Agricultural Subsidies and the American Obesity Epidemic

  • Caroline Franck
    Affiliations
    Divisions of Cardiology and Clinical Epidemiology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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  • Sonia M. Grandi
    Affiliations
    Divisions of Cardiology and Clinical Epidemiology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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  • Mark J. Eisenberg
    Correspondence
    Address correspondence to: Mark J. Eisenberg, MD, MPH, Divisions of Cardiology and Clinical Epidemiology, Jewish General Hospital/McGill University, 3755 Cote Ste-Catherine Road, Suite H421.1, Montreal, Québec, Canada, H3T 1E2
    Affiliations
    Divisions of Cardiology and Clinical Epidemiology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

    Faculty of Medicine, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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      Abstract

      Government-issued agricultural subsidies are worsening obesity trends in America. Current agricultural policy remains largely uninformed by public health discourse. Although findings suggest that eliminating all subsidies would have a mild impact on the prevalence of obesity, a revision of commodity programs could have a measurable public health impact on a population scale, over time. Policy reforms will be important determinants of the future of obesity in America, primarily through indemnity program revisions, and the allocation of increasing amounts of resources to sustainable agriculture. Public health intervention will be required at the policy level to promote healthy behavioral changes in consumers. The 2013 Farm Bill will be the key mechanism to induce such policy change in the near future.

      Introduction

      Current agricultural policies in the U.S. are contributing to the poor health of Americans.
      • Story M.
      • Kaphingst K.M.
      • Robinson-O'Brien R.
      • Glanz K.
      Creating healthy food and eating environments: policy and environmental approaches.
      • Story M.
      • Hamm M.W.
      • Wallinga D.
      Food systems and public health: linkages to achieve healthier diets and healthier communities.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      Government-issued payments have skewed agricultural markets toward the overproduction of commodities that are the basic ingredients of processed, energy-dense foods. This review considers how agricultural subsidies have shaped the current American nutritional environment, how they are perpetuating obesity trends, and what measures must be taken to reverse what experts agree are harmful and unsustainable agricultural practices.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      The importance of addressing agricultural policy as health policy is considered first, followed by contextualizing farm subsidies within American history. Arguments for and against subsidies’ contributions to obesity are outlined, concluding with a critical appraisal of subsidy reform in America, and the political mechanisms required to induce policy change. Although subsidies exist in many forms, the paper focuses on commodity programs, or Title I of the U.S. Farm Bill, the main federal mechanism for influencing American agriculture.
      • Weber J.A.
      • Becker N.
      Framing the farm bill.
      This discussion is particularly important in the face of the 2013 Farm Bill, the drafting of which continues following the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill in September 2012. A temporary extension of the previous bill has been granted until the end of this fiscal year, by which time Congress must produce a final bill to be signed into law.

      U.S. Congress issues short-term farm bill extension. International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. Bridges Weekly Trade News Digest, 17(1). ictsd.org/i/news/bridgesweekly/152578.

      As food production (and by extension, its availability and eventual consumption) is best influenced through agricultural policy,
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      consumers must understand the implications of policies that will shape their nutritional environment for the next 5 years.

