I saw this story about rising obesity rates and thought there must be an angle here for an economist. http://www.chicagotribune.com/health/chi-report-obesity-rising-dramatically-in-illinois-nation-20120918,0,3401712.story Maybe I am biased, but I’m thinking that one reason the obesity rate is rising is because people are incentivized (is that the right word?) to buy processed food with a lot of fillers, sugar, hydrogenated oils, and many other bad substances because they are so cheap. Of course they are cheap because the products that are used to make them (mostly corn and soy) are highly subsidized. So, if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the costs of cheap food fillers, the product cost would go up, too, right? Then there would be a more level playing field for true costs of foods, whether they be the highly processed junk or the whole foods like vegetables, fruit, etc. If food prices rise, that would impact people’s budgets, too, but is this logical? Factual? Inquiring minds want to know! ;-)
Sorry, typing too fast…if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the cost of cheap fillers went up, the product costs would go up, too, right?
Ok, here we have some huge problems with food deserts, poverty, and, as you so rightly point out, subsidies and lobbies for stuff like HFCS.
#2 says: There must be answers to this we can cite.
Have you seen King Corn?
#1 says: Well, this is one where the science isn’t complete yet. Many folks still believe that sugar is sugar, whether it comes from beets or cane or corn or apple juice or whether or not it has fancy chemical stuff done to it to make it “high fructose” instead of just regular. However, there’s some compelling (in my mind) new research that suggests that our bodies don’t understand the calorie load of things like high fructose corn syrup, or (with a stronger research base) artificial sweeteners. Therefore yes, it’s quite possible that these more processed things are making us fatter. But that’s not mainstream yet and we don’t really know.
We also know that many processed foods are processed in a way to make them addictive– to get that perfect balance of sweet, salty, fatty, and crisp, so that no, you can’t eat just one. Does that lead to over-eating? I think it’s likely, but I don’t know that’s been proven. (People could substitute with lower calorie intake later.)
We do know that you’re absolutely right about these cheap carbohydrates providing cheaper calorie loads. They also are bad for folks with insulin problems because they’re digested quicker and lead to insulin spikes. The insulin spikes then lead to weight gain and other health problems. Are they bad for folks without insulin problems, I don’t know. But, 10% of women have PCOS, so even with that alone, a lot of people are going to be affected by cheap simple carbohydrates. We do know that being poor and getting your calories from simple carbs does lead to obesity. That’s why there are a lot of obese poor people.
And absolutely, the subsidies are on grains that are not good for us. They’re not on real veggies. Without them corn and potatoes and bread would cost more, and healthier foods would be more likely to be grown (because there wouldn’t be a kick- back for planing the filler foods) and their costs would actually go down. Overall food budgets would probably increase, though if we also got rid of tariffs and embargoes, it’s hard to say what the bottom line is. Your economics logic is impeccable.
I’m sure someone has looked at the hard numbers recently, but it’s not summer so I’m not going to look them up. I do know a guy who did his dissertation on getting rid of the sugar monopoly, so people do look at these questions and put numbers on them. With the huge amount of funding going into obesity research, I’m sure there are plenty of numbers on what getting rid of the farm subsidies would do to obesity as well, though they’re really just guesstimates. (Sorry for not looking them up… it has been a crazy busy semester, and sadly the only two ask the grumpies posts left require actually knowing stuff. We have fallen down as omniscient bloggers.)