The United States Government wants you to be fat; or at least their current agricultural policy would dictate so. Through a multitude of subsidies, protectionist tariffs, and misguided nutritional policy the USDA has promoted obesity, degenerative disease, damaged the environment, and putrefied the nation's supply of animal protein.
Federally funded agricultural subsidies date back to 1862 with the Morrill Act establishing land-grant colleges, but modern programs began popping up around the 1930's. The Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 forever changed the face of American agriculture through vigorous regulation including price supports, production controls, crop insurance, and limited competition via import barriers.
Subsidy programs have only expanded since; new crops have been added to subsidy rolls, additional disaster relief programs have been enacted, revenue protection locks in high crop prices, in addition to taxpayer financed crop insurance, marketing support, research, statistical data collection, and guaranteed loans. The USDA spent close to $150 billion in 2011, distributing roughly $27 billion in cash subsidies per year to growers of five crops: wheat, corn, soybeans, rice, and cotton.
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) is "moving aggressively to realize its vision of strengthening U.S. agriculture" as stated in their 2005-2011 Strategic Plan. The FSA's Strategic Plan proclaims that it's goals are to enhance international competitiveness of American agriculture, enhance sustainability, improve quality of life in rural America, protect the Nation's food supply and environment, and improve the Nation's nutrition and health. The reality is that the USDA's policy hampers every one of these goals at the expense of American's health and wealth. Current policy influences farmers to grow crops that maximize subsidy payments, not to satisfy market demand. The worst part is that humans did not evolve to consume the most heavily subsidized crops (grains), and these foods have propagated the epidemic of obesity in America.
THE EVOLUTIONARY DIET
From an evolutionary perspective the human diet has consisted of foods that grow naturally like nuts, leafy greens, regional vegetables, tubers, seasonal fruits, and berries in addition to meat, nuts, and eggs as noted by numerous health advocates. This diet dates back 2 million years ago to the origins of our ancestors of the genus Homo. Michael Power and Jay Schulkin, the authors of The Evolution of Obesity, state that "our nutrient requirments, metabolism, and digestive abilities are heavily influenced by our evolutionary past" and that our ancetors' diet "was unlikely to contain significant quantities of easily digested starches, such as from processed grains". Their findings also show that this diet was likely "lower in fiber and higher in animal tissue" as well as "unlikely to have contained large amounts of simple sugars". This should come as common sense as there is no tree with loaves of bread growing from it, nor is there a bush that buds high fructose corn syrup every spring.
Until the advent of the agricultural revolution roughly 10,000 years ago, grains have played little to no role in the human diet. This period is a blip on the radar that pales in comparison to the millions of years we evolved. Due to the fact that "the glycemic index of [our ancestors'] diet was likely quite low", we are not adept to handling the high-glycemic load of the modern diet (Power & Schulkin, 2009). The inconvenient truth is that whatever the carbohydrate source, it will be broken down into glucose and likely be stored as fat. Ingestion of carbohydrates triggers an insulin spike that wreaks havoc in the body increasing adrenaline and cortisol, taxing "the adrenal system, the pancreas, the immune system, and results in a tiny amount of inflammation" according to Mark Sisson, the author of The Primal Blueprint. This chain of events occurs daily due to current policy that promotes cultivation of grains and nutritional policy that advocates their consumption.
THE GOVERNMENT AND GRAINS
Government subsidized grains, such as corn, have come to represent cheap calories. Overproduction and stockpiling by farmers and agri-businesses seeking maximum subsidy payments, despite the efforts of price supports, have sufficiently lowered price. Cheap, readily available grains have led to the proliferation of the food-processing industry and inclusion of grains in virtually every item on super market shelves.
The most potent offender in this category is high fructose corn syrup. The USDA began paying farmers to grow as much corn as possible a generation ago, and cheap corn led to the development of the corn processing industry. High fructose corn syrup is sugar, a nutrient with a daily requirement of zero, and yet has become the backbone of the American diet. Is it a coincidence that the USDA's 2010 Dietary Policy Guidelines for Americans states that in the 1970's, when corn processing was in its infancy, 15% of Americans were obese whereas in 2008 34% were obese? I think not.
The genetically modified corn of today hardly resembles the wild grass it once was. Genetically designed to resist harmful pesticides, the overproduction of this starchy grain has destroyed the nutritional content of the majority of the nation's animal protein sources that our ancestors thrived on. Animal feed has come to consist predominantly of corn in addition to a slew of other grains, growth hormones, antibiotics, and at times pieces of other animals.
