.)

For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy. That's because the current farm bill helps commodity farmers by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production, as farm bills once did. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

If the anti-Twinkies forces had their way, would there be more restrictions on what you could eat? Probably. But if the obesity panic centers on the massive shift of tax dollars to growing these foods, and breadbasket congressfolk have to apologize for those votes… well, that's a useful direction for the debate to go in.

Back in 2002, Jonathan Rauch ran the farm bill over with a thresher, backed up, and ran over it again.

NEXT: Joseph Schumpeter Drinks Deep at Starbucks Coffee

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  1. Fat is flavor!!!!!!!!!

  2. HFCS alert: A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn)

    These issues from the Left deserve more research as to why they are recycled and the period between there reemergence.

    When I was a kid cereal companies created cartoons that ran on the weekends. Some crazy abolitionist movement got them banned because they were “long commercials for cereal”. There were all sorts of celebrities appearing on talk shows, even game shows, spouting similar scripts to what the NYT writer is saying here.

    That was between around 35 years ago +/- 5 or so.

    It is almost as if the aging hippies got their children to recycle their old screechings.

  3. In Lancaster County, PA – some of the most fertile farm soil in the world – subsidies are defended on the ground that farmers would have to sell out to the evil developers (you know, the people who build homes for our kids) unless their crops were subsidized. While the farmers tend to be Republicans, their cause plays well to the Democrats’ anti-sprawl, anti-Wal Mart message.

  4. I’d like to believe that our nation’s food policies are responsible for obesity, because it would be one more argument to put out against farm subsidies, but that analysis depends on what the recommended diet is. If the system promotes carbs and it’s really better to eat protein, then perhaps the system does encourage obesity. But many of the subsidized carbs are also used to feed livestock and made meat. OTOH, not too long ago we were urged to eat rice and pasta and go easy on the meats, in order to stay lean.

    I’ve heard mixed reviews on whether the low-carb diets are really all that great for you. As long as that issue is up in the air, it’s hard to really say for sure that agriculture policy is responsible for unbalanced diets.

    A few other factors:

    1) Agriculture policy makes milk artificially expensive, via price supports. Milk is certainly good for you, but too much ice cream, and too much pizza with the cheese-stuffed crust, and you’ll be fat.

    (I’m open to being proved wrong on that point, because our agriculture policies also subsidize dairy farmers, which would make the stuff cheaper if all other factors are kept constant.)

    2) While agriculture policy makes sweetened goods with corn syrup artificially cheap, it makes sweetened products with cane sugar artificially expensive. If we had more market-oriented agriculture policy, it could be that people would consume just as many sweet foods, only those foods would have a different sweetener. Either way, just as much junk food consumed.

    So, in summary, I’m not convinced that agriculture policy really makes us fatter. That assessment depends on (1) what the ideal diet is and (2) whether all of the policy factors are pushing in the same direction. In the case of sweeteners, it seems clear that agriculture policy dictates which types of sweets we consume, but not how many sweets. In the case of dairy products, it has been argued that agriculture policy makes the stuff artificially expensive.

  5. Guy, the article seems to me to be about the effect of agricultural subsidies on food prices. How is that the same thing as companies using cartoon programs as long commercials for cereals? One claims that eating certain types of food can be unhealthy and points to government regulations that distort the market to favor those foods; another claims that eating certain types of food is unhealthy and demands goverment regulation to distort the market to disfavor the foods. One argument criticizes government regulation; the other argument celebrates it.

  6. as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk

    Then why does my state mandate a minimum legal price for retail milk.

  7. Cheese makes you fat?

  8. Michael Pollan wrote another astounding piece of journalism a few years ago on the American beef production system.

    http://www.nehbc.org/pollan1.html

    Pollan’s work simply makes you shake your head and say over and over again, “The insanity…”

  9. The NYT publishes an article with the central premise: “Collectivist distortions of the market are bad, to the extent that they do not distort it according to our own, superior, collectivist priorities.”

    This comes as quite a surprise.

  10. thoreau,

    There was a study that made the nooz a couple weeks ago about HFCS vs. can sugar. Apparently, consuming HFCS doesn’t cause our brains to produce as much of the chemical that causes us to feel satiated as does the consumption of cane sugar. So while the two types of sugar have equivalent calorie loads, people will tend to consume more of the HFCS-containing products.

  11. Coming from Wisconsin, I can state with 100% surety that a diet of cheese, bratwurst, and beer will make you fat. Even the 18yo freshman girls.

  12. Guy, the article seems to me to be about the effect of agricultural subsidies on food prices. How is that the same thing as companies using cartoon programs as long commercials for cereals? One claims that eating certain types of food can be unhealthy and points to government regulations that distort the market to favor those foods; another claims that eating certain types of food is unhealthy and demands goverment regulation to distort the market to disfavor the foods. One argument criticizes government regulation; the other argument celebrates it.

    There was a lot more to it than the little blurb I tossed up earlier.

    For one thing, the reason that it was ‘bad’ to have cartoon length commercials for cereal was because the cereal was unhealthy, full of “processed sugar” and “chemicals”. There was a whole related argument about government subsidies to the “agriculture industry”. This story is just a re-packaging of all of that.

