How Agricultural Policies Affect Nutrition

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The recent passage of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (also known as the Farm Bill) provides a new opportunity to examine the intrinsic relationship between agriculture and nutrition. Increased agricultural productivity and maintaining good nutrition are acutely interrelated when it comes to addressing health issues in America. Although individual food choices can be influenced by a number of different drivers, agricultural policy is certainly one of those drivers.

It has been posited that current agricultural policies contribute to increased consumption of less healthy foods and increased rates of obesity by making certain commodities more abundant and therefore cheaper. Many agricultural policies and programs were developed when prices for crops and livestock were fragile and could bottom out, leaving farmers desperate for income to support their families. Subsidies were created as a means of supporting farmers and the crops that they produce and as a way to provide a reliable and secure food source for Americans.1 Government funds are provided to farmers to supplement their income and influence the cost and supply of commodities. Subsidies have tended to promote overproduction, leaving excess commodities available for both human and animal consumption, often at a lower cost.2 Traditional subsidy programs primarily support production of eight major commodity crops, many falling into the grain category: barley, corn, cotton, oats, rice, sorghum, soybeans, and wheat.1

Adjusting agricultural policies and programs to produce more crops that are currently deficient in the American diet may offer a partial solution to America’s high obesity rates. The high nutrient density of fruits and vegetables is well known, as is the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and decreased risk of certain chronic diseases and obesity.3,4 Recognizing that the high price and limited availability of fruits and vegetables contributes to their under consumption, we must determine how to allocate funds to best promote healthy diets in the U.S. This may include providing support and incentives to fruit and vegetable growers or enhancing nutrition education and promotion of fruit and vegetable consumption. While many articles have opined that shifting subsidies to more fruit and vegetable crops to increase productivity and decrease the cost of fruits and vegetables could positively impact obesity in the U.S., other research has indicated that even eliminating all current subsidy programs would not have a significant influence on obesity rates.5 Other changes may still be possible that would have a beneficial effect on obesity. For example, government limits on plantings could be eased so that farmers could convert or lease part or all of their land to fruit or vegetable production while still being able to participate in existing agricultural programs that assist farmers.

Whether agricultural policies contribute to obesity or not and by how much, many positive changes are on the horizon for future agricultural policies. The current Farm Bill contains major cost reforms that eliminate or consolidate some agricultural subsidy programs, such as direct payments—a nearly $5 billion-a-year subsidy paid to farmers and landowners whether they produce crops or not. When the newly passed Farm Bill expires at the end of 2018, Americans will be ready to consider even more reforms that reposition the U.S. agricultural system to address the changing needs of consumers and the marketplace and lead to the improved health of all Americans. We must reexamine agricultural policies to find opportunities to continue to make the policies more efficient and to promote healthful diets. U.S. agricultural programs could not only supply sufficient food, but also increase the production of foods that are more nutrient-dense while making them more readily available for consumer purchase. Continued research will help us understand how agricultural policies affect the food environment and dietary and lifestyle choices so we can institute policies that change the American population’s diet meaningfully.

1.         Grandi SM, Franck C. Agricultural subsidies: Are they a contributing factor to the American obesity epidemic? Archives of Internal Medicine. 2012;172(22):1754-1755.

2.         Peet R, Robbins P, Watts MJ. Global Political Ecology. Taylor & Francis e-Library; 2011.

3.         Liu RH. Health-promoting components of fruits and vegetables in the diet. Advances in Nutrition. 2013;4(3):384s-392s.

4.         Hood C, Martinez-Donate A, Meinen A. Promoting healthy food consumption: A review of state-level policies to improve access to fruits and vegetables. WMJ. 2012;111(6):283-288.

5.         Alston JM, Sumner DA, Vosti SA. Farm subsidies and obesity in the United States: National evidence and international comparisons. Food Policy. 2008;33:470-479.

 

The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is a not-for-profit, professional scientific society dedicated to bringing together the world's top researchers to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition. ASN has more than 5,000 members in the U.S. and around the world working throughout government, clinical practice, academia and industry to conduct research that helps all individuals lead healthier lives.

 


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