Two nutritionists (Dariush Mozaffarian and Dan Glickman) have sounded the alarm about the American diet, saying bluntly what most of us know intuitively to be true:
Americans are sick — much sicker than many realize. More than 100 million adults — almost half the entire adult population — have pre-diabetes or diabetes. Cardiovascular disease afflicts about 122 million people and causes roughly 840,000 deaths each year, or about 2,300 deaths each day. Three in four adults are overweight or obese. … What is making us so sick, and how can we reverse this so we need less health care? The answer is staring us in the face, on average three times a day: our food. Poor diet is the leading cause of mortality in the United States, causing more than half a million deaths per year.
It’s fascinating to contemplate the implications. Here we are debating the healthcare system as a major political issue. Politicians on the stump are calling for this and that. And yet the number one problem with American health can be solved simply by making better choices. The best fix for the vast number of issues rests with the volition of every person.
Why isn’t it happening on its own?
The authors of this paragraph above sense that it has something to do with economics. And they are probably right about that. But rather than seek an end to agricultural subsidies (which make bad food absurdly cheap and plentiful) and the deregulation of food supply chains (which would increase access to healthier choices), our authors call for more command and control.
Taxes on sugary beverages and junk food can be paired with subsidies on protective foods like fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans, plant oils, whole grains, yogurt and fish. Emphasizing protective foods represents an important positive message for the public and food industry that celebrates and rewards good nutrition. Levels of harmful additives like sodium, added sugar and trans fat can be lowered through voluntary industry targets or regulatory safety standards.
Before we add more government force, why not experiment with what has been shown to work, namely more market forces? Corn subsidies can be abolished, as one obvious thing. No one wants to talk about that problem even though (to quote my piece from last year):
The percentage of crops devoted to corn have gone from 24% in 1999 to 30% today, more than 96% of all grains. Meanwhile, the crops devoted to soybeans, hay and wheat have all gone down, thereby increasing feed costs for ranchers and consumers. Again, this is not the market talking. This is not what any actual market players are pushing. This all results from government mandates and subsidies. Government intervention has created corn nation. We feed it to our cars, our animals, ourselves.
Truly, corn is in everything. Try to find food at the local convenience store that isn’t made of corn. It’s not easy. The other day, I ordered some brussels sprouts at a restaurant. Now that’s some good food, right? Not so much. They came fried in corn oil and then drizzled with a syrup made of corn. Amazing! How can you take a perfectly wonderful vegetable and turn it into a vessel for the delivery of corn? Americans specialize in that.
A second path would be deregulation to make it easier for products to move from farm to table without endless regulatory hectoring. Every regulation you impose on the food supply works as a kind of subsidy to highly capitalized companies that can afford the costs of compliance. Deregulation would be the best gift to small growers and ranchers (perhaps those who feed their animals something other than…corn) that you could give.
A third path would be practicing free trade. Hardly anyone talks about this but the US currently has very strict limitations on the import of sweeteners other than corn as yet another way to subsidize corn. This is why our sodas are packed with corn while sodas in the rest of the world are sweetened with genuine sugar, which is vastly healthier. It’s the same with ketchup, salad dressings, and even whipped cream. Nuts! But that’s only the beginning: US import restrictions on food are legion.
Look, this whole problem of the disastrous state of American health wasn’t always with us. As the Center for Disease Control has shown, it only became massively serious following the 1973 shift in agricultural policy that prioritized massive production of grains. That’s when the markets became insanely distorted with the central plan of producing more, more, more. The Secretary of Agriculture at the time said there was no such thing as too much.
The whole thing is remarkable. The US today complains about industrial subsidies in China and Europe but no country in the world is aggressive and profligate about agricultural subsidies as the US is today. Despite a massive health crisis, a tremendously sickened population, and being surrounded by the catastrophic results of bad government policy, there is almost no movement at all to free the market, fix the food, and get healthy again.