Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obesity - a government-industry policy

There is no doubting the obvious fact that the country is in the midst of an obesity crisis.  Why? 

The main reason is that people are eating a diet of what I call drug-foods rather than a diet of actual foods.  A drug food is something that has been invented by the food industry.  They are carefully engineered to produce cravings for more.  Unfortunately, they act like drugs and create addiction.  They are loaded with fat, sugars, and salt.  They are quick and convenient.  They are produced by today’s huge agribusinesses, industrial farms, fast food outlets, and highly processed foods found in most of the supermarket (almost everything in the middle of supermarkets are highly processed drug-foods, whereas you can find real foods on the perimeters – produce and meats especially) 

A couple of good sources of info about this are a wonderful book “The End of Overeating” by Dr David Kessler, and the movie “Food, Inc.”  The good thing is that neither of these is an angry polemic, but they do a good job of explaining why the average weight of Americans has gone up by over 30 pounds in the last few decades.

So, how did this happen to our country? 

First, I want to congratulate the food industry for feeding billions.  The Reverend Malthus in the early 1800s predicted that human population would grow exponentially, but tillable land would only grow linearly, and as a result the human race would face endless cycles of famine and war as ways to keep the population down to the number that could be fed.  But, the agriculture adopted the approaches of industry to grow food production exponentially, and thus has been able to feed an exponentially growing U.S. population.  The same can be said around the industrialized world.  Good for them.  Famine is not a good thing.

Next, it is necessary to recognize that there is a major adjustment that the food industry needs to make now that the quantity problem has been solved in the industrialized world.  Now it is time to focus on quality.  That is, it is time for the agriculture to find ways to produce enough food which is actual food rather than drug-food.

Or, more to the point, it is time for us, the eaters, to turn away from the drug-foods and turn to real food.  Where there is demand, there will be supply.  It’s the nature of free markets.

Which brings me to the point of this long post – the distortions of the free markets by the food industry and government.  Charles Lane of the Washington Post writes and interesting article labeled “The Government wants you to eat cheese”.  He points to one item, cheese, that our country has more than doubled the consumption of because of U.S. Agricultural policy.  The policy is not one designed to nurture the health of Americans, it is a policy designed to help “farmers’, or more to the point, to help the huge industrialized agri-businesses that have replaced farmers.  One portion of our government agricultural policy is to support dairy "farmers" by distorting the market to produce too much milk, which ends up being used to make much more cheese, which increases cheese consumption because of artificially low cost and government assisted promotion of cheese (think pizzas). 

Those on the left of the political spectrum will naturally blame agri-businesses for their capture and control of government policies so as to benefit these giant corporate farming and distribution industries.  And they would be correct.

Those on the right of the political spectrum would naturally blame an ever expanding and ever too powerful government doing the only thing it knows how to do, which is to try to direct and control through centralized government power every aspect of the lives of Americans, which inevitably results in consequences that are unforeseen, damaging to the people, and benefitting only the special interests who have their ear, and contribute to their re-elections.  And they would also be correct.

It is an unholy, and at least partially harmful, alliance of government and the corporate agribusinesses of America.  The “small” example of how these two teamed up to dramatically increase the consumption of a highly saturated fat food, cheese, is but one instance.  I am sure you can find the same story over and over again when looking at the overproduction of corn, grain feed beef, pork, chicken, and fish, etc. 

The American diet is abundant, but it is becoming more and more unhealthy.  It is the cause of the dramatic, unhealthy, costly, and tragic rise in obesity in America, and it is the result of government policy … no, it is the result of agribusinesses business model … actually it is the cause of government-industry joint policy.  And, just as I don’t expect the Mexican drug cartels to stop trying to sell Meth into America, I don’t expect the agribusinesses or the government to stop promoting their own self interests for the benefit of the health of the nation.

But, of course, there is a cure for this disease.  It is to recognize our addiction to food-drugs and to wean ourselves off of them and return to eating food.  The industry and government will follow.

Or, as I am told, a hand written sign said at a local farmers’ market – “Organic food, or as your grandparents used to call it – food”.