I read an interesting article in the Times this morning about the link between the farm bill and obesity. An obesity researcher, Adam Drewnowski, from the University of Washington set out to learn why the most reliable predictor of obesity in America today is a person’s wealth.
Drewnowski gave himself a hypothetical dollar to spend, using it to purchase as many calories as he possibly could. He discovered that he could buy the most calories per dollar in the middle aisles of the supermarket, among the towering canyons of processed food and soft drink. (In the typical American supermarket, the fresh foods — dairy, meat, fish and produce — line the perimeter walls, while the imperishable packaged goods dominate the center.) Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.
The article’s author, Michael Pollan, suggests we see so much of this crap on our store shelves because the US farm bill encourages the production of the ingredients that go in these foods and excludes healthier products. He goes so far as to suggest that our current farm bill is not only bad for our waistlines but also the global economy, immigration, and the environment. I do not disagree. The biggest roadblock to changing the farm bill may be Americans’ apathy.
If the quintennial antidrama of the “farm bill debate” holds true to form this year, a handful of farm-state legislators will thrash out the mind-numbing details behind closed doors, with virtually nobody else, either in Congress or in the media, paying much attention. Why? Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues. Since we aren’t paying attention, they pay no political price for trading, or even selling, their farm-bill votes.
The good news is that environmentalists are beginning to organize around this debate as well as American’s who vote with their fork and even the World Trade Organization. This, however, is not enough. The poor and poorly educated historically purchase the cheapest calories regardless of quality and nutritional value. Therefore, it is important to have real farm bill debate.
I read today that Toyota has overtaken General Motors in sales for the first time. What is wrong with us? Our education system is nearly the worst in the first world while we hemmorage talent, business, and innovation to competing nations. We need to pull our heads out of the sand in which they are stuck, clear the proverbial cobwebs, and get to work. The farm bill is the way it is because we’re beholden to special interests and our people are, quite frankly, undereducated and apathetic (and pathetic). It would be disingenuous to blame these problems on the current administration. However, their failed domestic and international policies and huge expenditures of cash on an unnecessary war aren’t helping to fix the problems in which we find ourselves.