If you spend any time with upper-middle-income social liberals, you will at some point hear about the perils of cheap corn, and the high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) that is slowly killing us all. And the prevalence of cheap corn, in turn, is blamed on agricultural subsidies. Michael Pollan, America’s most celebrated food intellectual, has highlighted the role of Earl Butz, President Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, in promoting subsidized monocultures of grain and transforming the U.S. food chain. As a fan of the work of Gary Taubes and Robert Lustig and others, I am inclined to agree that high levels of HFCS consumption is a part of the “diabesity” epidemic that is swelling U.S. health expenditures as well as U.S. waistlines. But are agricultural subsidies, and industrial agriculture more broadly, really the root of the problem?
First, it should be said that there are many good reasons to oppose agricultural subsidies. Like all subsidies, agricultural subsidies create an excess burden. They induce exchanges that would not have occurred in the absence of the subsidy, and they prevent other exchanges that would have occurred in the absence of the subsidy from taking place. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing if, for example, we’re trying to price in the costs of pollution to prevent exchanges that would create negative spillovers. Yet agricultural subsidies, as Pollan has explained, tend to exacerbate environmental problems by encouraging monocultures. So let’s absolutely get rid of them.
Helen Lee, a senior research associate at MDRC, has written a really eye-opening critique of food activism in the new Breakthrough Journal. And though I don’t agree with every aspect of Lee’s article, she makes one observation that really undermines the notion that Earl Butz is the villain behind diabesity. The raw ingredients that are subsidized by the federal government, like corn, are a small fraction of the cost of most processed foods, which are widely considered the main culprits behind rising obesity levels. Processing and marketing costs play a much bigger role. Moreover, the people who eat processed foods in large quantities are doing not mainly because of their low price, but rather because processed foods are delicious and, one might add, easy to prepare. In “Why Have Americans Become More Obese,” the economists David Cutler, Edward Glaeser, and Jesse Shapiro note that that time cost of food has plummeted, thus making it “cheaper,” in terms of hours spent slaving away in the kitchen or at a sit-down restaurant, to eat delicious food. This would be true with or without agricultural subsidies, which is why we shouldn’t expect that doing so will yield huge public health benefits.
Lee’s larger argument is that the anti-obesity policy narrative rests on a mistaken view of the obesity problem as “ecological,” i.e., as a product of agricultural subsidies and food deserts. Rather, she argues that the problems that flow from obesity are difficult if not impossible to disentangle from the problems associated with poverty, and that the best way to combat these problems is to increase health access. She also reports that upper-income Americans have been catching up with lower-income Americans in obesity rates, and high-income men actually have higher obesity rates than low-income men — a fact that would likely change the obesity conversation. In “Is Food the New Sex,” Mary Eberstadt argued that while puritanical attitudes towards sex are now quite rare among the affluent and college-educated, leaving aside the question of how these individuals live in practice, puritanical attitudes towards overeating appear to have taken their place. What is interesting, in light of Lee’s findings, is that high-income American men are nevertheless becoming fatter over time.
My own view is that Lee is too sanguine about obesity as such, and that she neglects the idea that carbohydrates might actually have addictive properties. This might help explain the increase in obesity rates among the affluent. But her article is a brilliant corrective and well worth reading for that reason alone.