We now know that sugar, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, is the leading cause of the U.S. obesity epidemic. Two-thirds of adults and a third of children are considered overweight or obese, and the dietary choices that have created this crisis are often the result of understandable thrift. Our tax environment offers market-shifting subsidies to conglomerate producers of some of the worst things we put into our bodies.
Co-opting Noble Wartime Policy
Agricultural subsidies were used to great effect during World War II, as a way to shore up supplies of corn and wheat to prevent a shortage of troop supplies. These policies served their intended purpose, but without a timeframe, they were allowed to become entrenched by farming businesses which stood to benefit. The foods we are encouraged to eat today, and what we are told about nutrition and cardiometabolism, are in no small part influenced by lobbying from within the system created by wartime pragmatism.
The justification for subsidies today is that the U.S. government wants agriculture to be competitive globally. However, the choices American consumers are making have turbocharged healthcare costs related to obesity. So, two opposing goals are being pursued simultaneously, all while the agriculture industry preys on vulnerable people with cheap, unhealthy foods. A common response is the suggestion to tax sugary foods, but this may not be the best way to optimize incentives.
A study of subsidized foods and their relationship to cardiometabolic risk measured that overall, 56 percent of calories consumed were among the major subsidized food commodities – corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock. The study concluded that higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks. Therefore, better alignment of agricultural and nutritional policies has the potential to significantly improve population health.
The majority of subsidies go to commercial farms with an average income of $200,000 and average net worth close to $2 million, according to a report by Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Brian Riedl. The reality of agricultural subsidies is incongruous with their intent; instead of raising farmer incomes with higher crop prices, they promote overproduction and lower prices further.
Smallholder family farms are largely excluded from subsidies, and instead they finance consolidation and raise land values to prohibitive levels. In the decade preceding 2007, many agricultural subsidies were distributed to Fortune 500 companies, celebrity “hobby farmers”, and sympathetic Members of Congress, including:
- $2,849,799 – John Hancock Life Insurance
- $1,183,893 – International Paper
- $534,210 – Westvaco
- $446,914 – ChevronTexaco
- $553,782 – David Rockefeller
- $206,948 – Ted Turner
- $225,041 – Senator Charles Grassley (R- IA)
- $45,400 – Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR)
- $161,084 – Representative John Salazar (D-CO)
A 2006 Washington Post investigation discovered 75 acres of Texas housing for which the owners could claim agricultural subsidies based on “historical rice production.” Over the past 25 years, rice plantings in Texas have plummeted from 600,000 acres to 200,000, in part because people can now collect generous rice subsidies without planting rice. This illustrates that once implemented, even a seemingly sensible subsidy can become a useless bureaucratic burden that must be repealed or risk becoming ridiculous.
The Sugar Conspiracy
Robert Lustig, a pediatric neuroendocrinologist at UCSF, says a person increasing their sugar consumption is a big problem because “sugar both drives fat storage and makes the brain think it is hungry, setting up a vicious cycle.”
More specifically, Lustig confirms that it is fructose that is harmful. Fructose is a component of the two most popular sugars: table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. High-fructose corn syrup has become ubiquitous in soft drinks and many other processed foods.
According to the World Health Organization, food marketing has been shown to influence children’s dietary preferences and behavior, increase the risk of becoming overweight and obese and form habits which persist into adulthood.
Amanda Long, Director-General of Consumers International, says that “the majority of adverts seen by children around the globe are for heavily processed foods high in fat, sugar, salt and calories.”
Research in the science journal Nature concluded that young children are not responsible for their food choices, and are incapable of accepting personal responsibility in amongst so many influences including parenting, social factors, and advertising. Obese children are ostracized by their peers, and their quality of life, as measured by self-reported distress, is comparable to those receiving cancer chemotherapy.
In September 2016, NPR reported that for the past five decades, the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.
That these documents are so old only serves to magnify the implications of this ongoing corporate behavior. A report published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal highlighted ways in which these practices continue.
“In 2015, the New York Times obtained emails revealing Coca-Cola’s cozy relationships with sponsored researchers who were conducting studies aimed at minimizing the effects of sugary drinks on obesity. Even more recently, the Associated Press obtained emails showing how a candy trade association funded and influenced studies to show that children who eat sweets have healthier body weights than those who do not.”
Report co-author Stanton Glantz told The New York Times this sugar industry strategy of sponsoring research was a smart one, “because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion.”
The response from the Sugar Association was to say that at the time of publication, “funding disclosures and transparency standards were not the norm they are today.” In one recorded study, a finding of health benefits from a diet of less sugar and more vegetables was dismissed, because such a dietary change was not considered feasible.
In the aftermath of these revelations, the sugar tax debate ignores the more fundamental forces that have given agricultural mega-producers so much influence.
Sweetening The Deal
Subsidies are either going to artificially inflate farmland values and rents, or wind up in the back pockets of supermarkets. If the farming of certain crops is supported by a failsafe government subsidy, supermarkets will see no need to reimburse farmers for the full cost of production, resulting in lower prices and stagnating incomes.
Under a system of Land Value Taxation, all production would be tax-free and, in a sense subsidized. Other foods could compete with corn, and we might experience a decrease in the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in cheap, readily available processed foods.
Farmland is not particularly valuable in comparison to its urban counterpart, so many farmers could expect to be better off under such a policy. Nevertheless, a Land Value Tax would also encourage small-surface-area, horticulture as opposed to extensive, land-wasting monoculture that is subsidized by the public purse. Not only that, it would create a lot of jobs in sustainable farming, since taxes on labor would be removed in a pure Land Value Tax system.