Blaming grain prices for obesity epidemic

by Morton Sosland
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At this time when both food industry and media attention are focused on upward ingredient cost pressures that have or are on the verge of prompting food price gains, it seems odd to come across assertions that “cheap” grains are a, if not the, root cause of the obesity epidemic sweeping across America. Yet, many of the severest critics of the food industry for its purported role in causing people to consume an excess of calories allege, without presenting proof, allege that it is the vast quantities of grain being produced that have created this worrying health situation. If there’s a reason why too many children and adults are overweight, facing an array of social and medical problems, these critics usually say it is expanding grain production and the way this relates to cheap prices for “junk” food. Without delving into the ridiculousness of making such assertions at a time of rising food prices, it is essential to understand the fundamental fallacy of this argument, which also affects how the grain-based food industry is regarded.

The flawed assertion made by these critics is that cheap prices for high-caloric foods and food ingredients have caused overeating and thus the obesity problem. In turn, low ingredient prices are usually blamed on government price support programs, which are characterized as spurring production by offering farmers high returns while causing weakness in market prices. For food executives, especially those engaged in purchasing, having the impact of price support programs described in this fashion is opposite of what has long raised concerns. Rather than serving as a source of downward pressure, federal programs have mostly aimed at strengthening prices. It’s nigh on to impossible to identify an instance of federal price support program causing weakness.

Research sponsored by the Agricultural & Applied Economics Association seeks to explore how federal farm policy might have affected the spread of obesity. This work concludes that support programs have relatively modest impact on retail food prices and that it is wrong to contend that farm programs have made fattening foods relatively cheap and abundant. Similarly, the study denies that ending all federal farm programs would be a major step toward ending the spread of obesity.

Addressing the allegation that it is federal farm programs that have caused the expansion in corn production and the rise in use of high-fructose corn syrup as a caloric sweetener, the economists say: “The culprit here is not corn subsidies; rather, it is sugar policy that has restricted imports, driven up the U.S. price of sugar and encouraged consumers and food manufacturers to replace sugar with alternatives, especially HFCS.” They go on to say: “Combining the sugar policy with the corn policy, the net effect of farm subsidies has been to increase the price of caloric sweeteners generally, and to discourage total consumption while causing a shift in sweetener use between sugar and HFCS.”

This analysis also says that eliminating farm subsidies would produce little or no change in production or prices for major ingredients. Careful examination, the economists contend, reveals that U.S. farm policies “have had very small effects on obesity.” In a step beyond this, they assert, “Contrary to common claims in the popular media, farm policies have more likely slowed the rise in obesity.”

Looking at efforts to blame obesity on an abundance of grains, the economists counsel caution in concluding that a solution may lie in halting innovations and the search for new technology in crop production. They point out that increased farm productivity has alleviated hunger and poverty around the world, while reducing pressure on natural resources. “The challenge for policy makers,” the economists declare, “is to find other — more effective and more economically rational— ways to reduce excess food consumption, while enhancing consumption opportunities for the poor and protecting the world’s resources for future generations.” This is an approach grain-based foods could join in espousing.

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