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Cut Subsidies, Save on Health Care

July 19, 2011

Part Two of the “What would you cut” saga, wherein I attempt to kill to birds (very expensive, wasteful, more-harm-than-good birds) with one stone: agricultural subsidies.

Tackling this topic has proven a huge time commitment for me for two reasons: first, because I just can’t stop referring back my own time at USDA*; and second, because I can’t stop referring to the proven relationship between growth hormones and pesticides and cancers and hormone disorders – the American Cancer Society, Cancer Prevention Coalition, European Union, and Canada are all as alarmist as I.

This is what it boils down to: Americans are being billed for cheap crops, reduced to cheap choices, suffer chronic health consequences, and are then billed again for medical treatment.

This is what cheap food costs us:

$5 billion
Direct payments issued under the 2011 Farm Bill
Environmental Working Group

90,000
Number of farm subsidy checks written to city-dwelling farm owners and investors in 2011

$26.5 billion
Amount saved by chicken, pork, beef and corn syrup producers between 1997 and 2005, thanks to Farm Bill subsidies. Estimate by Tom Philpott, citing a Tufts University study

$50 billion
Federal government subsidies for animal feed crops (such as corn and soy)
Time Magazine

Americans are faced with an onslaught of media messages that have convinced us we need more protein than we actually do. Both the USDA and CDC (which do not have high standards when it comes to “healthy”) recommend 5-6.5 ounces of protein per day. The American Meat Institute boasts on its website that its members produced 92.1 billion pounds of meat last year. Divide that number by 307 million Americans and the average daily consumption is more than twice the recommended amount.

There is an ad campaign running that tells us “Whether it’s corn sugar or cane sugar, your body can’t tell the difference. Sugar is sugar.” That’s true, but subsidies to corn mass producers have kept prices at mere fractions of what they should be. So food manufacturers use high fructose corn syrup in everything from your morning cereal to your afternoon soda and your goodnight ice cream novelty. Corn syrup is a cheap vice. It’s not bad for you if you stay under a daily limit, but unless you made it yourself, it’s got corn syrup.

Obesity, on the other hand, is no cheap vice:

42%
Annual estimated medical bill increase of an obese person, “An obese person will have an average of $8,315 in medical bills a year in 2018 compared with $5,855 for an adult at a healthy weight. That’s a difference of $2,460.”
David Stipp, Miller-McCune

7 out of ten
states with the highest poverty levels are also among the 10 states with the highest obesity rates, according to a 2009 NYT report by Nicholas Bakalar

$147 billion
Obesity-related 2008 medical costs, almost 10% of all medical expenses
CDC

$344 billion
Estimated 2018 obesity-related medical costs, more than 21% of all medical expenses

$1.8 trillion
Annual medical costs associated with chronic (but almost entirely preventable) diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer
Nanci Hellmich, USA Today

Michelle Obama has been pushing veggies, but she hasn’t just said that you should cut back on meat and dairy. Even though the Farm Bill encourages the production of (my estimate, but easily) twice as much meat as is sustainable, their nutrition recommendations are telling.
“In 2009, 1.5% of the nation’s harvested cropland (4.4 million acres) was used to grow vegetables. How much was used to grow feed for domestically consumed animals?” “Answer: 50% (149 million acres)”
Environmental Working Group

*Of course, the insertion of personal reflections in this post are a cheap ploy to keep your interest, and I have so many hilarious and baffling stories from my days at USDA. I quit when I realized that the USDA was the most self-hating of any agency in the federal government. It is served by the most conservative employees, each knowing that he/she serves the second largest and second most wasteful Department – DoD is the biggest and the most. The USDA is filled with Ron Swanson reluctant bureaucrats.

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