      Background

      The U.S. food market provides ~3900 calories per capita each day, or twice the average person’s caloric requirement.
      • Ludwig D.S.
      • Nestle M.
      Can the food industry play a constructive role in the obesity epidemic?.
      Between 1970 and 2000, the average per person consumption of added fats increased by 38%, whereas that of sugars increased by 20%.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      The consumption of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) alone increased more than 1000% between 1970 and 1990, and today accounts for more than 40% of caloric sweeteners added to food and beverages.
      • Bray G.A.
      • Nielsen S.J.
      • Popkin B.M.
      Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.
      This excessive intake of fats and sugars is worsened by the availability of extremely cheap caloric options.
      • Ruhm C.J.
      Understanding overeating and obesity.
      Most consumers fail to take into account the hidden costs of inexpensive food, namely, the taxes paid toward various agricultural subsidies and the health costs associated with poor dietary practice.
      • Tillotson J.
      America's obesity: conflicting public policies, industrial economic development, and unintended human consequences.
      • Horrigan L.
      • Lawrence R.S.
      • Walker P.
      How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture.
      The three leading causes of death in the U.S.—heart disease, cancer, and stroke—are all associated with poor diet and overweight.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      There are multiple contributing factors to increasing obesity,
      • Morris M.N.
      • Misra S.
      • Sibary S.
      Global fattening: designing effective approaches to reducing obesity.
      many of which are byproducts of a poor nutritional environment.
      • Novak N.L.
      • Brownell K.D.
      Obesity: a public health approach.
      • Blanck H.M.
      • Kim S.A.
      Creating supportive nutrition environments for population health impact and health equity: an overview of the nutrition and obesity policy research and evaluation network's efforts.
      Unhealthy foods are more widely available and cheaper than healthy alternatives,
      • Novak N.L.
      • Brownell K.D.
      Obesity: a public health approach.
      and consumers place much importance on cost when purchasing food.
      • French S.A.
      • Story M.
      • Jeffery R.W.
      • et al.
      Pricing strategy to promote fruit and vegetable purchase in high school cafeterias.
      Excluding the poorest of the poor, obesity is associated with poverty.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      The ability for retailers and restaurants to sell their products at a low cost results from cheap commodities.
      • Tillotson J.
      America's obesity: conflicting public policies, industrial economic development, and unintended human consequences.
      Notably, these commodities are said to be artificially cheap in that their subsidized production makes them lucrative crops to grow.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      • Miner J.
      Market incentives could bring U.S. agriculture and nutrition policies into accord.
      Research has shown a clear relationship between obesity and the consumption of added fats, sugars, and refined grains.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      Bearing this in mind, American farm policy is effectively driving the production and propagation of cheap sugars and oils that lead to widespread weight gain.

      Agriculture and Health Policy

      Consumers and policymakers have historically overlooked the upstream determinants of their health, that is, the connection between obesity and what occurs on the farm.
      • Story M.
      • Hamm M.W.
      • Wallinga D.
      Food systems and public health: linkages to achieve healthier diets and healthier communities.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      Such practice fails to acknowledge that agricultural policies dictate which crops the government will support.
      • Story M.
      • Kaphingst K.M.
      • Robinson-O'Brien R.
      • Glanz K.
      Creating healthy food and eating environments: policy and environmental approaches.
      In turn, agriculture policy dictates which crops U.S. farmers will grow, and the prices of those crops, and therefore guides public and private commodity commissions.
      • Schoonover H.
      A fair farm bill for public health.
      • Hawkes C.
      Promoting healthy diets and tackling obesity and diet-related chronic diseases: what are the agricultural policy levers?.
      For this reason, tackling the policies that translate into food production and availability could be the most widespread preventive measure to address the obesity epidemic from an upstream approach.

      How Grains and Oilseeds Contribute to Obesity

      In 2004, 96% of U.S. cropland was dominated by the eight main commodity crops: corn (30%); soybeans (29%); wheat (23%); cotton (5%); sorghum (3%); barley (2%); oats (2%); and rice (1%).
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      According to the American Soybean Association, 70% of the fats and oils consumed by Americans are soy oil, found primarily in cooking oils, baking, and frying fats.

      Soy Stats 2009. Welcome to SoyStats 2009. www.soystats.com/2009/Default-frames.htm.

