Obesity in America: Are Factory Farms, Big Pharma and Big Food to Blame?
28 Oct, 2010
One third of our economy thrives on making people sick and fat. Big Farming grows 500 more calories per person per day than 25 years ago because they get paid to grow extra food even when it is not needed. The extra corn (sugar) and soy (fat) are turned into industrial processed food and sugar-sweetened beverages—combinations of fat, sugar and salt that are proven to be addictive. These subsidized ($288 billion) cheap, low-quality foods are heavily marketed ($30 billion) and consumed by our ever-widening population with an obesity rate approaching three out of four Americans. The more they eat, the fatter they become. The fatter they become the more they develop heart disease, diabetes, cancer and a myriad of other chronic ailments.
Today, one in 10 Americans have diabetes. By 2050 one in three Americans will have diabetes. The sicker our population, the more medications are sold for high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and many other lifestyle-driven diseases. The Toxic Triad of Big Farming, Big Food, and Big Pharma profits from creating a nation of sick and fat citizens.
This structure is built into the very fabric of our economy and culture. It could be called the medical, agricultural, food industrial complex. It is what is known as “structural violence”–the social, political, economic and environmental conditions that foster and promote the development of disease.
But there is a way to turn the Toxic Triad into a Health Trinity. Through innovation and creativity we can create a new economy based on products and services that make people thin and healthy instead of sick and fat. Business can do well by doing good! We just have to change the default choices and behaviors both at a policy and a grass-roots level. I learned a few things about this in Haiti from my friend Paul Farmer.
Addressing Structural Violence
When I was in Haiti in January 2010, after the earthquake, I visited Zanmi Lansante, the health center started in the 1980′s by Dr. Paul Farmer. Much to the world’s amazement he showed how, in one of the poorest places on the planet, he could successfully treat complex infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and AIDS. The conventional wisdom was that poor people sleeping on mud floors would not take complex regimens of medication so we should essentially leave them to die. The problem wasn’t that doctors didn’t know what medications to prescribe, but that poverty and social conditions such as lack of access to health care, food, shelter, jobs, clean water and sanitation prevented effective treatment.
Paul Farmer didn’t accept this. Through his foundation, Partners in Health, with the help of the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation, he demonstrated the flaws in conventional wisdom and has successfully treated “impossible to treat patients in impossible conditions” around the world. He did it because he addressed one simple thing: Structural violence.
To successfully treat people in Haiti, Paul Farmer did not simply focus on what medication regimens were needed to cure tuberculosis or treat AIDS. He “accompanied” patients into their lives. By using local, trained community health workers he helped patients change the conditions of their lives, find shelter, food, jobs, clean water and sanitation–all necessary “structural” changes that allowed for effective treatment. He addressed the system, not just the symptom.
We must do the same if we are serious about addressing the wave of chronic illness sweeping across the world. We must focus, not only on the individual, but the system that has created 1.7 billion overweight citizens worldwide if we are to slow and reverse the national and global epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease threatening not only our health, but the survival of our economies.
Big Food, Farming And Pharma: How They Are Killing Us
The default condition of a human being in the 21st century is to be obese. Nearly 75 percent of Americans are overweight. This is not an accident. Specific, traceable forms of structural violence promoted by Big Food, Big Farming, Big Pharma (see my recent blog on “Dangerous Spin Doctors“) and government polices is leading to the global spread of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Current food policies and subsidies encourage Big Farming to overproduce corn and soy which are then used to create sugary, fatty, factory-made, industrial food products sold as processed, fast, or junk food as I noted above. The government essentially stands in line next to you in fast food chains helping you buy cheeseburgers, fries, and cola. But in the produce isle of your supermarket you are on your own–the 2010 Farm Bill offers little support to farmers for growing fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole foods.
The resultant omnipresence of cheap, high-calorie, nutrient-poor processed foods (or “food like substances”) in homes, schools, government institutions and food programs, and on every street corner creates default food choices that drive obesity. How can you eat fruits and vegetables when you can’t buy them in your neighborhood convenience store or their price has increased five times as fast as sugar-sweetened beverages?