California Agriculture

Subsidizing Obesity

A new analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine raises the possibility that agricultural policies are subsidizing obesity. In their analysis, Karen Siegel and colleagues find that consuming food from subsidized agricultural commodities is a risk factor for obesity and cardiometabolic disease. They conclude:

Nutritional guidelines are focused on the population’s needs for healthier foods, but to date food and agricultural policies that influence food production and availability have not yet done the same.

A closer look reveals a complex picture. The cross-sectional design of this study prevents definitive conclusions about cause and effect. “Agricultural subsidies are one part of an entire panoply of cardiometabolic risk factors,” the authors say.

In a companion commentary, Raj Patel builds on that theme of complexity. He points out that “commodity subsidies are a small part of a bigger problem.” Patel, a professor of public policy, systematically explains that subsidies are not the primary reason for processed foods being cheap. It’s a complex story of policies that promote poverty and environmental harms. Those factors multiply the health effects of cheap, highly processed foods.

These papers are as much about political science as they are about health science. The politics of agriculture are contentious. Perhaps that’s why we’re living with obsolete policies that promote the cheap production of more calories than the public needs. They were designed to solve problems that no longer exist.

There’s plenty of room to disagree with Patel’s analysis. But what is clear is that the problems he describes are tough ones to solve. And without solving them, we are likely to continue to produce a food supply that undermines public health.

Click here for the study and here for the commentary. Click here for more perspective from NPR.

California Agriculture, photograph © Gina Collecchia / flickr

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July 9, 2016