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Robinson: Last straw — farm programs blamed for obesity

Big bad agriculture is at it again. This time, our farm programs are being blamed for the obesity epidemic in developing countries.

According to Philip James, the British chairman of the International Obesity Task Force at the 10th International Obesity Congress in Sydney, Australia, existing farm policies, particularly agricultural subsidies in the European Union and the United States, have been damaging people’s health for decades.

“We have concentrated on using taxpayers’ money to featherbed the very parts of the food chain that are causing the obesity epidemic today. The over-production of oil, fat and sugar, largely due to government subsidies to protect farm industry revenues, has contributed over decades to the health crisis we have today.

“People have paid three times over — firstly in taxes to support hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies in the United States, the EU and elsewhere, secondly in the resulting harm to the health and thirdly in the health insurance taxes and premiums required to cope with a major burden of preventable chronic disease.”

James says there is a fourth cost in terms of jobs in developing countries, saying the trade distortions generated by the use of public funds to prop up domestic sugar production in the United States and the EU has cost more than 1 million jobs among sugar-growing developing countries.

First of all, I have trouble enough understanding why over-production of fats, oils and sugar causes obesity in America or anywhere else, much less how under-production would in any way help. After all, if the EU and the United States suddenly stopped producing enough sugar for candy bars and such, there are, as James suggests, 1 million sugar producers in developing countries who would be happy to contribute to their own country’s obesity.

Another point to take home is that once past the farm gate, our commodities are converted to a number of products — soybeans into meal, oil, biodiesel fuel; corn to ethanol, feed and food. Sugar, as we know, is the habit-forming ingredient in a Butterfinger, but it is just as easily converted to ethanol. Other commodities, too, have many end uses.

Granted, some commodities later become ingredients in unhealthy foods, or are processed in such a way that they become unhealthy. But why should farmers be punished for what happens to a commodity after they sell it?

Commodities are not intrinsically unhealthy or dangerous to our health. In fact, many products made from subsidized commodities are extremely healthy if consumed in proportionate amounts, including fats, sugars and oils.

And that is really the point, isn’t it?

My grandmother’s table-groaning Christmas dinner could humble the biggest, hungriest man with its offering of mashed potatoes, a big, fat turkey, ham, hot homemade rolls, casseroles, sweet-potato pie, cakes made from scratch and fudge. But just because it was there didn’t mean I had to eat it all, though I often wished I could.

James goes so far as to suggest that taxes should be levied against unhealthy foods, which would likely include some of the items I’ve just mentioned. But why should I have to pay a higher price for a piece of fudge if I eat it responsibly?

U.S. farmers are tired of being made the scapegoat for the world’s problems, and this charge by James is the last straw. If the world’s health industries really want to solve the growing world obesity epidemic, start by advocating personal responsibility. Tell people the truth. You are what you eat.

And instead of raising the rates on every citizen to battle obesity, the health insurance industry should study ways to reward individuals for their fitness, and reduce their insurance rates accordingly, and vice versa for unfit people.

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