May 15, 2012

This Is Why You’re Fat: The 2012 Farm Bill And The Real Obesity Lobby

Nearly half of all Americans will be obese by 2030, researchers reported at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Weight of the Nation conference in Washington earlier this month. 42 percent of us are projected to be obese, placing a huge strain on our already compromised health care system. Brian Fung at The Atlantic points out that the healthcare costs of obesity — $550 billion over the next two decades — is more than the U.S. Department of Defense asked for in its fiscal year 2013 budget.

There are a lot of reasons — chemical, psychological, environmental — for why people are obese. But explaining societal obesity means looking at what the food system is providing for us to eat — and how government policies might promote certain foods over others.

“In the political arena, one side is winning the war on child obesity,” a new Reuters report on the food lobby begins. “The side with the fattest wallets.”

That’s entirely true. As Reuters reports, the food and beverage industry has been relentless in Washington lately, more than doubling their spending in Washington during the past three years, completely outpacing public interest groups looking out for children’s health:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead lobbying force for healthier food, spent about $70,000 lobbying last year — roughly what those opposing the stricter guidelines spent every 13 hours, the Reuters analysis showed.

The food and beverage industry has definitely outsmarted the federal government when it comes to targeting children: Efforts to tax soda have been crushed; 16 states have been persuaded to prohibit lawsuits over fatty foods; Congress has even declared pizza a vegetable, for Pete’s sake. The Boston Globe notes that young people fighting obesity have little chance against the food and beverage industry who “have waged an unprecedented war against even voluntary guidelines.” Even supposed Obama allies, like former White House communications director Anita Dunn, have been hired by the industry to lobby against obesity initiatives.

Obesity is complicated enough on an individual scale, societal obesity even more so. Certainly, we can blame marketing sugary cereals and 2,000-calorie burgers to kids for part of the obesity epidemic. But we can trace the roots of this problem even further, back to the 1930s, when taxpayers started subsidizing American agriculture.

The farm bill, first enacted during the Great Depression and renewed every five years or so, includes food stamps for the poor, international food aid, conservation programs, and subsidies for farmers, which lets them ride out bad crop years and compete with farmers in other countries. Critics have long derided subsidies, noting that they promote the growing of crops like corn and rice over others, like vegetables. The farm bill is up for reauthorization this year.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is one of those critics. He traced the massive amounts of subsidies received by corn growers  — $73.8 billion over 15 years — to the rise of high fructose corn syrup, the fattening substance that Vice President Joe Biden said was more dangerous to Americans than terrorism. Variations of the farm bill over the years have helped make “Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water,” Pollan wrote in the New York Times during the last debate over the farm bill, in 2007. The 2007 version of the farm bill expires in September.

The 2012 Farm Bill, which recently passed through the Senate Agriculture Committee, seems to reflect some of those criticisms. As part of the federal government’s effort to cut spending, the Ag Committee proposed a massive overhaul of the current subsidy program. The Senate bill eliminates $5 billion of annual subsidies in the form of direct payments and counter-cyclical payments to farmers, as well as the Average Crop Revenue Election Program, which started with the last farm bill. This might sound like Congress is actually listening to the concerns of food activists.

But the Senate proposal continues to give away tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to Big Agribusiness, at the expense of programs benefiting conservation, nutrition, and new farmers. The food blog Civil Eats calls the proposal an “all-you-can-eat-buffet for the subsidy lobby“:

[L]egislators created an expensive new entitlement program (called “shallow loss”) that guarantees nearly 90 percent of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. It also leaves untouched a bloated $9-billion-a-year crop insurance program that pays about 60 percent of farmers’ crop insurance premiums, no matter how large the farm, and sends billions to crop insurance companies and their agents.

Most of the benefits of these proposed programs would flow to the big five commodity crops (corn, soy, cotton, rice, and wheat) that provide feed for livestock, raw material for processed food and corn ethanol fuel for our cars.

There’s no data available yet on lobbying on the new farm bill, but by taking a look at OpenSecrets’ database on the 2007 bill, provides a look at who might be involved this time around: Big Agriculture — which spends millions lobbying the federal government on food policy. The agriculture biotechnology giant Monsanto spent $8.8 million on lobbying in 2008, much of it on 22 specific issues contained within the farm bill (which was renewed a bit late). Other big names shelling out big cash on the farm bill are Verizon, the American Farm Bureau, Kraft Foods, PepsiCo, Koch Industries, the American Beverage Association, and, naturally, the American Corn Growers Association.

As the 2012 farm bill heads from the Senate to the House of Representatives, it’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t just a farm bill — it’s a food bill, helping to dictate what kinds of food people can afford. Not everyone on the House Agriculture Committee sees it that way: last month, Republicans on the committee voted to cut $33 billion from food stamps while keeping farm subsidies intact. With recent high crop prices and a record of $136.3 billion in farm exports in 2011, big farmers growing corn and soy don’t really need the help (even the powerful Iowa Farm Bureau agrees). Instead, the farm bill should work on making healthy foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables, available at lower prices. Because if there’s one thing that the country can’t afford, it’s having a population that’s half obese.

