Farms grow corn.
Corn makes high fructose corn syrup.
High fructose corn syrup makes people fat.
Therefore, farms make people fat.
That’s not quite how it works, but it might be close enough for people who want to know why 42% of American adults are clinically obese.
Farmers aren’t to blame for the obesity crisis, but they still must convince the public that the ag industry is on the side of dietary health, said Robert Paarlberg, an adjunct professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Paarlberg spoke in a May 11 Farm Foundation Forum.
The first step is to understand why farmers are not the reason for America’s tubbiness, and what the real cause is.
The problem is not that subsides are making crops as cheap as possible, Paarlberg said. In fact, ethanol mandates, conservation programs and sugar tariffs inflate commodity prices.
Nor is the issue that low-income people can’t access fresh produce, he said. Many poor people actually live in reasonable proximity to grocery stores, and when a new supermarket comes to town, people’s diets don’t change that much.
The big problem, Paarlberg said, is that so much of today’s food is highly processed and loaded with sugar, salt and fat.
Tasty but bad-for-you ingredients contribute to heart disease and other health problems, while ultraprocessed foods can encourage people to eat so fast that they don’t recognize when they’re full.
These unflattering food traits are no accident.
“Food companies and restaurant chains … intentionally design products that will be irresistible, virtually addictive and often unhealthy,” Paarlberg said.
This dynamic might give Americans farmers pause when they brag about producing the most abundant and affordable food in the world, he said. To many consumers, farmers sound like they are congratulating themselves for flooding the market with cheap junk food.
As a result, Paarlberg suggested that farm organizations loosen their traditional lobbying alliance with food manufacturers.
“I’m not sure that I want my story told by food companies that turn my healthy harvest into Twinkies and Doritos,” he said.
Instead, farm groups could build relationships with public health organizations like the American Health Association, which has called for studies on the possible health benefits of restricting sugary drink purchases with federal nutrition benefits.
Other groups are urging the food industry to tighten its voluntary rules for advertising food to children.
In retrospect, Paarlberg said, farm groups should even have backed first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to fight childhood obesity a decade ago.
The support would not have changed the way farms operate, but it would have lent the ag industry credibility with a frustrated public, he said.
Many dairy farmers have in fact taken the opposite course, vilifying Obama-supported rules that improved the nutrition of school meals.
Dairy farmers are seeking to expand market access for whole milk and chocolate milk, which have been limited in schools because of their fat and sugar content.
Paarlberg acknowledged that students like chocolate milk, but he said it’s telling that the milk proposal is supported by the dairy industry but not school nutrition groups.
“I think that commodity groups are making a mistake when they see the school lunch menu as a political battleground where they have to fight for french fries or fight for chocolate milk,” Paarlberg said. “I think that there’s a better way for them to get their products to consumers than through the federal School Lunch Program.”
Rather than distance themselves from food companies, Eve Turow-Paul argued that farmers should actually strengthen those connections.
The founder and executive director of the Food for Climate League, Turow-Paul said this strategy could develop supply chains for innovative and climate-friendly products that consumers would buy — while diversifying US farm production.
“I have heard time and time again over the last many years from major (consumer packaged goods) companies, ‘Well, we want to make X, Y and Z product, but we can’t find anyone to farm it for us,’ she said. “To me, there has to be a direct relationship between these two groups.”
Marketing is only one step in farming, food and health.
Whether through choice or regulation, food manufacturers also need to make real improvements in the healthfulness of their products, said Michael Jacobson, co-founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
A growing number of food manufacturers are replacing sodium chloride with potassium chloride. The new flavor isn’t quite as strong as traditional table salt, but it can cut a food’s sodium content by a third, Jacobson said.
Meanwhile, sugary cereal and pastries could be limited in the school breakfast program.
And more research should be done on endocrine disruptors that can get into food from pesticides and plastics. Studies in mice suggest that the chemicals promote obesity, Jacobson said.
Farmers could also contribute to the health profile of the foods they produce, though Jacobson acknowledged his ideas would probably be unpopular with ag groups.
A tax on fatty slaughter of cattle, for example, could encourage production of leaner beef. And dairy rations could add canola, which is high in unsaturated fat and would reduce the saturated fat level in milk.
As laudable as nutrition improvements might seem, building the political will to change food regulations can be difficult, Jacobson said.
The Food and Drug Administration’s ban on trans fat was 25 years in the making. And salt consumption — the dietary problem that most concerns Jacobson — remains high even though its health effects have been known for a century.
The role that farmers take in these political fights could determine how the public views agriculture — and who people blame for the problems of obesity.