Agricultural Subsidies Tax our Health
By Neal Barnard, M.D.
This opinion piece was printed in the St. Petersburg Times on April 18, 2011.
As we wrap up tax season with federal spending under scrutiny, Americans should consider this: Congress continues to spend billions of federal dollars on food policies that contribute to bad health.
This boondoggle is worse than a bridge to nowhere—it’s a publically funded super-highway carrying the entire country into a dismal future filled with diet-related medical problems and soaring healthcare costs.
The figures are staggering. In recent history, the federal government has spent about $16 billion per year on agricultural subsidies. Of subsidies that go toward food production, the majority support the kind of unhealthful food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends we eat less of to protect our health.
As a doctor and nutrition researcher, I believe the best way to resolve that contradiction is to put unhealthy agricultural subsidies on the federal chopping block.
The contrast between federal dietary advice and federal subsidies is stark. The government’s own recently released Dietary Guidelines document advises Americans to cut back on cholesterol and saturated fat. Yet agricultural subsidies continue to favor fatty meats, dairy products, and sugar.
Industrial hog producers, for example, enjoyed a savings of 15 percent in operations costs between 1997 and 2005 because federal funds were subsidizing the grains fed to pigs. Direct and indirect subsidies to dairy producers totaled $4.8 billion between 1995 and 2009, even as consumption of high-fat cheese products reached new heights. This means that companies responsible for producing the most unhealthful food are doing so with the help of taxpayer dollars.
Meanwhile, healthful foods—fruits and vegetables—receive less than 1 percent of subsidies. That’s disturbing given that the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines say eating more healthful plant-based foods and less saturated fat and cholesterol helps prevent heart problems and other life-threatening medical conditions.
As the Dietary Guidelines point out, "Vegetarian-style eating patterns have been associated with improved health outcomes—lower levels of obesity, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and lower total mortality."
More than 60 percent of all deaths in the United States are caused by diseases linked to unhealthy diets, including heart disease, cancer and stroke. Poor diets are also linked to epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes. But poor health isn’t the only negative outcome of the current system. Being sick is expensive.
The medical costs of chronic health problems run in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. The annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion in 2008. The Medicare and Medicaid spending for obesity-related conditions now totals $61 billion per year. If current trends continue, 86 percent of adults will be overweight or obese by 2030.
Cardiovascular disease costs the nation about $189 billion a year, and by 2030, the annual medical costs for cardiovascular are projected to triple to $818 billion. A large portion of these costs could be saved by cultivating healthier diets to prevent many cases of these diseases from happening in the first place.
Paying taxes is never pleasant, but it’s especially galling when you realize that the taxpayer-funded food system is literally making us sick. It’s time for Congress to fix this problem and address our country’s epidemics of obesity and other health problems. Let’s put agricultural subsidies on a diet.
Neal Barnard, M.D., is a clinical researcher, author, and health advocate. He is the president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.