  • Johnny Warbucks

    Fat is just another industry in the U$$A and a very lucrative one at that.

  • kentuckywoman2

    C’mon, this is a no-brainer. Some people are fat because of health problems that prevent them from maintaining healthy metabolisms or prevent them from being as physically active as they would like, as well as medications that cause people to gain weight.

    But the MAJORITY of people in this country that are obese are that way because of WHAT THEY EAT AND DRINK. I mean, does anybody cook from scratch anymore? Virtually ALL of the food most people eat are made from processed and packaged foods that come out of boxes. Loaded with preservatives, chemicals, empty calories and not much nutrition, it’s no wonder that most Americans have forgotten what REAL food is and how to make it! Family farms have been taken over by commercial conglomerates that use questionable practices that TAINT OUR FOOD SUPPLY.

    McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and a slew of other fast food chains seal the deal. IF the government was really all that concerned about a nation of OBESE SLUGS, they would do something about it. BEER is probably the number one contributor to obesity in men. BEER IS FATTENING! They don’t call’em “beer guts” for nothing!

    FRENCH FRIES is a close second contributor to obesity. The things that cause people to become obese aren’t even the foods that are filling! If you’re living on hamburgers, french fries and a coke from McD’s everyday twice a day, you’ve already overshot your daily recommended caloric intake!

    We’re an unhealthy, obese nation because of CONSUMERISM. PROFIT IS VALUED OVER HEALTH. Government won’t interfere because some unscrupulous individuals care more about lining their pockets than they do the nation’s health. So, every time you stuff down a “value meal”, think about what it’s doing to your body just so you can line someone ELSE’S pocket!

    The poor are much more at risk for obesity than their middle class or upper class counterparts. That’s because the poor often rely on Food Stamps for their entire food budget. I find it hilarious that the government is now calling the food stamp allotment “supplemental” – most poor people rely on it entirely. Unfortunately, the food stamp allotment is woefully inadequate to provide the means to buy healthy, non-fattening food. The poor are forced to buy cheap, high calorie, high carb, high fat, processed, preservative-filled, chemical-laden food because it’s all they can afford. Instead of a chicken breast, vegetable, and salad, it’s cheaper for them to buy a box of Hamburger Helper. Compare the calories and you’ll see what I mean.

    I defy ANYONE to shop using only food stamps and try to eat healthy. I don’t think it’s possible, unless you only eat 2 weeks out of the month.

    So Mrs. Obama can try all she wants to reduce obesity, but unless the government reduces poverty, increases food stamp allotments, and passes laws to regulate the types of food that restaurants, especially fast food chains, serve, I don’t see much changing.

    Combine that with the lack of exercise and the problem is compounded. Where are the parks and playgrounds for the children? They’re now strip malls and parking lots. Our streets aren’t safe for our children to walk on, let alone play on. So kids sit inside and play video games, watch tv and EAT. No one in our government sees the value of YARDS, PLAYGROUNDS, OR PARKS. Land is just another commodity for someone to develop. I don’t think the Republicans ever saw a piece of land that they didn’t want to build on, rather than preserve.

    We should be developing parks and playgrounds and encouraging people to get out of their homes and do something outside. Apartment buildings could be encouraged to have community gardens, which would contribute to the prevention of obesity because people would eat healthier and get more exercise as they cared for their garden. The entire nation could be encouraged to have a garden. We did that in World War II, why not now?

    So many things we could do that we’re not, and the reason we don’t is usually because someone else is making too much money the way things are. We ought to really think about that.that cause people to gain weight.

    But the MAJORITY of people in this country that are obese are that way because of WHAT THEY EAT AND DRINK. I mean, does anybody cook from scratch anymore? Virtually ALL of the food most people eat are made from processed and packaged foods that come out of boxes. Loaded with preservatives, chemicals, empty calories and not much nutrition, it’s no wonder that most Americans have forgotten what REAL food is and how to make it! Family farms have been taken over by commercial conglomerates that use questionable practices that TAINT OUR FOOD SUPPLY.

    McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s and a slew of other fast food chains seal the deal. IF the government was really all that concerned about a nation of OBESE SLUGS, they would do something about it. BEER is probably the number one contributor to obesity in men. BEER IS FATTENING! They don’t call’em “beer guts” for nothing!

    FRENCH FRIES is a close second contributor to obesity. The things that cause people to become obese aren’t even the foods that are filling! If you’re living on hamburgers, french fries and a coke from McD’s everyday twice a day, you’ve already overshot your daily recommended caloric intake!

