Thursday, July 02, 2009

Agriculture, Obesity, and Poverty

The agriculture industry has and will continue to come under attach for contributing to obesity. These attacks are based on narrow special interests and ideology, but they will be used to justify more regulation and an attack on the personal liberties of millions of Americans. It will be done in the name of protecting the poor from themselves and the greed of agribusiness.

Back in 2007 in the New York Times Micahel Pollan makes the following comment:

"So how is it that today the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight?

This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market.

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."

Mr. Pollan has it all wrong on a number of accounts. I'm not here to argue about the distortions created by this or that component of any particular farm bill, but the farm bills are structured around these crops because that is what we grow, they are the staples that feed the world. We don't grow these crops because they are included in the farm bill, they are included in the farm bill because we grow these crops. Eliminate the farm bill, and yes the free market will still call for American farmers to grow the staples that feed the world.

Mr. Pollan and many of his adherents are not interested in what foods free markets ( or lets be more precise- the foods that free people) dictate. Most of these food activists would love to see a farm bill or other legislation that penalizes our efforts to feed the world with the environmentally superior technologies and science based techniques we are using today, and subsidize the production of fruits and vegetables and politically correct foods.

Also is the concern that the 'poor' are choosing to eat these unhealthy fast foods and processed foods. That may certainly be the case, but we should really be concerned with overall health, not just obesity. While the poor may be dealing with some issues of obesity, research ( from the national bureau of economic research) indicates that the relationship between socioeconomic status and health is weak. Still, if we are going to be concerned with obesity, we should be concerned with all factors contribute to obesity, not just the hand that feeds us. As indicated in a recent piece in the Rocky Mountain News, a study from the 2007 International Journal of Obesity concludes, “The obesity epidemic is often speculatively blamed on fast food, when the actual evidence shows very little, if any, association of fast food with weight gain.”

To concentrate on diet alone, and omit exercise will lead to perverse results, but it can justify a lot of government intrusion on our valued freedoms.

One approach is to inadvertandly tax small businesses and consumers with labeling requirements as done recently in Tennessee. ( See the Tennessean)

"Providing consumers with accurate, easy to understand nutritional information about the content of the food they are purchasing is a common-sense measure that could help Tennessee address its obesity epidemic" Bredesen wrote.

Governor Bredessen, common sense tells us that the gravy and fried chicken at the local diner or national franchise probably is loaded with calories and fat, labeled or not. Will this change the habits of a marginal number of people? Maybe, but at great costs with minimal benefit.

The case is similar with fat taxes. Research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University indicates that the taxes required to have any real affect on obesity would be in the 1200 percent range, and even if taxes eliminated ( in this case soda) consumption, the impact on obesity would be very small. The study concludes that "the sensitivity of individuals to changes in relative food prices is
not sufficient to make “fat taxes” a viable tool to lower obesity."

Taking on the challenge of 'fighting obesity' in the name of helping the poor ( or reducing climate change) is likely misguided, or for some activists maybe even disingenuous. In the words of economist Thomas Sowell, many of the arguments for these policies 'invoke the name and mystique of science in order to override other people's choices."

We should be thankful that we live in a country were people of modest means have access affordable energy dense foods. We can't forget that fast food provides jobs and opportunities for advancement for millions! In producing staples like corn, soybeans, wheat, beef, pork, and chicken our farmers are utilizing modern science and technology ( like biotech) to improve nutritional quality and minimize our impact on the environment.

Many of the ideas being proposed by food activists and righteous eaters if ever implemented will truly bite the hand that feeds us.

The best approach is to maintain policies that support rather than hinder the spontaneous order of the market that allocates resources and provides incentives to produce the necessary technologies for better food, a better environment, and the economic growth that reduces poverty.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry, but that was really dry. I needed to research about agriculture and obesity, and so I tried reading it. But it got me no where. Please be more lively.

Anonymous said...

who ever wrote the first comment was a moron. I agree with everything you said keep preaching brother.

Anonymous said...

Your article provides a different perspective than the many I have currently read. I am doing an investigative research project on the link between obesity and farm subsidies. I will be including some of your input. This article need not be entertaining to be informative, so thank you for the perspective.