    You know, the Leftist version of “protecting the children”.

  13. When I was a kid, there was a cereal called “Sugar Smack.”

    Name two substances parents might not want their kids to consume a great deal of.

  14. Guy,
    I fail to see how removing farm subsidies is in any way leftist.

    Thoreau,
    But many of the subsidized carbs are also used to feed livestock and made meat
    So it’s ok to subsidize something as long as it’s meat?

  15. So it’s ok to subsidize something as long as it’s meat?

    No, I was saying that the policy might be doing just as much to encourage meat consumption as carb consumption, so the effect on our nutrient mix might not be that significant. Since some believe that the sources of calories matter just as much as the total number, this complicates the analysis.

    Grotius-

    Cheese in moderation won’t make you fat. But it is a source of calories (as well as cholesterol), and it was alleged that policies are making calories cheaper. In the case of cheese, it’s arguable that policies make some sources of calories more expensive.

    joe-

    I’ll have to look into that.

  16. Joe:

    That was “Sugar Smacks” (with an ‘s’ at the end), which has since become “Honey Smacks,” probably to avoid the disapproving tones of the Food Police. If experience is any guide, the stuff has less actual honey than can be found on the feet of a single worker bee.

    I must admit, however, that the cartoon character depicted on the packaging, a frog with a sideways cap, did look a bit like an inner-city drug dealer.

  17. Not done reading the article, but the following struck me:

    “A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.”

    Isn’t this exactly what the .gov has done with tobacco as well? Dump billions of dollars into prevention and anti-smoking programs while at the same time dumping billions of dollars into the pockets of tobacco farmers whose livelihood has been hurt by a reduction in the number of smokers.

  18. while at the same time dumping billions of dollars into the pockets of tobacco farmersi>

    When did they ever do that?

    They have over regulated and restricted amounts that farmers can grow. I recently heard (not sure of accuracy) that vinyards are regulated the same way.

    You (and others) frame this as if tobacco farmers get a big fat federal check in the mail. What they actually get is various govenment agencies crawling all over how much tobacco they brought to the auctions and how much of their property has tobacco growing on it.

  19. cgee,

    I thought it was now “Golden Crisp.”

  20. Let me try that again with proper formatting.

    while at the same time dumping billions of dollars into the pockets of tobacco farmers

    When did they ever do that?

    They have over regulated and restricted amounts that farmers can grow. I recently heard (not sure of accuracy) that vinyards are regulated the same way.

    You (and others) frame this as if tobacco farmers get a big fat federal check in the mail. What they actually get is various govenment agencies crawling all over how much tobacco they brought to the auctions and how much of their property has tobacco growing on it.

  21. My wife and I were listening to Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma on a cross-country trip. At first, I bristled at a section that fondly recalled FDR’s farm policies. But, then, I realized that the book essentially makes a libertarian argument against the government messing around with agriculture, even though Pollan probably would never describe himself as a libertarian.

    I really had to stop bristling and admit that Omnivore is a pretty good book when the hero of the story turned out to be a self-described libertarian grass farmer (Joel Salatin).

  22. Thoreau,
    Ok, I see your point now.

  23. as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk

    Where has this guy been shopping?

  24. Mike Laursen, amen brother, amen. OD got an okay review here, but Katherine (i think) really, really wanted to dislike it.

    And Ive been to Polyface farms. Got the full tour and met Joel himself..straight outta central casting, this guy. Great place, if you’re ever in the area. Just off Interstate 81.

  25. thoreau,

    Corn-fed cows are essentially raised on a diet of Capt. Crunch. Unsurprisingly, this makes them very unhealthy. Equally unsurprisingly, this makes the beef produced from them much less healthy than that of grass-fed cows.

    Guess which kind of beef is subsidised by the goverment.

  26. Government increases the size of meal portions delivered by restaurants.

    I don’t want to take the time to explain right now, but it has to do with what I call “the squeeze”.

  27. ‘There was a study that made the nooz a couple weeks ago about HFCS vs. can sugar. Apparently, consuming HFCS doesn’t cause our brains to produce as much of the chemical that causes us to feel satiated as does the consumption of cane sugar. So while the two types of sugar have equivalent calorie loads, people will tend to consume more of the HFCS-containing products.’

    Also, I heard something about HFCS circulating longer in the blood, causing extended insulin spikes, or something…

  28. Mackie,

    IIRC, there was a study out a couple months ago that refuted that theory. I think Reason blogged it.

  29. Joe – Sugar Crisp is made by Post, Sugar Smacks, now just Smacks, is a product of Kellogg’s.

    But they basically amount to the same thing — Post’s mascot is Sugar Bear, who frankly, looks a little high, and Kellogg’s mascot is a drug dealing frog.

    Yes, I stocked groceries for 3 years while in college.

  30. And Ive been to Polyface farms. Got the full tour and met Joel himself..straight outta central casting, this guy. Great place, if you’re ever in the area. Just off Interstate 81.

    I’m jealous. We live on the other end of the country, but the book did influence us enough that we found a similar farmer that sells at our local farmers’ market.

  31. Thanks, joe, I’ll check that out.

  32. You da man, Dave T. Da cereal stockin’ MAN!

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