By now many of you have seen or heard about an opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times by food writer Mark Bittman, in which he advocates revamping the American diet through economic incentives and disincentives (“Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables“):
Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.
Bittman’s idea is not new, of course; many experts and policy groups have long recommended soda taxes, for example, or government-issued vouchers for farmers’ market produce, and some municipalities in the U.S. (and some countries outside the U.S.) have toyed with, or in fact implemented, such taxes or similar concepts. But Bittman’s piece is notable for making a persuasive argument for the use of taxes and subsidies to reshape our diet, systematically laying out the benefits and dispatching the arguments of potential detractors, in a widely-read newspaper.
As regular readers of TLT could probably predict, I’m fully on board with the program Bittman outlines. As he points out, economic incentives have already played a key role leading to the current public health crisis (via government corn and soy subsidies that favor the manufacture and purchase of unhealthful foods), so why not apply common sense and throw that system in reverse? As Bittman notes, staple foods like fruit, whole grains and legumes would then be as widely available as chips and soda are today:
We could sell those staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound — and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community centers.
The benefits of such a program, according to Bittman:
A 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption, which in the next decade could prevent 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving about $30 billion.
My quibbles with Bittman’s piece are these:
First, he mostly overlooks another critical factor in the obesity crisis, which is a widespread abandonment of home cooking by many Americans. (Remember the single dad on this past season’s Food Revolution, who fed his kids fast food nine times a week because he didn’t know how to cook?) Unfortunately, many Americans wouldn’t possess the necessary knowledge — or the desire — to cook up a bag of navy beans and a sack of brown rice, even if they were readily available in their neighborhood 7-11 for 5o cents a pound. Bittman does suggest that some of the funds raised by his program could be used for “recipes, cooking lessons, even cookware for those who can’t afford it,” but we’re really talking about not only the need for major cultural re-education with respect to cooking, but also a huge shift in the public’s expectation that food should always be tasty, cheap, fully prepared — and immediately available.
My deeper concern, however, is that Bittman just doesn’t want to acknowledge today’s political reality. That is, I’m glad Bittman makes the point that we will never get anywhere if we look to major food manufacturers to fix our current problems for us. As he writes:
. . . the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.
But Bittman never squarely addresses the fact that the federal government, his proposed Agent of Good, is presently hamstrung by the financial influence of the very same food industry he opposes; corporate and agricultural lobbyists would wage a full scale war, the likes of which we may not have seen, against the program he suggests.
Does that mean we shouldn’t pursue it? Of course not. But as a tiny reality check, let’s remember that the food industry, with the enthusiastic assistance of House Republicans, this year quite successfully warded off purely voluntary federal guidelines on the marketing of junk food to children. (“Score One for Big Food: Industry Preempts New Fed Guidelines on Marketing Food To Kids.“) Let’s also remember how First Lady Michelle Obama has been repeatedly bashed by the far right (“More From the Food Culture War Front“) for her Let’s Move! initiative, which, in general, promoted more parental – not governmental — involvement in kids’ food choices.
So it felt a bit like an understatement when Bittman wrote, “though [the program] would take a level of political will that’s rarely seen, it’s hardly a moonshot.” More like a Mars-shot, in my opinion.
The thing is, I’m betting that in the long run, we actually will see a program like Bittman’s instituted in this country. The skyrocketing health care costs directly attributable to obesity-related disease (which Bittman pegs at “$344 billion by 2018 — with roughly 60 percent of that cost borne by the federal government”) simply aren’t sustainable, and Bittman made no mention of another very serious problem, i.e., the national security threat posed by rising obesity rates (see my interview with “Mission Readiness,” a group of retired military generals addressing this issue, here and here).
The only question is when the political climate will be ripe for change. On a national level, I don’t feel we’re remotely there yet. My guess is that, as Bittman suggests, it will take forward-thinking city governments to first begin instituting these policies, and the revenue stream they enjoy may just be too tempting for other cash-strapped cities to ignore.
So, that’s my take. What did you think about Bittman’s piece? Share your thoughts in a comment below.
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Why do food companies sell junk? Because unhealthy commodities are highly profitable. This is in part because of their “low production cost, long shelf-life, and high retail value,” which create perverse incentives for industries to market and sell more junk. In a study highlighted in my video, Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods, researchers at the University of Cambridge stated, “Coca-Cola’s net profit margins, for example, are about a quarter of the retail price, making soft drink production, alongside tobacco production, among the most profitable industrial activities in the world.” One of the reasons production costs are so low is that we tax-payers subsidize them.
Distinguished UNC Professor of Nutrition, Barry Popkin, writes:
“For more than a century, Western governments have invested heavily in lowering the costs of animal products and some basic cash crops [such as sugar]. Accordingly, Western diets have shifted during the past century, especially after World War II, to include more animal sourced foods—meat, poultry, dairy, seafood, and eggs [as well as more sugar and corn syrup]. During this same period, however, we have begun to realize that a healthy diet actually requires fewer animal products and empty calories, and more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Redressing this balance is a complex task requiring not only a shift in agricultural investment and policy, but also changes in social preferences that have developed over decades, in part due to dollar menu meat.”
Why is chicken so cheap? In the nine years that followed the passage of the ‘96 Farm Bill, corn and soy were subsidized below the cost of production to make cheap animal feed. So, U.S. tax-payers effectively handed the chicken and pork industry around $10 billion dollars each.
What if we instead subsidized healthy foods? Or taxed harmful ones? Every dollar spent taxing processed foods or milk would net an estimated $2 in healthcare cost savings. Every dollar spent making vegetables cheaper would net $3, and subsidizing whole grains could net over a one thousand percent return on our investment.
Unfortunately, we can’t count on Big Broccoli. The produce sector lacks the extensive funding that went to create the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Egg Board.
Even if we removed the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies for animal products, it might not be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of healthier diets. According to Professor Popkin, “We have created societies in the West that value and consume meat, dairy, poultry, fish and seafood. Over several generations, a particular way of life has been promoted that has shifted expectations about diet to include large amounts of animal-sourced foods”—the concept that a meal centers around some hunk of meat.
The idea that animal products should form the basis of our diet has been scientifically debunked, but remains the social aspiration of billions of people. As we in the West slowly come to accept that our diets and eating habits are not healthy, it is to be hoped that this will change policies not only here, but throughout the world.
For more on the power Big Food’s hold over our political system, check out videos such as:
My video series on corporate influence over our federal nutrition guidelines may also be enlightening:
And if we really wanted to save our country money we could start by trying to wipe out some of our leading killer chronic diseases:
-Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.
Michael Greger M.D. FACLM
Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.