myths about the obesity crisis

I finally got around to reading Julie Guthman’s 2011 book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism.  In it Professor Guthman pokes holes in many of the tenets of conventional wisdom regarding obesity – notions that obesity is mainly a function of calories in versus calories out, that the built environment causes obesity, that obesity is necessarily the cause of disease, that eating local organic food in season will reduce obesity, and others.  One particularly interesting current of scientific findings she presents is the role of pesticides, food additives, artificial sweetners, and environmental toxins in causing obesity, a connection that fits well with otherwise puzzling trends such as the sudden upturn in extreme obesity beginning in the 80s and the appearance of obesity in infants, as well as with the common knowledge that diets don’t work.  Of course, as the subtitle suggests, she connects all this with the role of capitalism in using human bodies as a fix to overcome its structural crisis (you’ll have to read the book to get the details on that one).

Most relevant to agriculture is her examination – or as social scientist Guthman would phrase it, “complication” – of the claim that crop subsidies create cheap junky food.  The original idea is that sugar and corn are cheap because of crop subsidies, creating the plethora of empty-calorie snack foods and soft drinks that attract unwary shoppers on a budget, while more wholesome foods are avoided as less affordable.  In reality it is modern food production methods that are at the root of food prices and availability.

For starters, the very nature of commodities like grain and sugar makes them cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables.  Grain farming has become completely mechanized, with next to no labor used in harvest or horticultural practices, and the finished products can be handled similar to non-food commodities.  By contrast, most fresh fruits and vegetables are hand-harvested, there is often transplanting, pruning, thinning, and weeding involved, the products must be handled in a cold chain where they are kept refrigerated from field to supermarket, the ones that do not meet cosmetic standards are culled, and the short shelf life necessitates a fast track to retail.  Nevertheless, as with commodity crops, the modern price of fresh produce is down from the historic price, even without subsidies.  Food in general is cheaper.

What makes it cheaper?  It has to do in large part with the incentives of farmers.  As Guthman points out, farmers are price takers.  They have only their crops to sell to make their money, and most do not have a way to hold their crops back from the market waiting for a better deal.  Thus, distributors with the infrastructure to handle and store the products set the farm gate price.  Furthermore, consumer demand does not expand to absorb surpluses, in spite of price drops.

Farmers have sunken costs in land and already-planted crops.  Their only means to get a return is by producing more output as individuals, despite the drop in price caused by the sum of all producers cranking out surpluses.  For a farmer, any return is preferable to zero.  Thus, farmers seek investments, techniques, efficiency advances, cheaper labor, and new technologies to squeeze out that extra increment of yield per unit of input, and even increase their output further to make up for the fall in prices.  Government policies of increasing yield play right into this dynamic, from Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz’s 1970s dictum to farmers to plant fencerow-to-fencerow, to the everyday work of state and Federal research laboratories (such as the one where I have a job) that is conducted to increase farm productivity.

It is this ever-increasing production that has brought down food prices.  Cheap food is another goal of a government that is overseeing stagnating wages, most notably in the very food sector itself, but cheap food has had devastating consequences for farmers.  In the 1930s, crop subsidies were first introduced, not as a way to provide cheap food commodities, but as an aid to farmers to deal with food being too cheap.  While the reality of government payments has been problematic, with the funds often going to enrich wealthier farmers rather than to prevent destitution of farmers who are struggling, subsidies can be viewed as an effect of cheap food, not the cause.

As for the availability of junk food, manufacturers are always seeking ways to push against the limits of consumer demand.  Snack foods are engineered to contain maximum temptation and addictive quality, to bypass rational decisions regarding nutritional value.  The highest return on investment, and thus the greatest incentive for production, will come from foods that have the cheapest ingredients and most reliably trigger the eating response.  Thus, the widespread availability of junk food is a result of the capitalist system itself, not of government programs to mitigate the excesses of capitalism.

Guthman reserves some of her harshest criticism for the alternative food movement – health food, organic food, local food, artisanal food, even food justice.  I had noted problems with the organic food economy starting in grad school.  Word then was that organics would take off if they could just solve the price issue.  At the same time, the Soil Association was pointing out that we pay too little for food to make agriculture sustainable.  From my perspective living in a low-income neighborhood of marginal housing and hearing arguments such as as the downside of cracking down on older, highly polluting cars driven mostly by low-income drivers, I concluded that the solution was not to cheapen food, supply substandard housing, and weaken environmental standards, but rather to abolish low incomes, so to speak.  Later, when I heard about a plan to start a farmers market in Oakland to bring black farmers into town to sell to low-income black urban residents, I wondered how a community with few resources could support farmers trying to support themselves.  Not surprisingly the market failed.

Guthman articulates a more comprehensive analysis of my basic insights.  While the various currents of the alternative food movement started out as a pushback against problematic practices in the food industry, they ran up against the power of monied interests and re-channeled their efforts toward individual actions.  Instead of getting at the root of the problem, they have largely become lifestyle choices of the upper classes.  They allow wealthy consumers to opt out of the unhealthy aspects of the food system, to feel good while eating well – the dietary equivalent of NIMBYism – without challenging this system that condemns less-advantaged populations to poor health.

Weighing In serves as an important course correction to efforts by well-meaning activists who want to transform the food system.  Using our dollars to change a system that encourages individual options only plays into that very system.  It is worth our while to pay attention to social science researchers like Guthman.

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