      A large percentage of cropland is cultivated on a 2-year rotation that favors soy one year and corn the next,
      • Muller M.
      • Schoonover H.
      • Wallinga D.
      Considering the contribution of U.S. food and agricultural policy to the obesity epidemic: overview and opportunities.
      another purported contributor to obesity. A conservative estimate of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) consumption suggests a daily average of 132 calories for all Americans aged >2 years, with the top 20% of consumers ingesting an average of 316 calories from HFCS per day.
      • Bray G.A.
      • Nielsen S.J.
      • Popkin B.M.
      Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.
      It is difficult to argue that the widespread consumption of foods containing HFCS, including soft drinks, fruit drinks, cereals, canned fruits, condiments, baked goods, and ice cream,
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      • Muller M.
      • Schoonover H.
      • Wallinga D.
      Considering the contribution of U.S. food and agricultural policy to the obesity epidemic: overview and opportunities.
      • Schoonover H.
      • Muller M.
      Food without thought: how U.S. farm policy contributes to obesity.
      has not contributed to widespread obesity.
      • Hu F.B.
      Globalization of diabetes: the role of diet, lifestyle, and genes.
      The question is whether excess consumption of these products is to blame, or whether the metabolism of HFCS inherently increases the risk of obesity. HFCS in its most common form consists of 45% glucose and 55% fructose.
      • Beghin J.C.
      • Jensen H.H.
      Farm policies and added sugars in U.S. diets.
      The metabolism of fructose differs from that of glucose in that it does not stimulate the secretion of insulin or leptin, two key signals in the regulation of food intake.
      • Bray G.A.
      • Nielsen S.J.
      • Popkin B.M.
      Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.
      Thus, HFCS consumption may perhaps facilitate overall increased energy intake.
      • Bray G.A.
      • Nielsen S.J.
      • Popkin B.M.
      Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      Another important contribution of grains and oilseeds to the prevalence of obesity is their use as feed for livestock. Grain-fed animals get fatter, quicker.
      • Russell J.B.
      • Rychlik J.L.
      Factors that alter rumen microbial ecology.
      The effect of low-cost feed translates into the lower cost of raising poultry, hogs, and cattle, which in turn has implications for the relative prices of meat products.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      • Farnese P.L.
      Remembering the farmer in the agriculture policy and obesity debate.
      The average American consumes 97 pounds of beef, and 273 pounds of meat each year.
      • Horrigan L.
      • Lawrence R.S.
      • Walker P.
      How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture.
      Fatty meat, unlike corn sweeteners, is correlated with the occurrence of chronic diseases, including high cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
      • Horrigan L.
      • Lawrence R.S.
      • Walker P.
      How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      As grain-fed livestock contribute to the oversupply of the commodities required to feed them, the harmful effects of grain and oilseed production are as widespread as they are indirect.

      A Brief History of Agricultural Subsidies in America

      The first American agricultural assistance programs were implemented in the 1920s to address the overproduction of commodities resulting from World War I support efforts.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      In a failed attempt to stabilize prices resulting from overproduction, the federal government introduced American cotton and grain to open markets, which paradoxically encouraged farmers to grow even more.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      This trend continued well into the post–World War II era, when industrialization and specialization gave rise to increasingly large companies, traders, manufacturers, and processors whose competitive interest was rooted in oversupply.
      • Muller M.
      • Schoonover H.
      • Wallinga D.
      Considering the contribution of U.S. food and agricultural policy to the obesity epidemic: overview and opportunities.
      Farming has always been a risky business: production decisions made in the springtime are later at the mercy of future market fluctuations, the weather, and pests.
      • Schaffer H.
      • Hunt D.B.
      • Ray D.E.
      U.S. agricultural commodity policy and its relationship to obesity.
      The first term of the Nixon administration suffered the unlucky combination of a poor harvesting year and a hefty sales agreement with the Soviet Union, resulting in commodity shortages and increased prices.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      The government’s solution was to ensure a surplus of basic commodities, including wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton, and to sell these commodities on the international market.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      Direct government payments were issued to farmers to encourage competition and further lower the price of basic commodities through increased production.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      As individual farmers had no impact on commodity prices, overproduction was a self-ensured safety net.
      By 1996, a farm bill named “Freedom to Farm” promised to phase out all farm subsidies to allow farmers to respond more effectively to global market signals.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      Predictably, some argue, Freedom to Farm was a disastrous policy: Farmers sustained their rate and types of production, driving commodity prices further into the ground.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      As a result, emergency payments were issued to producers to make up the difference between market prices and what they needed to stay in business.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      These direct payments were later institutionalized by Congress in the 2002 Farm Bill.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.

      Subsidies Today

      Forms, Facts, and Figures

      Commodity price supports provide vital inputs to U.S. agriculture: U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) total subsidies for 2010 were estimated at >$15 billion.

      2011 Farm Subsidy Database. Environmental Working Group. farm.ewg.org/regionsummary.php?fips=00000&progcode=total&yr=2010.