    We’re an unhealthy, obese nation because of CONSUMERISM. PROFIT IS VALUED OVER HEALTH. Government won’t interfere because some unscrupulous individuals care more about lining their pockets than they do the nation’s health. So, every time you stuff down a “value meal”, think about what it’s doing to your body just so you can line someone ELSE’S pocket!

    The poor are much more at risk for obesity than their middle class or upper class counterparts. That’s because the poor often rely on Food Stamps for their entire food budget. I find it hilarious that the government is now calling the food stamp allotment “supplemental” – most poor people rely on it entirely. Unfortunately, the food stamp allotment is woefully inadequate to provide the means to buy healthy, non-fattening food. The poor are forced to buy cheap, high calorie, high carb, high fat, processed, preservative-filled, chemical-laden food because it’s all they can afford. Instead of a chicken breast, vegetable, and salad, it’s cheaper for them to buy a box of Hamburger Helper. Compare the calories and you’ll see what I mean.

    I defy ANYONE to shop using only food stamps and try to eat healthy. I don’t think it’s possible, unless you only eat 2 weeks out of the month.

    So Mrs. Obama can try all she wants to reduce obesity, but unless the government reduces poverty, increases food stamp allotments, and passes laws to regulate the types of food that restaurants, especially fast food chains, serve, I don’t see much changing.

    Combine that with the lack of exercise and the problem is compounded. Where are the parks and playgrounds for the children? They’re now strip malls and parking lots. Our streets aren’t safe for our children to walk on, let alone play on. So kids sit inside and play video games, watch tv and EAT. No one in our government sees the value of YARDS, PLAYGROUNDS, OR PARKS. Land is just another commodity for someone to develop. I don’t think the Republicans ever saw a piece of land that they didn’t want to build on, rather than preserve.

    We should be developing parks and playgrounds and encouraging people to get out of their homes and do something outside. Apartment buildings could be encouraged to have community gardens, which would contribute to the prevention of obesity because people would eat healthier and get more exercise as they cared for their garden. The entire nation could be encouraged to have a garden. We did that in World War II, why not now?

    So many things we could do that we’re not, and the reason we don’t is usually because someone else is making too much money the way things are. We ought to really think about that.

    • Jenigma

      Yes, Kentuckywoman2, people make poor decisions constantly. I do not think government should regulate peoples’ poor decisions, either. However, when corn is so cheap, high-fructose corn syrup is in EVERYTHING, even traditionally savory and relatively healthy things like whole grain bread, peoples’ poor decisions are being added ON TOP OF layers and layers of fructose already being unwittingly ingested. Ending corn subsidies is a start, regulating food additives and breaking foodcorp lobbyists would be the next logical steps.

      • Abeechler

        Jenigma, you bring up some very interesting points. However, would you not consider the way our government manipulates our decision making by limiting the types of foods available to us through tax subsidies and other policy?

    • MariaEC

      I don’t disagree with most of your post as you make some excellent points. I do, however, think you’re a bit off on one or two of your assertions. As a nearly life long vegan, I could live well on even a low end food stamp budget. I’m not on food stamps but I do believe in being thrifty while maintaining a good diet so my average budget is around $25 a week give or take. I allow myself some indulgences so eliminating those would probably drop it another $5 or so. Most supermarkets consistently run specials on fresh fruits and vegetables, ditto frozen ones and yet I see people bypass natural food in favor of more expensive processed junk. As I’ve said before when discussing similar topics, beans and greens are way cheaper than pizza rolls and hamburger helper. I’m certainly not opposed to raising peoples’ food stamp limits but with the heartless A-holes we have in government nowadays, I seriously doubt that’s going to happen.

      Gardening, yes! It’s not even difficult to do container gardening regardless of where you live. I learned how to grow veggies in my NYC apartment when I was younger. I also learned how to can so I would have homegrown food even in the dead of winter. The difference is, I think, that I’m aware of what a healthy diet consists of and most people battling obesity (not the folks with thyroid or other medical reasons) don’t or choose to ignore the wealth of information that’s out there. In order to win this battle, we HAVE to educate people about the dangers of fast and processed food and teach them to avoid even food that the government insists is healthy like excess dairy. In order to do that, however, you’d need to circumvent the USDA, the FDA and the multi-billion dollar lobby these industries have purchased our representatives with. It’s an uphill battle when you have morons in our government declaring pizza and ketchup vegetables.

      I also think that people tend to self medicate with food when they’re depressed or under stress. With the strain of the recession and so many people out of work, they’re turning to food as comfort. It’s a bad, difficult to break cycle. We need to have community based organizations that can at least provide some counseling for individuals and families who have no other outlets.

