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The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.

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April 12, 2010

Challenging the obesity system

This past weekend Dr. David Wallinga, director of IATP's Food and Health program, was featured on Huffington Post. His blog entry, “Challenging the Obesity System,” looks at the obesity epidemic as a symptom of the larger issue of an unhealthy food system.

“As a cheap calorie policy, U.S. farm policy has been a success. Foods high in fats, sugars and calories, such as cooking oils, snacks, fast foods and sugared sodas, are some of the cheapest foods in the American diet,” he writes. “But for public health, U.S. farm policy's focus on a few commodities is outdated.”

What about solutions? Dr. Wallinga offers three suggestions:

  1. Establishing an independent Healthy Foods Commission of non-governmental public health, agriculture and food system experts.
  2. Partnering with America's farmers to grow healthier food by offering support equal to that offered in the current commodity-focused system.
  3. Raising the standards of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.

Read the full post here and join the conversation. How can public health and food policy come together?

Andrew Ranallo


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Jim Kielkopf

This is great work and a great focus for IATP and, hopefully , for the USDA. The epidemic of obesity is a health condition caused by public policies, or lack thereof, every bit as much as famines are. However, I think as research and debate develops on this problem, we will find that agricultural policy that supports and subsidizes production of fat, protein, and carbohydrates have, at best, pretty marginal effects on food preferences in modern diets, contrary to what Dr. Wallinga and other healthy food advocates seem to argue here.

I think we'll find that processed food, period, like the its historical precursors in wine, beer, and livestock production, is such an efficient and concentrated way to transport, store, and ingest nutrients (bad or good nutrients) that even without subsidies for grain, or with subsidies for fruit and vegetables, it will be difficult for horticultural production to ever achieve the economies of scale and distribution (and corresponding low prices) that would be required to make it possible for individuals to choose healthier diets on the basis of economics alone.

Fruits and vegetables are largely water, for example -- heavy, bulky, and nutrient-free water. The sugars found in grains, on the other hand, can be transported, stored, and used in processed foods or animal feed without much encumbrance from nutrition-less water. This means that a society-wide willingness to spend more on food as a proportion of family budgets, contrary to the economics of urbanization to date, is likely going to have to be an key feature of improving nutrition through changes in diets, and that's a much harder thing to achieve at a social level than changing a farm bill. In other words, obesity might be more of an urban policy problem than it is of agricultural or rural policy.

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