Sep 222009
Authors: Erik Anderson

The latest news from the health care debate is a proposed tax on soft drinks to help pay for the $774 billion plan unveiled by Sen. Max Baucus along with fighting the burgeoning American waistline.

Until now, the health care debate has largely ignored the growing health crisis linked to the America, despite its mammoth contribution to the rising cost of health care.

A recent study showed that 30 percent of the rise in health care spending in America over the past two decades is due to obesity alone.

Diabetes is another major contributor. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in every three children born after 2000 – children who consume 10 to 15 percent of their daily calories as soft drinks and other “empty calories” – will develop Type 2 diabetes. Each of those children will cost $6,600 more a year in doctor visits and medical equipment.

If Americans were as healthy as we were thirty years ago or as Europeans are today, we could save over $1 trillion by 2050, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

A tax on soft drinks, however, is a lazy approach to this problem. America desperately needs a revolution in how we produce food.

Agriculture legislation dictates how food is produced in this country. Policies were originally designed during the New Deal era to protect farmers by stabilizing the price of commodity crops like corn and soybeans.

Since then, policy has been reengineered to drive down the price of commodity crops by paying farmers directly to produce them.

Farmers have abandoned fruits and vegetables – termed “specialty crops” by farm legislation – to free more land for commodity crops. The cows and chickens that lived on the farms have been sent to feedlots and factories, where they are fed corn that is now sold for far less than the cost of growing it.

The government policy of subsidizing commodity crops has replaced an ecological model of farming with an industrial model of food production with corn and soybeans as the raw materials of production.

High fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils from soybeans and confined animal feeding operations have become the machinery of converting corn and soybeans into what we now call “food.”

Many of the products available in grocery stores are really just complex rearrangements of corn, with added color and flavorings. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients in what you’re eating, there’s a good chance it is derived from corn.

On feedlots, cattle are now fed corn, instead of their natural diet of grass, because it makes them grow bigger, faster and fatter. A pound of hamburger is the product of applying the bovine digestive system to 8 pounds of corn, plus growth hormones and antibiotics.

Subsidized corn is the reason you can buy a double hamburger and a soft drink at McDonald’s for a dollar each. It’s also the reason fruits and vegetables seem so expensive by comparison.

In a way, farm policy in this country has been very successful. Today we spend only 10 percent of our income on food, down from 25 percent in 1929.

However, the cost to our health has been enormous. We now spend more than twice as much on health care as we do on food.

Health insurance companies, facing new regulations that would make it harder to deny coverage, are taking a sudden interest in farm policy.

Recently, insurer UnitedHealthcare asked a team of researchers at M.I.T. and Columbia to develop an approach to curb the rise of childhood obesity in America.

The researchers recommended “foodsheds” as the most promising solution. A foodshed is a diversified regional food economy – in contrast to our simplified national one – where food is produced and consumed all in one locale.

Fort Collins has been quietly developing its own foodshed. Next week, I will explore what it means to eat from our foodshed.

Erik Anderson is a senior natural resources major. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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