Friday, September 25, 2009

The "Obesity Epidemic," or Class Warfare Part IV

So...I went to see Food, Inc last night, and as expected it's gotten me fired up. First of all, you reallyreallyreally have to see this movie. As soon as possible. It's funny because most of the stuff in the film will be news to most consumers in America, but it wasn't news to me. My mom's a nutritionist and I'm sort of a geek about this stuff, so I already knew how powerful agribusiness is, how thoroughly saturated our regulatory agencies are by those who represent the industry, how beleaguered family farms are by policies that benefit agribusinesses, how much oil goes into conventional agriculture, how totally skewed our food costs are because of subsidies, how terrible of an impact conventional ag has on the environment, how powerful food disparagement laws are, etc. But it's really nice to see all of this info put together in an accessible and attractive way for a broader audience like this. Reallyreally nice. But what struck me as I watched the movie was how this is another example of class warfare. Unintentionally, no doubt, but still lethal.

Here's what I mean. The way our food production system works now starts with corn. It all comes back to corn. The government subsidizes corn to the point that 1) farmers are incentivized to produce huge surpluses of corn, and their economic payoff for it is not tied to the market like it used to be - they get paid no matter what; 2) buyers (like cattle feed lots, for example) can purchase corn at a fraction of the production price. So the incentive is to make all kinds of animals (even fish!!!) eat corn, whether or not they're naturally suited to it. And a corn diet (often combined with growth hormones) forces animals to grow super fast and become fatter and larger than they normally would. This leads to the widespread routine use of antibiotics. Because when you grow that fast your immune system is shit so you're prone to disease.

The use of corn also leads to other problems like E coli (grass fed cattle don't produce the quantity and the deadliest strains of E coli), and the fact that corn feeding requires a feedlot setting in which animals are immersed in their own waste 24/7 aggravates the problem. Not to mention the fact that corn fed meat is much higher in saturated fat and doesn't have the Omega 3s that grass fed meat has. Because the corn is so heavily subsidized, the beef and chicken and pork that's produced on it is also cheap. And the highly processed foods that are made from corn derivatives (such as high fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin and modified food starch and saccharin and sucrose and dextrose and hydrolyzed vegetable protein and cellulose and on and on) are also cheap. So the double cheeseburger and soda (which is basically diluted corn syrup of one type or another) you can get at the fast food place is far cheaper than the healthy foods you should be eating. And, as noted in the movie, this explains why obesity tracks with poverty. Your chances of being obese are directly tied to your income level.

And here's where I get really pissed off. Instead of recognizing that we have incentivized unhealthy eating by making unhealthy foods really cheap and accessible, thus causing unhealthy eating in many Americans of all sizes, our government has chosen to turn a blind eye to the system which it has created that perpetuates unhealthy eating. So instead of changing the system to truly reflect the actual cost of producing healthy versus unhealthy foods (which would be roughly equivalent if we didn't subsidize so unevenly) we attach moral judgment and shame to unhealthy eating and obesity, which our very system has created! Get it? We feed poor kids the worst possible crap, and then shame them for having bad eating habits and being prone to illness and obesity. Meanwhile, they're still trapped in the system in which fresh veggies are out of reach but junk food is plentiful. And anyway, by now their eating habits and preferences are already established, and it takes hard work to retrain your tastes and desires. At the same time, those of us who are aware of the situation and have access to (and are willing to make the sacrifice to obtain) healthier foods for our kids, watch other kids eating this awful stuff with a mixture of guilt and impotent rage at the system.

So what can we do about this form of class warfare? Admittedly, not much. The system is huge and the corporate groups that profit by maintaining the status quo are incredibly rich and powerful. Far more rich and powerful than any of the advocacy groups that oppose them. Still, it seems like there must be something that consumers and citizens can do to bring about change. Beyond buying local and organic when you can, and communicating with your congressional reps about the ag bills that periodically come through Congress, you can also sign petitions and donate to the advocacy groups that do try to take on the behemoth:

More on class warfare: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and This.


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  2. Wow. I never thought about the fact that it costs about the same to raise healthy food and junk food if the subsidies aren't there.

    But it all seems kind of like a lost cause. You can tell people to vote with their purchases, but in many parts of the country you don't have many options. And those other options aren't really open to people on lower incomes. So it seems like there's really no force strong enough to shake the corporate interests control of it all.

  3. Class warfare it is, and the subjugated class is, for the most part, unaware that they are oppressed by Big Food, or the role that government plays. And yes, fat people get the blame. What a hustle--organized crime never did it as well. You want to see what causes these screwed up policies to exist? Follow the money...

  4. Peterabbit9/27/2009

    and the subjugated class is, for the most part, unaware that they are oppressed by Big Food

    That's part of what's so awful about this - with the wonders of modern PR, the corporate powers able to convince the masses that they're their friends and allies - that the mass produced junk is good for them.

  5. But I don't think it's as hopeless as it seems. I've heard comparisons between the food industry and big tobacco. And I think we can expect that advocacy groups learned a lot from the fight against big tobacco, so there's a precedent to follow, anyway.

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  7. TheotherBarb10/08/2009

    Thank God you deleted that comment. Good grief - spamming about weight loss products on a blog post that explicitly questins all the "obesity" rhetoric!