Much like humans, animals did not evolve to eat grains, and the quality of our nation's meat supply has declined due to their un-natural feed. Grain-fed animals get sick easily, and antibiotics are a necessary addition to their feed to keep them alive, while making their way into our bodies and the ground. Michael Pollan's article Power Steer cites a study in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that "found that the meat of grass-fed livestock not only had substantially less fat than grain-fed meat but the type of fats found in grass-fed meat were much healthier". This is because grass fed animals sport higher levels of CLA, which is believed to have cancer-fighting properties, an ideal 1:1 ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids, has no need for daily antibiotics, no run-ins with toxic fertilizers or genetically modified grains, and a much lower incidence of E-coli. Just as humans have not evolved to eat grains, we have not evolved to consume grain-fed animal products. The availability of cheap grain has changed the way we raise animals, degraded our land, endangered our nation's meat supply, and is a contributing factor to a host of inflammatory diseases with their roots in a skewed ratio of Omega fatty acids.
The USDA Dietary Policy is riddled with offenses to our nation's health. The policy guide criminalizes dietary cholesterol advocating a diet consisting of less than 300 mg per day. The reality is that our livers have evolved to produce up to 1,400 mg of this essential lipid, down regulating production based on dietary intake. Cholesterol is an essential part of every cell in our bodies. Studies confirm that there is no strong correlation between dietary cholesterol and high levels of blood cholesterol.
Although cholesterol is commonly pointed at as the culprit of heart disease, it is not the true cause of heart disease. Inflammation from consumption of carbohydrates and sugars is the cause of heart disease, not the consumption of fats or cholesterol. The Framingham Heart Study has studied individuals since the 1950's and has concluded that cholesterol is misleading as a main contributor to heart disease.
Studies of cultures such as the Masai and Inuit, whose diets consist of meat and high-blubber animals while boasting excellent cardiovascular health, confirm this fact.
Despite this fact, the USDA's new version of the food pyramid tagged "MyPlate" blatantly disregards our evolutionary diet. Their over-simplified depiction of the proper diet blindly recommends fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy with no regard for what foods comprise those choices. The inclusion of grains as part of the recommended diet is an inflammatory atrocity. Vegetables should be nutrient dense choices from organic sources to avoid harmful pesticides from toxifying our bodies. Contemporary fruits are bred for sugar content in degraded soil; seasonal, local fruits, especially organic berries are best. Protein sources should be clean, grass-fed animal sources and high fat fish for ample sources of protein and quality fats. And what about the exclusion of fats? Fat is the body's preferred source of energy, and good fats from a variety of sources such as nuts, avocados, fish, and eggs should comprise the majority of caloric intake. Inflammation of the body and oxidation are combated with a diet rich in anti-oxidants found in vegetables, fruits, wine, and even dark chocolate.
FREE MARKET FARMING
In a free market there is no incentive for farmers to distort the supply of crops as there currently is due to subsidy payments. Farmer's do not feel the effects of oversupply because their income off of crops like corn comes from the subsidy payments, which guarantee a certain price. Government incentives encourage farmer's to grow crops regardless of market demand, which resulted in companies taking advantage of these stockpiled commodities. In the end, it is the American taxpayer who looses on many levels; increased taxes to finance subsidy payments, increased prices at the supermarket due to price supports and protectionist tariffs, proliferation of processed foods made from stockpiled supplies of highly subsidized grains un-natural to the human diet, and in turn an increase in the nation's incidence of obesity, diabetes, and other degenerative diseases.
Current agricultural policy promotes the overproduction of grains, which are un-natural for humans and animals alike. This has putrefied our food supply through the creation of processed foods containing modifications of grains like corn, and robbed meat of its proper levels of healthy nutrients and fats. This would not be the case if the government did not incentivize farmers, food producers, and consumers to seek out cheap calories from un-natural grain sources. Combined with USDA dietary guidelines that stray from our evolutionary background these policies have promoted obesity in America, robbed taxpayers of trillions of dollars, and increased the incidence of chronic disease.
What we eat should be a choice; dictated by the free market of consumers and supplied by farmers and food producers who will accurately fulfill demand to maximize profits, not influenced by government incentives. Instead of paying farmers to grow foods that make us sick and fat, why not let them choose what to grow? Over 2,000 years ago Hippocrates said, "Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food", a concept that we have lost touch with. We need agricultural reform to wean farmers off subsidies and protectionist tariffs to free our markets and level the playing field so that consumers don't have to choose between cheap calories and their health.
Alex Yackery [send him mail] is a Senior currently studying economics at Loyola University Maryland.