      In their absence, Colorado, one of the major agricultural states, would see 75% of its farms at a deficit. Similarly, Montana would have zero net farm income.
      • Manning R.
      Against the grain: how agriculture has hijacked civilization.
      Today, the aim of agricultural subsidies is to protect farmers against risks inherent to their trade while ensuring minimum economic prosperity and stability.
      • Shields D.A.
      • Monke J.
      • Schnepf R.
      Farm safety net programs: issues for the next Farm Bill.
      This support comes predominantly in three program forms: commodity, risk management, and disaster assistance.
      • Shields D.A.
      • Monke J.
      • Schnepf R.
      Farm safety net programs: issues for the next Farm Bill.
      Of the commodity programs, direct payments are the least defensible, as their allocation rests on a farm’s history of production, irrespective of that farm’s current output.

      Office of Management and Budget. Living within our means and investing in the future: the president's plan for economic growth and deficit reduction. 2011. www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/budget/fy2012/assets/jointcommitteereport.pdf.

      Farm Subsidy Primer. Environmental Working Group. farm.ewg.org/subsidyprimer.php.

      Countercyclical payments are equally questionable: When national target farm prices drop below a given market threshold, qualifying producers receive a payment based on their farm’s historical yield.
      • Shields D.A.
      • Monke J.
      • Schnepf R.
      Farm safety net programs: issues for the next Farm Bill.
      Farmers may sell their crops for a below-target price, but they might still earn a moderate-to-large profit derived from the sheer size of the crop. These farmers would be eligible to receive countercyclical payments in addition to their market profit if the average county crop price was below the mandated target price.

      Farm Subsidy Primer. Environmental Working Group. farm.ewg.org/subsidyprimer.php.

      These payments thus provide strong incentives for overproduction in a climate of low market prices.

      The Subsidy Debate

      American agricultural policy has traditionally failed to offer incentives or support for fruit and vegetable production.
      • Story M.
      • Kaphingst K.M.
      • Robinson-O'Brien R.
      • Glanz K.
      Creating healthy food and eating environments: policy and environmental approaches.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      • Sealing K.E.
      Attack of the balloon people: how America's food culture and agricultural policy threaten the food security of the poor, farmers and the indigenous peoples of the world.
      Farmers are penalized for growing “specialty crops” (such as fruits and vegetables) if they have received federal farm payments to grow other crops.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      In other words, federal farm subsidies promote unsustainable agriculture while also failing to reward good stewardship.
      • Horrigan L.
      • Lawrence R.S.
      • Walker P.
      How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture.
      Further, although farmers may generate higher marketplace revenue from fresh produce, substantially lower economic security makes growing fruits and vegetables a risky proposition in an already risky industry.
      • Schoonover H.
      • Muller M.
      Food without thought: how U.S. farm policy contributes to obesity.
      Subsidies also have resulted in fewer farms and diminished agricultural diversity.
      • Morris M.N.
      • Misra S.
      • Sibary S.
      Global fattening: designing effective approaches to reducing obesity.
      Large farms often devote their entire capital and experience to producing one or two commodities, leaving smaller players to be regularly winnowed out at the profit of corporate farms and contractors.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      • Tillotson J.
      America's obesity: conflicting public policies, industrial economic development, and unintended human consequences.
      In 2001, large farms, which constitute 7% of the total, received 45% of federal subsidies, whereas small farms, constituting 76% of the total, received 14% of total payments.

      U.S. General Accounting Office. Farm programs: information on recipients of federal payments, 2001. www.gao.gov/new.items/d01606.pdf.

