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War on Obesity: Part 6: The Problem With The Farm Bill

Stanley Feld M.D.,FACP,MACE

Farm bill legislation is reenacted every five years. This is the year the 2007 farm bill comes up for passage. Most politicians do not pay much attention to the farm bill. The provisions of the bill are difficult to understand. Politician trade their farm bill vote for a vote on their agenda. Michael Pollan points out ”The fact that the bill is deeply encrusted with incomprehensible jargon and prehensile programs dating back to the 1930s makes it almost impossible for the average legislator to understand the bill should he or she try to, much less the average citizen. It’s doubtful this is an accident.”

The farm bill subsidies generate overproduction of food. “The farm bill helps determine what sort of food your children will have for lunch in school tomorrow. The school-lunch program began at a time when the public-health problem of America’s children was undernourishment, so feeding surplus agricultural commodities to kids seemed like a win-win strategy. Today the problem is over nutrition. but a school lunch lady trying to prepare healthful fresh food is apt to get dinged by U.S.D.A. inspectors for failing to serve enough calories. The farm bill essentially treats our children as a human disposal for all the unhealthful calories that the farm bill has encouraged American farmers to overproduce.”

This is one reason for the increased incidence of type 2 diabetes in children. The care of type 2 diabetes mellitus increases the costs of healthcare. As complications of type 2 diabetes mellitus occur they will increase the cost of healthcare even further.

The farm bill also has an important impact on the environment and in turn our health. “The smorgasbord of incentives and disincentives built into the farm bill helps decide what happens on nearly half of the private land in America. The health of the American soil, the purity of its water, the biodiversity and the very look of its landscape owe in no small part to impenetrable titles, programs and formulae buried deep in the farm bill.”

The medical community is now recognizing that you cannot solve the obesity problem or the type 2 diabetes problem without addressing the farm bill. Michael Pollan suggests the new bill be called the food bill. The environmental community recognizes that as long as the farm bill promotes chemical and a feedlot mentality we cannot master the fight for clean water. A grass roots social movement is developing around the quality and volume of food produced. Parents are protesting vending machines in the schools and quality of school lunches. As more and more people are getting information from the web as well as other sources, there is more and more agitation about our food supply. If we could reprogram ourselves, we could vote with our forks and change the thrust of the farm bill away from junk food. However, junk food is cheap. We have also learned to like it a lot. We must protest our agricultural policies and demand that society educate itself toward healthy eating. The process has begun.

Pollan says “there are many more who recognize the real cost of artificially cheap food — to their health, to the land, to the animals, to the public purse. At a minimum, these eaters want a bill that aligns agricultural policy with our public-health and environmental values, one with incentives to produce food cleanly, sustain ably and humanely. Eaters want a bill that makes the most healthful calories in the supermarket competitive with the least healthful ones. Eaters want a bill that feeds schoolchildren fresh food from local farms rather than processed surplus commodities from far away. “

Fixing the food supply chain will not be that easy. It is not simply eliminating subsidies. Somehow, the incentive to overproduce food for the food processing industry has to be replaced by incentives for producing fresh food in local markets. The emphasis has to be on vegetables of all kinds. Rather than having tomato factories all over South America which efficiently produce tasteless tomatoes and ship them thousands of miles prior to ripening, we must encourage local farmers to produce fresh, nutritious, and tasty tomatoes. The incentives should be aimed away from overproduction of raw materials for manufactured food toward changing the eating habits of our people. It has to be incentive driven for the local farmer and not for the benefit of the large farm conglomerates that produces oversized cows and overproduced corn, soy beans, rice and wheat. Corn production might not be a problem if we accelerate its use in gasoline and helps free us from foreign oil dependency. The same could be done for soy beans. Our policy makers have to be creative, innovative and tough minded for the good of the nation without destroying the small farmer.

Once we realize the dangers of the farm bill, we can demand that our food policy become aligned with our health so our food will be of a quality that can protect us from becoming obese and subsequently from the chronic diseases obesity precipitates. It will take awareness by the people and a demand for farm policy change. This is the year.

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