Subsidizing Fat: How the 2012 Farm Bill Can Address America’s Obesity Epidemic

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On
a bus in West Philadelphia, a woman feeds her baby an artificial orange
beverage from his bottle. The drink costs much less than baby
formula, partly because it is mostly comprised of corn—the largest
beneficiary of U.S. agricultural subsidies.

Currently the least expensive food available is also the most caloric
and the least nutritious: a dollar’s worth of cookies or potato chips
yields 1200 calories, while a dollar’s worth of carrots yields only
250 calories. A savvy shopper seeking
to satiate her family will naturally seek out these more caloric but
less nutritious items. The sticker
price is a small fraction of the true cost of highly processed foods,
which contain excessive amounts of sodium, fat, and calories that contribute
to an estimated $147 billion in annual healthcare costs.
Moreover, these products are artificially cheap because their production
is subsidized with tens of billions in taxpayer funds each year.
Federal agricultural subsidies have provided Americans with high-calorie,
low-nutrient processed foods that are less expensive and more readily
available than whole grains and produce. Until very
recently, poverty was associated with emaciated faces and rail-thin
limbs, but today malnutrition persists despite an abundance of cheap
calories. Our nation is in the midst of an obesity
epidemic that is not only a question of weight, but also implicates
serious health conditions caused by poor nutrition such as heart disease,
diabetes, and some types of cancers. The next generation
of Americans may be the first in history to have a shorter lifespan
than its parents.

The
national obesity epidemic is a multifaceted crisis with many factors
that go beyond the scope of this Comment. Similarly,
the 2008 Farm Bill is omnibus legislation spread across more than a
dozen titles in the United States Code, spanning everything from food
stamps and school lunches to environmental conservation and agricultural
research. This Comment evaluates how programs intended
to support farm prices and income influence producers and consumers.
Commodity production is at the core of the obesity epidemic
because highly processed foods and meats are mostly comprised of subsidized
corn, soy, and cereal grains.14 While domestic production

and food price are not the only factors contributing to the problem,
this Comment questions the value of using the third-largest federal
benefits program to reduce the cost of commodities
that contribute to $147 billion in annual obesity-related health costs.
The issue of obesity has been well addressed by social scientists and
natural scientists, by writers and food advocates.
Yet legal scholarship on agriculture has focused entirely on environmental
or international trade issues without addressing how federal legislation
impacts what farmers decide to plant and what people choose to eat.
This Comment recommends legislative action for the 2012 Farm Bill to
make fruits, vegetables, and whole grains comparatively less expensive
than unhealthy processed foods and meats.

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