Subsidies make consumers fat? Think again.

Mar 9, 2012

—Research shows subsidies have minimal effect on consumer waistlines.

Pundits, politicians, bloggers, foodies and general talking heads in our well-fed, food-safe society like claiming ag subsidies make Americans fat. But a new report counters this popular “argument” by looking at the facts.

The report—“How have agricultural policies influenced caloric consumption in the United States?”— was led by Cornell University’s Bradley Rickard, an associate professor focused on food and agricultural policies.

The report’s results indicate subsidies have an exceptionally tiny impact on consumers’ caloric intake.

Following a series of simulated scenarios, the report found that if subsidies for items like corn, soy and other “oilseeds” were removed, the average American consumer’s annual calorie consumption would decrease by about 1,500 calories.

In real-world terms, a single day of fasting every year would have a greater impact on reducing consumer calorie intake than the removal of oilseed subsidies.

The research also reported that if all ag subsidies were removed—including trade barriers to foreign foodstuffs—the average American’s annual calorie consumption would actually increase by about 3,000 calories. This increase would be due to consumers replacing more expensive grain-based items in their diet for more calorie-dense dairy and sugar products which have artificially high retail prices right now.

Again, putting it into real-world terms, this increase would only amount to one or two extra dinners at a restaurant than average in the course of a year.

The revelation that removing subsidies would actually increase calorie intake (even if on such a small scale) flies in the face of the popular “subsidies make Americans fat” argument. Though many have done it, Michael Pollan—author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” among other popular food-related books—is perhaps the most well-known public decrier of agricultural subsidies.

Pollan, who is heralded in the mainstream media as a food expert, despite having no food or agricultural training of any kind, has recommended fruit and vegetables be subsidized and fat taxed. In a 2010 television interview, he lambasted corn and soy subsidies while promoting one of his books.

“Right now we subsidize the least healthy calories in the super market. We subsidize high-fructose corn syrup—this is with our Farm Bill—and we subsidize hydrogenated soy oil. And we don’t need to do that.”

Pollan might be pleased by one element of Rickard’s study. In the scenario where all ag subsidies were removed, projected consumption of fruits and vegetables did increase. But whatever joy that might bring would be tempered by the study’s resounding conclusion: subsidies “have not had a significant effect on caloric consumption.”

Rickard expanded on this in the study’s conclusion. “…[O]ur research also provides evidence that the impact of agricultural policies on obesity rates diminished between 1990 and 2004.”

The study conceded agricultural commodities have become more abundant and cheaper in the past 50 years.

This improvement was attributed to increased use of efficient technology. Rickard also pointed out that such gains in the agricultural production ability have alleviated hunger and poverty around the world.

Rickard closed the study, saying “…it would be a mistake to seek to oppose and slow agricultural innovation with a view to reducing obesity rates.” — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor