How Agriculture Policy Influences What Foods Are Developed
Thanks to the alert from fellow WIN Wyoming team members Carol Peterson and Suzy Pelican, I was able to attend the satellite downlink of the program entitled “Supersizing America: The New Challenge of Obesity.” Mark Muller, from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, was the first speaker and highlighted some of the connections between the current food supply in the United States and the agriculture policy set by Congress. I found his concepts to be very thought-provoking, and for this month’s thought bullets I share with you some of the most interesting concepts I took away from the program.
Muller compared the U.S. food industry to having a giant elephant in your living room. Much discussion has taken place on whether the giant elephant is a “good” elephant or a “bad” elephant, but Muller stated that whether you view it as good or bad, the food industry (the elephant) inserts tremendous influence on what you eat. The issue may not be so much whether the elephant is a “good” elephant or a “bad” elephant. Perhaps the most important thing for us to consider is how large and influential the U.S. food industry is on the eating behaviors of Americans.
When people talk about changing eating behaviors, they often take a consumer-focused approach (the personal responsibility model), or a farmer/agriculture approach (a model focused on farm subsidies and farm practices). Muller believes more attention must be paid to the food system and food industry, including what foods are developed, marketed, and placed on grocery shelves.
Muller documented the history of crops in the U.S. moving from a pattern where many crops served a local market, to a current pattern where a few crops (including corn, wheat, soybeans) are now grown for multiply uses. For example, a supply of low-cost corn gave rise to high fructose corn syrup when a low-cost method was developed using enzymes to convert corn starch to fructose. High fructose corn syrup has now surpassed sugar as the biggest sweetener in the U.S.
Over the years, much discussion and debate has occurred nationally and locally on how the U.S. farm policy, and specifically farm price controls, impact what farmers grow. Muller suggests a question often overlooked, and perhaps, even more important, is how low-price crops (such as corn) impact the food industry. When low-cost crops are available, the food industry dedicates enormous research dollars to developing additional uses for those crops.
Why do farm/ranch and food industry patterns change? Mueller believes almost all changes can be traced by following the money, or better understanding the economics of the U.S. food industry. For example, over the last 30 years, the raising of U.S. meat and dairy livestock has switched from primarily grass-fed animals to grain-fed animals. This decision was not made to increase the calories and fat of food products (although it did just that), but rather, the decision was an economic one based on the low cost of grain. Discussions on improving the nutritional content of food must consider the economic forces on the U.S. food industry, and too few discussions consider this powerful force.
Economics do not just impact the food industry giants, but also most typical American households. Why bother to garden, bake your own bread, or even cook your own meals when a cheap, ready-to-eat food supply is available? People may choose to garden, bake or cook for the love of it or for a desire to eat healthy, but basic economics give few incentives for people to take a more active role in food growing and preparation.
Muller concluded his program by suggesting more incentives are needed for farmers, the food industry and consumers to select healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables. Some of the ideas he presented included offering pay incentives for small farmers to grow produce, and federally funding more research to extend growing seasons (which would help make produce crops more economical to grow).
Muller, Mark. Working to maintain family farm agriculture through regional, healthy food systems. Presentation at the 23rd National Conference on Health Education and Health Promotion, and broadcast by the Alabama Public Health Training Network. August 11, 2005.
Compiled by Betty Holmes, MS, RD
to Thought Bullets--main page.
Return to home page.