      Between 2003 and 2007, the top 10% of subsidized farmers received an annual average of $68,030, whereas the bottom 80% averaged $2312.
      • Korth S.
      Federal farm subsidies limitations proposal.
      Disproportionately allocated subsidies (Table 1) have contributed to forcing hundreds of small, biodiverse farms out of business at the profit of industrialized food processing.
      • Morris M.N.
      • Misra S.
      • Sibary S.
      Global fattening: designing effective approaches to reducing obesity.
      Table 1Agricultural subsidy program recipients by order of importance, 2010
      RankProgramNumber of recipients (2010)Subsidy total (2010 $)
      1Corn subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      884
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      3,495,343,298
      2Disaster payments178,4812,532,598,972
      3Conservation reserve program442,7681,818,014,025
      4Wheat subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      5,364
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      1,731,633,184
      5Soybean subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      636
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      1,554,841,229
      6Cotton subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      1,007
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      828,339,995
      7Rice subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      85
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      401,628,223
      8Sorghum subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      351
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      246,343,050
      9Livestock subsidies30,248
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      226,737,271
      10Tobacco subsidies58,316a194,434,094
      11Environmental Quality Incentive Program9,261184,999,402
      12Wetlands Reserve Program1,468137,574,485
      13Peanut subsidies49
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      86,976,571
      14Barley subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      325
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      86,667,218
      15Dairy program subsidies51,487
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      73,932,412
      16Sunflower subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      33
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      61,919,160
      17Canola subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      3
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      31,245,909
      18Oat subsidies
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      129
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      6,582,385
      19Wool subsidies9,157
      “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG30; table is adapted from EWG.30 EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture
      6,223,385
      20Flax subsidies0a4,912,372
      a “Crop totals are an estimate. In the data received by EWG for 2009 and 2010, USDA does not differentiate Direct Payments or Counter-Cyclical Payments by crop as in previous years. EWG allocated the region’s Direct Payments by crop for the 2009 and 2010 calendar year using the proportion of that crop’s Direct Payments in 2008. Number of recipients receiving Direct Payments for that crop were not estimated. Due to the way the Counter-Cyclical payments are made – EWG was not able to allocate Counter-Cyclical Payments to crops. Also included in the crop totals are the crop insurance premiums as reported by the USDA Risk Management Agency for that crop. The crop insurance premium is the amount of money that is calculated by USDA to make the program actuarially sound. Crop insurance premium subsidies are available at the county, state, and national level.” Quote is from EWG

      2011 Farm Subsidy Database. Environmental Working Group. farm.ewg.org/regionsummary.php?fips=00000&progcode=total&yr=2010.

      ; table is adapted from EWG.

      2011 Farm Subsidy Database. Environmental Working Group. farm.ewg.org/regionsummary.php?fips=00000&progcode=total&yr=2010.

      EWG, Environmental Working Group; USDA, U.S. Department of Agriculture

      Arguments Against Subsidies’ Contribution to Obesity

      The importance of the deleterious effects of commodity subsidies on health remains a topic of contention. Some industry professionals maintain that federal farm subsidies have not substantially contributed to the increasing prevalence of obesity in America.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      A few major points are raised to this effect: First, the imposition of acreage set-asides is believed to have minimized the price-depressing effect of subsidies by means of reduced production.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      Second, the share of the cost of commodities in the retail price of food products is relatively small; therefore, cheap commodities could not meaningfully contribute to reducing retail prices.
      • Miner J.
      Market incentives could bring U.S. agriculture and nutrition policies into accord.
      • Hawkes C.
      Promoting healthy diets and tackling obesity and diet-related chronic diseases: what are the agricultural policy levers?.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Rickard
      • Bradley J.
      • Okrent
      • Abigail M.
      Farm policy and obesity in the U.S.
      In addition, food consumption patterns do not usually change significantly in response to small price changes.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Rickard
      • Bradley J.
      • Okrent
      • Abigail M.
      Farm policy and obesity in the U.S.
      The prevalence of obesity is also much lower in some countries that also provide relatively large subsidies to farmers, such as Japan, South Korea, and France.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      Consequently, if farm subsidies have had an impact on consumption and obesity in America, many experts consider it to be extremely mild.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Rickard
      • Bradley J.
      • Okrent
      • Abigail M.
      Farm policy and obesity in the U.S.
      Those who believe subsidies do not contribute to obesity point to agricultural research and development (R&D) as being responsible for the downward trend of commodity prices.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      Production-promoting inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides have provided additional crop insurance, whereas varietal improvements and new crop breeds have extended production seasons.
      • Hawkes C.
      Promoting healthy diets and tackling obesity and diet-related chronic diseases: what are the agricultural policy levers?.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      Between 1980 and 2000, the proportion of each food dollar allocated to farmers dropped from 31% to 19%, leaving 81 cents of every dollar spent on food to go toward non-farm-related expenditures including processing, packaging, transport, and marketing.
      • Elitzak H.
      Food marketing costs at a glance.
      Industrial farming is essential to the food industry, particularly in the context of a growing world population
      • Ludwig D.S.
      Technology, diet, and the burden of chronic disease.
      ; by industry standards, the abundant provision of cheap food is likely to remain a viable business venture.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      • Ludwig D.S.
      Technology, diet, and the burden of chronic disease.

