Conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis are strongly correlated with excess poundage and run up medical bills of nearly $150 billion every year. The government has poured billions of dollars into dietary campaigns, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new MyPlate recommendation (half of daily food consumption should be fruits and vegetables) to programs aimed at providing more produce in schools and in military cafeterias.
Agricultural subsidies undercut those efforts by skewing the market in favor of unhealthful calories. Much of the food we have to choose from—and how much it costs—is determined by the 1,770-page, almost $300-billion Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (commonly known as the “farm bill”). This piece of legislation, up for renewal this year, covers everything from nutrition assistance programs to land conservation efforts.The largest problem with trying to address the Farm Bill's many flaws is that it is so large and covers so much ground. It's easy enough to find it online and read it... but how many people are going to do that? So while people talk about elements within it all the time - food stamps, nutritional assistance, food safety, conservation, and subsidies - few realize that this bill even exists. And yet it is central to so many debates - all controversial, and all politically tied to planks in every platform.
For most people, finding out what's what is hard. Trying to slog through it or read other opinions on it usually results in throwing one's hands up in despair, and voting on other issues. People tend to prefer to let their party frame the problems while ignoring the root problems describing in that Scientific American editorial. In an election year (which is coincidentally exactly when these Farm Bills seem to come up for renewal), it's all but impossible to have an intelligent conversation about the policies that need to be changed.
But actually changing policy is only half the problem anyway, when it comes to addressing obesity and health. Many folks claim that if the government stayed out of things and let people make up their own minds about things, that people would make the better decisions for themselves. I find this theory does not often play out that way, as people tend to be short-sighted, self-destructive, and prone to rationalization. In addition to sound policies creating a healthier marketplace, people need to focus on their habits, too - which really is (or should be) beyond the scope of our government.
Science is always inexact, and the human body is one of the most complex of complex systems - even more complex that food policy legislation! While I like to think I'm smart and capable of sorting these things out, I personally get a lot of information from friends who write more intelligently on this (like Chef Shawn) or defer to folks who write about managing their own small farms (like Sharon Astyk of Casaubon's Book). It's a lot of work, but I suspect that anyone who digs in and asks questions will learn that most of the hotly debated issues that we keep battling would solve themselves if we paid more attention to this one.