Monday, August 09, 2010

Eating Is No Fun Anymore

The new documentary Food Inc. gets it just about right.

By Julie Gunlock
August 7, 2009 12:00 P.M.

It’s depressing when formerly pleasurable pursuits become hot-button political topics: Suddenly your normal trip for a burger and fries becomes a question of morality, life, and death. Are those French fries prepared in heart-healthy olive or canola oil? Is that beef humanely raised and slaughtered, and should I even eat beef when there’s a super-delicious veggie burger on the menu? Are the onion, lettuce, and tomato toppings locally sourced and certified organic? Are the pickles made “in house,” the mustard by grinding mustard seeds with a mortar and pestle?

It is all so exhausting. It makes me just want to stop eating altogether.

It was with this attitude that I went to an afternoon showing of Food Inc. I was fully prepared to hate it, expecting another lecture from the food police, another horror story about fast food. I even entered the theater empty-handed — no popcorn or candy. I was ready to be grossed out.

To my surprise, I actually liked most of it. It had melodramatic moments, and the predictable “big business is bad” message became rather tiresome a half-hour into the movie, but there were — to use a popular Obamaism — some teachable moments in the movie and even a compelling political message too few have heard before: Farm subsidies create real problems for the average American eater.

Farm subsidies have been around for so long that only octogenarians have lived in a food subsidy–free America. The first subsidies — introduced by Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s — were marketed to the American public as a “temporary solution” to help the collapsing farm industry. Some 70 years later, it appears the United States is still in the recovery phase.

Food Inc. boils the subsidy issue down to the basics: Farm subsidies artificially reduce the cost of some food — mainly manufactured and unhealthy snack foods — and create incentives for farmers to produce massive amounts of some commodities no single nation can possibly absorb.

So, what happens? Well, as Food Inc. demonstrates with the help of an upbeat soundtrack and colorful pop-up images of ketchup bottles and batteries, people start getting pretty creative with how to put those commodities to use. Enter corn — lots of corn.

U.S. corn farmers are paid to produce more corn than people can eat normally. As a result of this overproduction, corn is everywhere. Corn derivatives can be found in nearly one-quarter of all the products in the grocery store — from peanut butter to Twinkies. And of course, corn subsidies led to the creation of a clear, liquid sweetener — HFCS, or high-fructose corn syrup.

It isn’t only corn subsidies making HFCS as popular as it is today, but also sugar tariffs. While the government reduces the price of corn, it simultaneously hikes the cost of sugar through a complex set of tariffs that make the price of cane and beet sugar more than three times the price of sugar in other nations. Food manufacturers naturally choose the lower-cost corn-based sweetener. Who can blame them?

But this toying around with prices comes with consequences, and Food Inc. connects the dots between farm subsidies and America’s growing health problems, such as obesity. A report by the Heritage Foundation examined this issue last year and came to the same conclusion:

There is a growing scientific consensus that HFCS likely contributes to the obesity and diabetes epidemics in America, both major contributors to the overall degradation of health in the U.S. The body metabolizes HFCS differently than cane- and beet-based sugars, leading to lower insulin production and an increase in triglyceride fats in the bloodstream (Bray, Nielsen and Popkin, 2004). Because of the lower cost associated with foods containing HFCS and hydrogenated soy-based oils (also a by-product of crop subsidies), this trend disproportionately affects low-income families and those trying to feed a family on a budget. While the real price of healthy fruits and vegetables increased by nearly 40 percent between 1985 and 2000, the price of an HFCS-rich soft drink decreased by 23 percent (Pollan, April 2007).

Food Inc. suggests how some of this works by focusing on a family of fast-food eaters. We’re introduced to them while they sit at the drive-thru, waiting for their order of burgers, fries, and large sodas. It might be obvious, and perhaps staged, but it gives a real-life example of one reason why people choose to eat unhealthy fast food and HFCS-laden snack foods and sodas — it’s cheaper to eat bad food. The family agrees that they should eat healthier, but they find the price of whole and natural foods, such as fresh vegetables, to be too high. The mother says she’s very worried about her children, one of whom is on the verge of developing diabetes — no doubt due to bad eating habits.

So what’s the solution? This is where Food Inc. fails miserably.

At the end of the movie, as the screen goes black, ten “simple things you can do” flash on the screen. Among them: Buy organic, shop local and at farmers’ markets, and tell Congress that food safety is important to you. These are just adorable little suggestions for most of the foodie types watching the movie. But what about those who can’t afford the farmers’ market vegetables?

How about suggesting the purchase of inexpensive fresh vegetables like carrots, cabbage, and celery? There are workable and achievable ways people can live and eat healthier. It’s simply insulting to suggest to people who have multiple jobs and very little income that they should purchase the highest-priced produce.

And where was the suggestion to tell Congress to chuck farm subsidies? Why wasn’t that on the list of ten things you can do?

On the bright side, this movie may encourage two very different groups — right-leaning think-tanks and politicians, and left-leaning environmental and food-watchdog groups — to come together in the cause of ending harmful farm subsidies.

It even ties in with the topic du jour — the future of America’s health-care system. Farm subsidies shouldn’t just offend economist types who want the free market to dictate prices. They should offend anyone who cares about Americans’ health, which should be just about everyone. Ultimately, this may be a more compelling argument to abolish the policy than straight economics.

Food Inc. shines a light on the dangers of farm subsidies. Let’s hope a few politicians make it to the movies.

— Julie Gunlock is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.

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