Do Farm Subsidies Cause Diabetes?

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By Gillie Houston Posted July 19, 2016

A study finds that we're funding unhealthy foods.

A portion of all U.S. tax dollars goes towards supporting farmers financially, which prevents food shortages and shuttered growing operations—something everyone can get behind, right? Not so fast. In a recent paper published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal, the authors delve into the world of farm subsidies, and particularly the billions of tax dollars going towards the growth of crops that could pose health threats.

The study sought to determine whether or not subsidies encourage the excessive consumption of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, in direct contrast with the American nutritional guidelines. Researchers from Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed the daily diets of over 10,000 adults via a federal health survey, and determined the amount and variety of subsidized food consumed in a 24-hour period.

What they found was that the average American diet favors potentially harmful subsidized crops, and our tax dollars could directly be leading to their increased consumption. The authors point out that between 1995 and 2010, $170 billion in government subsidies were spent on "financing the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy, and livestock"—all of which contribute to foods that pose a heightened health risk.

The authors conclude that "higher consumption of calories from subsidized food commodities was associated with a greater probability of some cardiometabolic risks." In simpler terms, much of the food growth being financed by U.S. taxpayers could be having a negative impact on the health of the nation as a whole. Study author K.M. Venkat Narayan of Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health says their results indicate that government funding increases the production—and correspondingly, consumption—of foods that have contributed to the Type 2 diabetes epidemic, which costs the U.S. $245 billion dollars a year.

While the study authors acknowledge the diets involved in the story were limited in scope to a 24-hour period, and therefore could vary over time, this data could still be used to impact the public perception of how tax money is spent on agriculture. Others point out that there are so many social and biological factors that contribute to the consumption of less healthful foods, that subsidies can't really be to blame. As University of Texas professor Raj Patel writes in an editorial piece accompanying the study, "Commodity subsidies are a small part of a bigger problem."

Patel suggests one way to begin to solve this consumption problem "would be to limit demand by restricting the advertising of highly processed food." So, the first step to limiting the intake of these products could be getting the celebrities who endorse them, like Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, to get behind something more healthful instead.

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