Readers Digest ran a short article in their October issue called Why That Salad Costs More than a Big Mac. The main point was:
Government subsidies help ensure that healthy food tends to cost more than meals that pack on pounds.
I completely agree with that. Unfortunately, the way they arrived at that conclusion is so wrong that I wish they hadn’t said anything at all.
What they claim
Let’s start with the food pyramid. Since it was introduced it has become shorthand for “healthy” in the U.S., and people have been eating a diet progressively more in line with the recommendations. Which seems to suggest a successful government program.
Except that in that same time, the rates of obesity and diabetes have been skyrocketing. Some people might look at this outcome and conclude that maybe the guidelines weren’t right after all. That’s just what a group of food scientists have done in an article in the journal Nutrition. You should read Tom Noughton’s review of this report. But here’s the main conclusion:
In the three decades since [the dietary guidelines known as the Food Pyramid were released], carbohydrate consumption has increased; overall fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol consumption have decreased to near or below targeted levels; caloric intake remains within recommended levels; and leisure-time physical activity has increased slightly. At the same time, scientific evidence in favor of these recommendations remains inconclusive, and we must consider the possibility that the “potential for harmful effects” has in fact been realized.
In short, Americans have on average done exactly what the guidelines say we should, and things have gotten worse.
So the Readers Digest article I mentioned uses the Federal Dietary Guidelines (aka the Food Pyramid) as its definition of “healthy”. I disagree with that and just explained why. But that is still the official government position.
Here’s the problem
The other part of that graphic shows that government subsidies focus primarily on meat and dairy. There’s no citation for that, so I went looking. I found this blog post about subsidies, which states:
About a quarter of the land in cultivation in this country is planted in corn. We spent about four billion dollars on subsidies to corn farmers last year, and about $75B over the last fifteen years or so. That is more than twice the value of any other agricultural subsidy over the same period.
There are numerous citations to source data, if you want to check those numbers. Or you can go straight to this Environmental Working Group summary of subsidies.
1 Corn Subsidies** 1,639,547 $73,775,277,671 2 Wheat Subsidies** 1,374,499 $30,726,213,559 3 Cotton Subsidies** 264,850 $29,715,272,513 4 Conservation Reserve Program 855,784 $26,057,941,270 5 Soybean Subsidies** 1,044,247 $22,776,514,081 6 Disaster Payments 1,321,411 $17,883,953,290 7 Rice Subsidies** 69,990 $12,551,853,937 8 Sorghum Subsidies** 615,604 $5,904,106,527 9 Dairy Program Subsidies 157,978 $4,799,603,993 10 Livestock Subsidies 797,725 $3,455,429,926
Dairy and Livestock are #9 and #10 on that list. I’m not clear how the Readers Digest story can show meat and dairy as having nearly three-quarters of total subsidies. (In fairness, they’re simply relaying a report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.*)
The basic premise — subsidies are going to the things that make us fat — is true. But it’s the corn, wheat and soybean that’s doing it, not the meat and dairy.
The first fruit or vegetable on that list, by the way, is apples at #18.
* Epilogue: Follow the Money
So how did the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine get their facts so wrong? Newsweek reports that:
[PCRM president Neal] Barnard has co-signed letters, on PCRM letterhead, with the leader of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, an animal-rights group the Department of Justice calls a “domestic terrorist threat.” PCRM also has ties to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. An agency called the Foundation to Support Animal Protection has distributed money from PETA to PCRM in the past and, until very recently, did both groups’ books. Barnard and PETA head Ingrid Newkirk are both on the foundation’s board.
PCRM is an activist group opposed to the use of animals in medical research. They are associated with PETA, which opposes killing animals for ethical reasons. I happen to disagree, but I can respect their positions.
Where I have a problem with them is inventing false statistics to support their cause. If they can’t make their argument without lying, there’s no point in addressing what they have to say.