      Arguments for Subsidies’ Contribution to Obesity

      Additional points must be considered in the subsidy debate. In absolute terms, the claim that acreage set-asides have slowed production and have minimized the price-depressing effect of subsidies
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Farm subsidies and obesity in the U.S.: national evidence and international comparisons.
      undermines the reality that productivity is steadily increasing. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, production between 1948 and 2009 increased at an average rate of 1.64%. In 2009, the USDA reported record-setting corn yields, at 165.2 bushels per acre.

      2009 crop year is one for the record books, USDA reports. National Agricultural Statistics Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. www.nass.usda.gov/Newsroom/2010/01_12_2010.asp.

      In addition, although the share of commodities in the retail price of food may be small, it is problematic to focus solely on consumer behavior in response to price change.
      • Farnese P.L.
      Remembering the farmer in the agriculture policy and obesity debate.
      Large-scale food processors benefit from savings subsequently passed on to consumers,
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      and thus have a role to play in shaping the American diet. Low-cost commodities and inputs enable restaurants and retailers to increase calorie density at a negligible cost
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      • Nestle M.
      Increasing portion sizes in American diets: more calories, more obesity.
      ; consequently, although R&D is primarily responsible for increased farm output, subsidiary payments sustain the impetus to overproduce.
      • Farnese P.L.
      Remembering the farmer in the agriculture policy and obesity debate.
      • Foster J.
      Subsidizing fat: how the 2012 Farm Bill can address America's obesity epidemic.
      Finally, international comparisons based on ecologic data are subject to confounding and should not be relied on to draw causal conclusions in the American context. Irrespective of the magnitude of subsidies’ effects on obesity, current agricultural policies are at odds with health policy. To argue that changing the subsidy system would have little impact on obesity is unhelpful in considering the broader public health impact of a healthy nutritional environment.

      Do Subsidies Need the Axe or Reform?

      Projected estimates of the effect of elimination of all subsidies are a slight reduction of cereal and bakery product consumption, for an average annual decrease of 1451 calories per capita, compared with a decrease of 218 calories for the elimination of grain subsidies alone.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Rickard
      • Bradley J.
      • Okrent
      • Abigail M.
      Farm policy and obesity in the U.S.
      According to Alston and collegues,
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      all commodities other than wheat and corn would actually see a decrease in price, effectively encouraging meat and dairy consumption.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      Sugar would experience a price decrease of 15%, which would be reflected in the lower prices of all sweetened foods resulting from cheaper caloric sweeteners.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      Fruit and vegetable production would increase by 4.4%, whereas prices would decrease by 5.2%.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      Based on modeling estimates of the effects of price increases on consumption, Alston and colleagues
      • Alston J.M.
      • Rickard
      • Bradley J.
      • Okrent
      • Abigail M.
      Farm policy and obesity in the U.S.
      reason that the impact of phasing out agricultural subsidies on obesity would be modest, if at all substantial.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Rickard
      • Bradley J.
      • Okrent
      • Abigail M.
      Farm policy and obesity in the U.S.
      In addition, under existing farm policy, eliminating subsidies would put farmers at high risk of market failure and could discourage new farmers from entering the industry. Finally, eliminating subsidies may not address the underlying issue of overproduction, as the latter preceded price supports, and in fact catalyzed their implementation.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      A redesign of the subsidy system, rather than its elimination, is likely to yield more sustainable changes in the agricultural industry. Such revision could take the form of decoupling income supports from program-specific crops, and rewards for agricultural diversification.
      • Foster J.
      Subsidizing fat: how the 2012 Farm Bill can address America's obesity epidemic.
      The trickle-down effect of providing increased government support to farms growing sustainable, biodiverse crops would not only help farmers reap greater economic benefits (as fruits and vegetables are among the products with the highest farm-retail value)
      • Okrent A.M.
      • Alston J.M.
      The effects of farm commodity and retail food policies on obesity and economic welfare in the U.S.
      but would contribute to large-scale efforts to address obesity by increasing the availability of fresh produce. Overall, government and public health activists should support policies that help disincentivize monocultural overproduction, not policies that fuel it.

