A favorite claim of elitist food commentators like Michael Pollan is that subsidies for farmers are contributing to obesity. Leaving a wider discussion on national farm policy for another day, some economists from Cornell University, the US Department of Agriculture, and the University of California at Davis actually examined that claim—and found it lacking.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the foodies are on the wrong side of the facts. Indeed, researchers found that removing all U.S. farming supports would actually increase average calorie consumption:
[I]f all subsidies were magically erased— including trade barriers — the typical American adult would actually respond by eating about 3,000 to 3,900 additional calories a year: A cutting back on grains and meats, today artificially cheap, would be more than offset by the eating of more sugar and dairy products, now artificially expensive.
Additionally, the researchers found that agricultural subsidies were in decline while the obesity rate rose, making claims of a causal link implausible. These findings illustrate that foodie peanut gallery is guilty of over-simplifying the food system.
And of course, farm price supports aren’t the only place where the foodies go wrong. For all the hype about “eating local” and the “100-mile diet,” analyses have shown that by taking advantage of different growing seasons (for instance, by shipping New Zealand apples picked in the Southern Hemisphere summer to the U.K. during winter) carbon emissions can be reduced below “locavore” levels. Foodies are also wrong when they claim that older production methods meant that we didn’t have to worry about food safety. In fact, since 1900 deaths from foodborne illnesses are down by about a hundred-fold. Likewise, their claim that organic food is healthier is just bunk.
Whatever one thinks about farm subsidies (and there is a lot to think about), there isn’t convincing evidence that ending them is a magical cure for obesity.