Washington Insider-- Friday

Farm Subsidies and Obesity

Here's a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN's well-placed observer.

Senate Clears Federal GMO Food Labeling Bill

The Senate late Thursday passed, 63-30, legislation that would establish the nation's first mandatory requirements for food companies to label genetically modified food products, a move that would preempt state labeling laws such as the one in Vermont that went into effect July 1. The vote now moves to the House, where it is expected to pass. The House approved voluntary GMO labeling legislation (HR 1599) in July 2015.

The bill's proponents are urging Congress to pass a final bill by next week before both chambers take a seven-week recess for political conventions and campaigning.

Before Thursday night's vote, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said that leaders in his chamber were trying to map out a strategy for getting the bill passed with as few changes as possible. He said there were concerns about losing GOP votes from members opposed to mandatory labeling. Conaway revealed that leaders "are in the throes of trying to figure out, can they do it under a closed rule? Will that work? Can they do it under a modified rule, an open rule?"

The Senate measure (S 764) was a compromise by Senate Ag Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich. It would direct USDA to create within two years regulations for determining which foods qualify for labeling as genetically modified. The proposal offers food companies the option of on-label disclosure, the use of a symbol developed by USDA or electronic bar codes that consumers can scan with their smart phones.

Food Security Bill Clears Congress, Headed to President's Desk

Legislation to authorize funds for implementing a comprehensive plan to combat hunger worldwide, the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) of 2016 (S 1252), cleared the House and now heads to President Barack Obama's desk.

The 369-53 vote July 6 by the House followed action in the Senate, which passed the bill by voice vote in April.

The bill would provide a $1 billion per year for Fiscal 2017 and 2018 to the State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for the administration's Feed the Future initiative, which partners with companies such as Monsanto Co., DuPont Co. and PepsiCo Inc. to implement

Also, the bill would authorize the Emergency Food Security Program, a cash-based food aid program, in contrast to the more traditional commodities-based aid provided under the Food for Peace Program. In its Fiscal 2014 budget proposal, the Obama administration called for major changes to US food aid programs, including allowing for the regional procurement of crops.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has said that while Food for Peace was in part used to reduce stockpiles of crops accumulated under USDA's commodity price support programs for humanitarian ends, U.S. food assistance strategies have shifted more toward emergency response and support for long-term agricultural development.

From 2010 to 2014, USAID awarded $991 million in Emergency Food Security Program grants, with most aid going to Syria, CRS said.

Washington Insider: Farm Subsidies and Obesity

In a somewhat strange report this week, NBC News told listeners that there is "more evidence that U.S. government policies that subsidize foods such as meat, cheese and corn are helping make Americans fatter and unhealthier."

The report was based on research led by Karen Siegel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NBC says. It notes that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and moderate amounts of dairy, while recommending limited consumption of saturated fats, sugars, salt and refined grains," Siegel's team writes in the Journal of the American Medical Association's JAMA Internal Medicine.

It also cites Siegel's report as arguing that, "At the same time, current federal agricultural subsidies focus on financing the production of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, dairy and livestock, the latter of which are in part via subsidies on feed grains."

Siegel says her results "suggest that individuals whose diets consist of a lower proportion of subsidized foods have a lower probability of being obese." NBC notes that the commodity policies "have been controversial for years, with health experts saying the U.S. government should drop subsidies on beef, dairy and other products and instead help farmers raise cheaper fruits and vegetables."

If you think that CDC may have missed a step or two in this analysis, you would not be alone. USDA and other experts have often argued that it's not so simple to tie subsidies to American eating habits.

Still, Siegel attempted to get at this question by interviewing a large number of people, more than 10,000 or so, about what they had eaten the day before and found that 56% of the calories people remembered having eaten came from "the major subsidized foods."

And those who ate "the most" of these foods were 37% more likely to be obese and 41% more likely to have too much belly fat, Siegel says. They were 14% more likely to have high cholesterol and 21% more likely to have unhealthy blood sugar levels.

She says "higher subsidy scores" are associated with higher health risks and highlight the effect that agricultural subsidies may be having on US health. This is, in part due to the lower cost per calorie of unhealthier food and the higher cost per calorie of healthier food," the CDC team wrote.

NBC also cited Raj Patel of the University of Texas at Austin who says that "while cheap food is one big cause of America's epidemics of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, junk foods that are not subsidized are a large part of the equation," he wrote in a commentary.

It will be interesting to see whether the CDC study stands up to the criticism it is sure to receive. For example, it would seem important to have estimated the effect subsidies actually have on retail food costs. These likely are small and difficult to link to the highly specific "health effects" that Siegel calculates.

It also might be interesting to estimate how such cost effects might rank among factors known to drive food consumption decisions, and how the important impacts of subsidies turn out to be on this scale.

Food costs are known to be important to consumers, but may not always be determining. For example USDA recently published an extensive report on the costs of organic foods which cost significantly more than most traditional food products. Nevertheless, organic sales have been the fastest growing segment of the food market raising some question about the overall role of costs in consumers' food decisions.

It also seems possible that CDC had more to offer than NBC chose to share. While the NBC report seems to avoid a number of important questions, the CDC's work is highly regarded. And, the question of whether the programs have serious negative health effects seems important enough to elevate and fleshed out and systematically evaluate.

Clearly, food preferences have been evaluated frequently and their role in farm policy is firmly established over many decades. That doesn't mean these commodities do not have a dietary role that U.S. food choices could be made more healthful—a serious consideration that the dietary guidelines address. Whether that has been considered enough is certainly a debatable issue, of course, but the CDC report seems not to have brought much new evidence to that question in spite of its importance, Washington Insider believes.

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