Childhood Obesity and American Agriculture
22 Mar, 2010
Children’s health is a major concern today, as can be illustrated by just a few statistics: One in three children in the US is overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over the past three decades the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children aged 2–5 years and adolescents aged 12–19 years, and it has more than tripled for children aged 6–11 years. This is the first generation ever of children who have projected life spans shorter than those of their parents.
Obese children and adolescents are more likely than non-obese children to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes); and according to the American Diabetes Association, 23.6 million American children have diabetes.Health Affairs journal recently published a very interesting article entitled The Role of Agriculture Policy in Reducing Childhood Obesity by Dr. David Wallinga, Director of the Food and Health Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Dr. Wallinga sat down with Organic Connections to discuss the very real role that today’s agricultural policies play in the current childhood obesity epidemic.
“Farm policy for a long time has been focused not on health concerns but rather on just overproducing certain crops,” Dr. Wallinga said. “Especially in the last 35 years or so, what we’ve focused on as a country is producing great amounts of just a few crops that generate a lot of calories—namely corn and soybeans and a few other commodity crops. What we argue, and can find quite a bit of evidence for, is that this superabundance of calories is helping to create an obesegenic [obesity-causing] food environment for kids; in other words, a food environment that encourages an overconsumption of calories particularly from food ingredients that we know to be unhealthy and which happen to be derived from these same commodity crops that farm policy most encourages.”
How did this harmful scenario come about? “I think the stated original rationale was that by overproducing these particular crops, American farmers would seize the global markets by being the low-cost producers of those crops,” Dr. Wallinga explained. “The sad fact is that none of this panned out. Instead, the flooding of the global market with these crops drove prices down for US farmers, and then in the ’80s and ’90s those farmers started going out of business. They were really quite desperate, so by the time the 1996 farm bill rolled around, farmers were clamoring to stay in business and asking for help from the federal government to do so. There were then some temporary payments to these same corn and soybean farmers—but by 2002 the payments had become permanent. That is how we ended up with these subsidy payments today; they came 15 or 20 years after the policies began to promote overproduction of these few crops.”
Dr. Wallinga went on to explain that the government also did away with policies that were effective in limiting overproduction of these crops and thereby ensured that prices were fair to the farmer and kept market costs stable for the consumer. These policies were replaced by new ones that didn’t work well for the farmer or consumer but were highly beneficial to meat-producing companies utilizing corn and soybeans as feed. They also worked well for companies such as soft-drink manufacturers that used low-cost corn sweeteners.
Turning It Around
Dr. Wallinga sees several needed measures. The first of these would be the inclusion of health professionals at a legislative level.
“We think that we can’t afford any longer to exclude health professionals from the making of food policy,” said Dr. Wallinga, “which is basically what’s happened in the past. At the least it’s been very limited; there has been some input in terms of the nutrition programs in the farm bill, but there haven’t been any health experts, obesity experts, public health experts or researchers talking about commodity crop policies. We can’t afford to do that anymore. We’re simply at too big of a crisis point, where the policies we have aren’t benefiting Americans but are actually hurting healthcare by helping to drive this huge epidemic of obesity and all the expensive diseases that come from it.
“The other thing is that farmers need to be actively engaged as part of this conversation about how to produce healthy food, in a way that keeps farmers on the land, because right now they’re disappearing. And the farmers that are disappearing are exactly the ones that would be best suited for increasing things like fruits and vegetables; they’re small- or medium-scale farmers who still have control over their own operations. They’re farmers who are open to new ideas and growing new things.”
In the end, what has to change is that healthy foods need production encouragement, from the top down. “We could have policies that support farmers in producing healthy foods, but we’ve done just the opposite,” Dr. Wallinga pointed out. “We’ve got policies that discourage farmers from producing healthy foods.
“The work that we’ve been doing, and the conferences we’ve been co-hosting, is all about finding a win-win where we create an agriculture that produces not only food that people need to eat but food grown in ways that nourish long-term health both of the population and of the environment and is also sustainable.”
To find out more about Dr. Wallinga and the work of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, visit www.iatp.org.