      Agricultural Policy and the 2013 Farm Bill

      Changing the American food system will require real votes in agricultural policy.
      • Pollan M.
      The vegetable-industrial complex.
      Every 5–7 years, there is an opportunity to make changes to U.S. agriculture through the drafting of a new farm bill that institutionalizes policies for production, food assistance and availability, rural development, renewable energy, conservation policies, and research.
      • Story M.
      • Kaphingst K.M.
      • Robinson-O'Brien R.
      • Glanz K.
      Creating healthy food and eating environments: policy and environmental approaches.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      • Muller M.
      • Schoonover H.
      • Wallinga D.
      Considering the contribution of U.S. food and agricultural policy to the obesity epidemic: overview and opportunities.
      • Alston J.M.
      • Sumner D.A.
      • Vosti S.A.
      Are agricultural policies making us fat? Likely links between agricultural policies and human nutrition and obesity, and their policy implications.
      • Pollan M.
      The vegetable-industrial complex.
      Both houses of Congress must produce a version of the bill that reflects their respective spending priorities, and a compromise must subsequently be reached between the two versions before the president signs the final bill into law.
      Congress failed to pass a 2012 Farm Bill by September 30, 2012; as a result, the 2008 Farm Bill was extended on January 2, 2013, as part of widespread measures to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff that would result in nationwide tax increases and spending cuts.

      U.S. Congress issues short-term farm bill extension. International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development. Bridges Weekly Trade News Digest, 17(1). ictsd.org/i/news/bridgesweekly/152578.

      The extension granted until September 30, 2013, should allow Congress sufficient time for further deliberation. Negotiations will be particularly important within the U.S. House of Representatives, where disagreements on spending cuts to the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) led to an inability to produce a draft to meet that of the U.S. Senate, passed in June 2012.

      Bill Summary & Status, 112th Congress (2011-2012), S.3240. thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d112:SN03240:@@@L&summ2=m&.

      In January 2013, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reintroduced last session’s Senate Farm Bill for the 113th Congress. With the aim of reducing government deficit, both the 2012 Senate bill and the House draft proposed spending cuts to commodity and nutrition assistance programs.

      H.R. 6083 Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act. agriculture.house.gov/farmbill.

      s. 3240 Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012. www.ag.senate.gov/issues/farm-bill.

      In both the 2012 Senate and House bills, large cuts (estimated at $6 billion) are expected to important conservation programs, thus reducing support to sustainable farming practices.

      H.R. 6083 Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act. agriculture.house.gov/farmbill.

      s. 3240 Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012. www.ag.senate.gov/issues/farm-bill.

      Although there appears to be a movement toward agricultural reform, economic motives overshadow real reform that is driven by concern about Americans’ health. Savings resulting from large spending cuts are unlikely to be invested in health-oriented programs, given the intention of Congress to reduce the national deficit and restrict federal spending. Ultimately, it is unclear whether policymakers will prioritize sustainable food systems in the 2013 Farm Bill.

