By James C. Webster

 © 2011 Agri-Pulse Communications 

WASHINGTON, May 19 – An Institute of Medicine committee seeking ways to accelerate efforts to prevent obesity found little support Thursday for the widely-touted thesis that farm price support programs are the cause of growing obesity and related diseases in the U.S.

 The committee, chaired by former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, heard instead from experts who doubted the linkage, repeated often by critics of modern agriculture, but who suggested that additional research is needed to establish how any changes in agricultural policy might relate to the nation’s interest in obesity prevention. 

I’m aware of criticisms of commodity policy and allegations that they contribute to obesity,” said Erik Olsen, senior vice president of government policy and programs at Feeding America, the nation’s largest food assistance organization. “But if you make really strong recommendations that [suggest] they cause obesity,” he said, “people will want really strong evidence.” Asked if he were aware of research that found a connection between farm programs and obesity, Olsen replied, “I have not seen anything to establish that.”  

It would be more productive, he suggested, for the committee to look for ways to create incentives to produce food that people need to eat more of, such as fruits and vegetables. Olsen also offered the view that restrictions on the kind of food available through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps), such as soft drinks and other less nutritious food, might be counterproductive. “If you come out with a recommendation that Congress should restrict the ability of SNAP recipients to purchase certain items, you help create the aura that something is wrong with the program and you encourage Congress to change it.” 

He added, “If you just restrict choice, you’re not going to change behavior. You’re just going to shift the way they buy. Any kind of restriction raises the potential for stigma. There is not enough participation now.” 

Agricultural economists Darryll E. Ray of Tennessee and Helen H. Jensen of Iowa State offered similar perspectives. Ray said that grain and soybeans had become less expensive because of the combination of agricultural research policy that helped improve productivity and price support policy designed to encourage production – “a policy of plenty that we have had since the beginning of this country.” He said that in turn allowed livestock producers to get feed cheaper than the full cost of grain and soybean meal. “That greatly hastened the concentration of feeding operations and associated problems,” he said, “but you don’t take that too far and conclude that if you didn't have these policies you would not have these problems.” Even absent commodity supports, he said, “cattle, chickens and hogs would not have gone to primarily grazing and range operations. Prices would have been higher for whole grains but sweeteners and cooking oils still would be plentiful at reasonable prices,” he said. Technology and cheap fossil fuels also influenced production, Ray added.  

Jensen said that it is “not clear that agricultural policy has contributed to the change in sweetener consumption” although U.S. sugar policy has made sugar “significantly more expensive than high fructose corn syrup.” When the soft drink industry began using HFCS instead of sugar, “carbonated beverages became really cheap after 1978 relative to the cost of cereals, baked goods and sweets, which became relatively more expensive.” But because the farm price of corn is such a small share of the retail soda price, “the correlation between corn prices and carbonated drinks is quite small. Any agricultural policy that affects corn will affect the price of HFCS but will have little effect on the price of beverages in the marketplace,” she said. 

Jensen finds little relationship between obesity and farm price support and protection in other countries. “Even if the level of support is similar, the rates of obesity are all over the map,” she says. “Australia has high rates of obesity but low levels of farm support and protection.”

 Asked why has there been a big increase in consumption of sweetened beverages, she said, “I think that a lot of the underlying factors that relate to changes in food consumption tend to amplify and augment the changes in the beverage industry.” Soft drinks are “convenient, portable and taste better with refrigeration but don't require refrigeration. Accompanying those attributes is availability. They are accessible in vending machines and in ways that don't have parallels for milk and dairy foods.” In addition, because of their low cost, fast food restaurants have used them to attract people into their restaurants, Jensen adds.

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