      As you said, there are so many things that COULD be done but aren’t because people are making way too much money off the misery and suffering of others. If I was more of a conspiracy theorist, I would say that the 1% wants to maintain this status quo so people would die off at younger ages and the government and corporations wouldn’t have to concern themselves with an older population. Since they seem intent on turning women into baby making factories with the war on women that’s being waged, I may not be too far off. Churn ’em out, put ’em to work at low paying, part time jobs for their corporate masters and kill ’em off after they’re past their prime. All while making billions off the misery and suffering of the rest of us.

      • cassandravert

        I don’t think it is so much that the 1% want ppl to die off young–obesity creates chronic and expensive health care problems before it kills you. I think it’s more that they want to keep us in a passive, carbo-loaded state.

        And yes, it is an uphill battle even to teach yourself good nutrition when so many “authoritative” sources disagree.

        If you do your own canning, it sounds like you have a lot of time. Not everyone does. Also, fresh produce is expensive, and I am in a temperate climate. I’m not sure how I could do well on $25 a week.

        • MariaEC

          I don’t actually have a lot of free time. I work as well as volunteer with a couple local community organizations but I like being thrifty particularly when it comes to food which is why I learned to grow my own. I also live in a temperate climate so, during the summer when local farmers and gardeners and farmers markets are at their peak, I’ll buy in bulk and devote a few of my days off to canning. It’s not a year round project. I don’t devote an inordinate amount of time to caring for my indoor gardening containers either. They actually seem to do better with benign neglect. 🙂 If you don’t want to can, freezing most fruits and veggies is always an easier alternative although it doesn’t hold up as well.

  • parkimedes

    “the healthcare costs of obesity — $550 billion over the next two decades — is more than the U.S. Department of Defense asked for in its fiscal year 2013 budget.”

    This is a bit misleading. Let’s not try to trick people into thinking the cost of obesity is anywhere near the Defense budget. Its 1/20th, not really comparable.

  • linkages

    Great article. I have been wondering when this topic would reach the surface. Thank you for bringing it to the attention of concerned people. If you are looking at film footage of people from the seventies, even the eighties or earlier, people really looked different.

  • Pingback: This Is Why You’re Fat: The 2012 Farm Bill And The Real Obesity Lobby | marcgilbert.com()

  • Kevin Schmidt

    New product:
    Start with Madison Avenue designed packaging and catchy name

    Ingredients:
    MSGs
    High Fructose GMO Corn Syrup
    GMO Corn Oil
    Irradiated Spices
    Salt
    Dirt

    Catchy phrase:
    Low Calorie and All Natural!

  • notayot

    Go to Europe (if you can afford it on your suppressed wages) and see almost NO fat people (unless from U.S. or Germany) who eat extravagantly flavorful and fat-filled food, yet they do not need electric carts to haul their fat asses around the grocery stores. Delicious cheeses, delectable scrumptious plates of flavorful meals, yet these people are not obese, diabetic or oversized. Our food has little nutritional value, so we eat and eat and eat…desperately trying to get nutrients that have been stripped from our food supply – replaced with synthetics, substitutes and whatever chemicals can mask the fact that our food is meant for PROFITS not SUSTENANCE. I have seen people surviving on bugs and weeds that look healthier! Not deep hydrogenated-fat fried genetically altered, not hormone-soaked, not preservative/pesticide drenched pseudo-food, but honest, unprocessed proper portions of delicious food we Americans desperately are trying to remember tasting. We rarely cook anymore. If your food comes from the “middle aisles” or frozen section – it is processed and devoid of nutrition. Shelf-life and profit is more important than nutrition. Scores of lobbyists make
    sure you know as little as possible. Advertising makes sure you believe it is “all your fault”, that you are weak and slovenly and undeserving.
    Look at the spike in weight problems coincide with the high-fructose corn syrup lobby and you will see the same graph. Of course, science is merely a coincidence and not factual (“fox-tual”) l like “beliefs”.
    Lots of our food issues are emotional. We “anxiety-eat” rather than eat for nutrition. It has become a substitute for what we wish was a fulfilling life instead of our wage-slavery system that is now in place.
    I have eaten “health foods” since I was 19 (I am now 58) and still weigh 110 (5’4″). I eat real butter, coffee with half&half (no hormones, BGH or pesticides), seafood, chicken (pesticide/hormone-free), potatoes, rice, sushi, sometimes red meats, lots of “fattening” food, (although rarely fried anything), lots of home cooked meals with fresh veggies, plenty of nuts, grains, legumes, fruits, wine, beer, etc. I eat cheesecake, pies, brownies, chocolate without gaining weight. People called me a “health nut” (but most of those people are fat. )
    I don’t exercise much other than housework and yardwork. I drive to work and do little formal exercise.
    All I am saying is that Americans look like freaks compared to a) what most of the world looks like and b) what we used to look like. The difference is what we are being sold. As long as we buy what they are selling, we will continue to grow and grow and GROW – and pretend we don’t know why.

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