      Recommendations: Potential Points of Policy Reform

      Agricultural policy must strengthen programs that indemnify farmers for their losses while ensuring that producers do not profit from faulty safety nets, such as with payments that are decoupled from yield or acreage (i.e., direct payments and countercyclical payments). Additionally, policies that focus on investing capital in quality over quantity would be likely to produce long-term public health and farming benefits.
      • Pollan M.
      The vegetable-industrial complex.
      The 2013 Farm Bill’s first priority must be to invest greater capital in sustainable agriculture.
      • Jackson R.J .M.R.
      • Naumoff K.S.
      • Shrimali B.P.
      • Martin L.K.
      Agriculture policy is health policy.
      More specifically, sustainable practices should yield biodiverse, quality foods, optimize nonrenewable resources, and sustain the economic viability of farmers. Important policy reforms could direct increasing subsidies to family farms and/or fruit and vegetable growers in the aim of making their prices more competitive.
      • Fields S.
      The fat of the land: do agricultural subsidies foster poor health?.
      • Miner J.
      Market incentives could bring U.S. agriculture and nutrition policies into accord.
      Supporting local food systems also would increase the farm value of the food dollar, providing farmers with greater marketing opportunities and communities with the potential for economic development.
      • Horrigan L.
      • Lawrence R.S.
      • Walker P.
      How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture.
      R&D should increasingly support public health goals, rather than those driven by economic profit.
      • Ludwig D.S.
      Technology, diet, and the burden of chronic disease.
      For instance, expanding R&D initiatives to promote perennial crops would lead to greater diversity in all commodities, entailing the reduced production of sweeteners and hydrogenated oils,
      • Schoonover H.
      • Muller M.
      Food without thought: how U.S. farm policy contributes to obesity.
      and the increased production of specialty crops.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      • Foster J.
      Subsidizing fat: how the 2012 Farm Bill can address America's obesity epidemic.
      Finally, the implementation of such policy reforms would benefit from interdisciplinary binding strategies to engage multiple sectors beyond public health.
      • Lang T.R.
      G. Overcoming policy cacophony on obesity: an ecological public health framework for policymakers.
      • McKinnon R.A.
      • Orleans C.T.
      • Kumanyika S.K.
      • et al.
      Considerations for an obesity policy research agenda.
      Current federal agencies and authorities on food production and safety provide fragmented support to what should be a single comprehensive objective.
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      As obesity is a multidimensional problem,
      • Wallinga D.
      Agricultural policy and childhood obesity: a food systems and public health commentary.
      the synergy between factors is more important than any one contributor alone.
      • Muller M.
      • Schoonover H.
      • Wallinga D.
      Considering the contribution of U.S. food and agricultural policy to the obesity epidemic: overview and opportunities.
      A successful reorganization of the American food environment will require commitment to mutually supportive interventions affecting food availability, price, marketing, and health education at the local, state, and federal levels of government.
      • Kimmons J.
      • Gillespie C.
      • Seymour J.
      • Serdula M.
      • Blanck H.M.
      Fruit and vegetable intake among adolescents and adults in the U.S.: percentage meeting individualized recommendations.

      Conclusion

      Although subsidies provide a necessary safety net to farmers operating in a volatile trade, existing price support programs continue to create strong economic incentives to overproduce a select number of crops at the expense of agricultural diversity and American health. The business of food is the most ubiquitous and powerful industry in the world, dominated by influential stakeholders and interest groups. Public health officials have had little say in shaping the American food system. Thus, the current nutritional environment remains uninformed by healthy eating practices, making it difficult for consumers to enact and sustain healthy behaviors.
      Because of the scale and complexity of the obesity epidemic, any one intervention cannot reasonably be expected to reverse obesity trends in the immediate future. Rather, the goal should be small changes to result in cumulative, population-wide effects over time.
      • Morris M.N.
      • Misra S.
      • Sibary S.
      Global fattening: designing effective approaches to reducing obesity.
      Although policy reform is only one of the many fronts from which the fight against obesity must be fought, a revision of agricultural priorities is in order: public health interventions will remain limited in their impact until they can inform decisions that are made at every level of the American food chain, from growers to consumers.

      Acknowledgements

      No financial disclosures were reported by the authors of this paper.

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      Linked Article

      • Influencing Agricultural Policy: A Call for Intersectoral Collaboration to Reduce Obesity and Climate Change
        American Journal of Preventive MedicineVol. 46Issue 3
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          To the Editor: A recent review by Franck et al. discussed the importance of agricultural policy and its impact on the American obesity epidemic.1 The review was motivated by the expiration of the 2008 Farm Bill and the drafting of a new Farm Bill for 2013, which would have implications for agricultural management for the next 5 to 7 years.1 The authors argued that government subsidies to agricultural markets have encouraged an overproduction of food, including an oversupply of grain-fed livestock in the U.S., and have conversely discouraged production of fruits and vegetables.
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