The Brass Tack

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Obesity and economics

Posted by srconstantin on July 15, 2009

The New Yorker has a generally good article about obesity. Most of the points made are common knowledge and I agree with them. People have gotten fatter in the past few decades not because the nation’s willpower has suddenly been sapped by pod people, but because calorie-dense food has become much more abundant, and because humans are always easily manipulated psychologically by supersizing and the like.

But there’s too much emphasis in the article, I think, on the sinister influence of the agriculture and food-processing industries, and the suggestion that governments can encourage better eating and fitness by regulating food production. Yes, we could stop subsidizing corn and soy, and I think that argument has gained enough ground in the public imagination that it might one day actually happen. Yes, local governments could make an effort to make cities more walkable and bikeable and to do something about the food deserts in poor neighborhoods where the only thing to eat is a HoneyBun from the convenience store. (Even in my home neighborhood, if my family didn’t have a car, I’d almost be living like that.)

But when you come down to it, fattening food is a matter of resource constraints. To not be fat, you need to eat meat and vegetables. (Yes, or beans, tempeh, and vegetables). Now we all know that meat is less land-efficient than grain: meat provides about 1200 calories per acre per day, while grain and vegetables produce 6000 calories per acre. That’s a common argument for vegetarianism: you can feed the world better on veggies than meat. But it’s more complicated than that. That 6000 calories per acre per day is about the output of a nice organic vegetable plot; but a US corn farmer produces much more — 26,301 calories per day. Corn is a C4 plant, which means it can grow with much less water than most garden vegetables. Also, fruits and vegetables are still harvested by hand, which makes them more expensive. Sugars and grains are probably the most efficient crops in the world: energy-dense, drought-tolerant, and capable of being harvested and processed mechanically. They’re intrinsically cheaper, even if we had the best food policy in the world. Eating efficiently means eating grain and sugar; eating for leanness means wasting land, labor, and water on meat and vegetables.

It’s worth taking seriously the contention that it’s all right for everyone to get fatter. After all, negative perceptions of fat come from the association with gluttony and the lack of self-control. But experiment has shown that given the right environment, we’re all gluttons, so maybe that association is mistaken and we should quit picking on the plump. My problem with that tack, though, is that it’s not all about perception: obesity really is linked with disease. And as long as the rich are still mostly thin, this remains an inequity issue.

(I don’t think bans or taxes on fattening foods are the solution. Business will outwit them. Trans fat free foods just replace the trans fats with saturated fat; the trans fats were put there in the first place to avoid having to put saturated fat on the label. Also, fast food taxes amount to a punishment to the poor. And there’s an individualist case to be made that the government has no business telling an individual what to eat or what to weigh.)

If we want to make it affordable to eat well in the US, maybe public education, better urban policy, and an end to subsidies will be enough. But if we want to talk about global health, we’d need technology. As the New Yorker article writes, in developing countries “People on modest incomes suddenly find a cheap, calorie-packed diet within their grasp and make the most of it as soon as they can,” they write. “Unfortunately this means sacrificing many elements that are nutritionally more valuable.” The only real solution would be to make protein and vegetables competitive with grains in terms of price. If we could make in vitro meat cost-effective, one day a skinless chicken breast might be as cheap as an order of fries. (And factory-grown meat doesn’t torture animals.) We’d also need to really et aquaculture off the ground. And we’d need a new green revolution for non-starchy vegetables so they could be harvested more cheaply and watered with less. It’s going to take a whole lot more than a rooftop garden to do this.

Edit: A Grand Mute Proof notes that “virtuous,” healthy, organic food is just as corporate as any other kind. The narrative of food reform is usually painted as a few altruistic veggie-growing mavericks taking on Big Food. But the fact is, industries like to be funded (which is why the CEO of Stonyfield Farm is working with Alice Waters to increase federal funding for healthier school lunches.) To some extent that’s not terrible, as you actually need economies of scale if the goal is to democratize healthy food. If the food movement has pushed big companies to develop healthier foods, that’s a success. On the other hand, to some extent it’s simple corporate greenwashing, which too many idealists fall for.

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4 Responses to “Obesity and economics”

  1. […] Comments Obesity and economic… on “They can stuff their [f…James Hanley on Owners, not patronsgrandmute on […]

  2. […] for two great posts to read this afternoon, you should head over to the Brass Tack’s place for her great post critiquing The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolhert’s review of recent obesity-related books, […]

  3. Grand Poobah said

    I think you’re a bit too ready to acquit the food and restaurant industries. The New Yorker article mentions that the increase in obesity was very slight from 1950 to 1980, and only started climbing dramatically since then. Most of the factors commonly cited as contributing to the obesity epidemic – increasing reliance on cars, TV and (later) computers replacing more physical entertainment, biotechnology creating agricultural surplus, the two-earner household increasing the number of meals eaten out – have been on the rise more or less continuously since 1950. They don’t explain the inflection point around 1980. In fact, one factor – the general rise in income – actually stopped in this country at about that time: it’s well known that median real wages stagnated in the Reagan years.

    So what happened in the eighties? Fast-food restaurants and food processors began a more or less deliberate campaign to make people eat as much as possible. Portions have increased, and increased dramatically. And I don’t think we can explain this away as changing tastes. Corn makers, faced with a product with limited demand, figured out how to turn it into something with nigh-unlimited demand (HFCS). McDonalds exploited a flaw in human psychology to get people to buy ever more gigantic portions. These were deliberate actions, by no means unavoidable, and they could be stopped.

    I disagree with you on the difficulty of taxing junk. Say we taxed simple sugars, simple starches and saturated fats at five or ten cents per hundred calories. How would food makers avoid these taxes? Your trans fats example doesn’t really seem to hold up. That was a case of an artificial substance being introduced before the scientific apparatus to test it really existed. But comparable modern substitutes have been adequately tested, and often soundly rejected (think of Olestra). If all they do is replace simple sugars and bad fats with an equivalently caloric amount of complex carbs and good fats, and manage to make it just as tasty, we’ve still managed to lower cholesterol levels and reduce insulin spikes. But something tells me that they can’t – that the haywire human reward mechanisms simply won’t be as affected by food less capable of exploiting it.

    • thebrasstack said

      I agree with you that the inflection point in the eighties was caused by food manufacturers.

      I don’t like taxing consumption because that’s regressive in itself, and especially consumption of something consumed disproportionately by the poor.

      I also don’t know about hobbling an industry that badly; would we really save as much in health costs as we would lose from lower revenues for food companies? Yes, in theory a blanket per-calorie tax on sugar, starch, and saturated fat would force people to eat differently (unlike, say, a soda tax; people would drink Gatorade.) But I’m scared to meddle that profoundly with how people eat. It gives me the willies… the same as if you were to dictate (through taxation) how to make vacuum cleaners or cars or shampoos. You’re tinkering directly with the product for the ostensible good of the consumer — do you really want to do that? And you’re tinkering with powerful human reward systems. (Who knows. Cut out the “eatertainment” foods and you may get a spike of drug addiction or cigarette use as people replace one pleasure for another. Or you may get lower workplace productivity from your hungry, grouchy populace. Maybe there’ll be a slight effect on crime — the Twinkie Defense in reverse. I’m half joking, but the point is you’re tweaking behavior you don’t even understand.)

      Ultimately I think it’s dangerous, perhaps impossible, to try to manipulate “haywire human reward systems,” because humans are unpredictable. Though maybe that’s just my inner sugar-loving glutton talking.

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