Will eliminating farm subsidies reduce obesity and associated health problems, such as diabetes?

Obesity has increased rapidly in the United States and in many other countries. The proximal cause of obesity is simple and not disputed: people consume more food energy than they use. Farm subsidies could have contributed to lower relative prices and increased consumption of fattening foods by making certain farm commodities more abundant and therefore cheaper. However, each of several component elements must be true for farm subsidies to have had a significant effect on obesity rates.

  • First, farm subsidies must have made farm commodities significantly more abundant and cheaper.
  • Second, the lower commodity prices caused by farm subsidies must have resulted in significantly lower costs to the food industry.
  • Third, the cost savings to the food marketing firms must have been passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices of food.
  • Fourth, food consumption patterns must have changed significantly in response to these policy-induced changes in prices.

Many advocates argue that US Department of Agriculture (USDA) policies that establish farm prices for crops, provide subsidies to farmers and provide consumers with access to an abundant and affordable food supply are responsible for the increasing number of adults and children facing the challenges of obesity and diabetes.

However, Julian M. Alston, with the University of California-Davis Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics, says his research shows that eliminating farm subsidies would do little to change obesity rates, noting that consumers do not necessarily change food purchase patterns based on cost and that advances in technology and efficiencies on the farm have more to do with the low cost of today’s food than USDA policies and programs.

As much as 80% of diabetes cases are associated with unhealthy eating patterns and sedentary lifestyles. More than looking at subsidies decreasing commodity prices, what should be looked at is the diet purchasing decisions. Look at the label. Stay away from added sugars, not to be confused with natural sugars which come from fruits and vegetables.


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