Healthcare Reform Problems – Big Butz and a 40 Year Old Policy

by Bradley Miller on February 24, 2010

Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon and Ford, was primarily responsible to the reform of our agricultural policy that has led to the abundance of corn-based products such as high fructose corn syrup. His effects are still being felt 40 years since his time as secretary.

Earl Butz.  I’d like to argue that he might just be the most important name in the healthcare reform debate and an exemplar of how good intentions can have immense (pun intended) ramifications for millions of Americans 40 years on.

Ol’ Earl was Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, but his lasting legacy is the farm bill that he introduced.  The bill provided financial subsidies for growing corn and was meant to encourage the mass planting of corn and other basic crops.  It allowed farmers, in fact it encouraged farmers, to grow more and more corn (among other effects). The original intention of the farm bill was quite nationalistic – to provide food at a more reasonable cost to millions of Americans.

With low priced corn and corn byproducts came the need for food “innovation.” In other words, how were food manufacturers going to utilize this new, cheap resource?  How would they make low cost food from corn and other subsidized crops?  The result was the widespread use of high fructose corn syrup and processed oils and other pseudo-synthetic chemicals to produce many of the foods that we now see in the “middle aisles” of the supermarket.  Everything from Coke to cereal to ice cream to granola bars are filled with the stuff.  Food prices have gone down, but many other things have gone up.

For those who’ve seen CornKing or Food, Inc or read In Defense of Food (Amazon reviews) are quite familiar with the long-term outcome of this farm subsidy strategy.  And because I’m overly-aware of the fact that I’m from now from California, I’m going to try to take a slightly different take, if to not sound not too left-coast-hippy-ish.  I’m going to talk about why I think, from a physiological perspective, why having so many corn-based products in our diet is a bad thing.

The deal is this – foods filled with these corn-based ingredients give you a feeling of fullness, but that fullness disappears very rapidly, especially compared to the way “natural” food is treated in the body.  With natural food you feel full, but that satiety lasts far longer – the types of sugars in natural foods are released more slowly and keep blood sugar at a good, steady state.

A USDA graph detailing the rise of high fructose corn syrup as part of our diet. Relatively unused until 1974, it now is the most widely used sweetener in US food.

The quick burst of sugar in high fructose corn syrup actually gives your brain a really big reward – a really “good” feeling, but it crashes fast.  That means you need more and more to continue feeling good.  Whereas with natural food you don’t get as much instant reward – rather, it’s more spread out over time.  Put another way, my hypothesis is that people who consume a lot of high fructose corn syrup based products are actually addicted to those foods.  It’s an actual addiction – the same goes for foods that contain the types of fats McDonalds and other fast food joints use – it’s a very similar and analogous principle.

To fully connect the dots, it seems pretty clear to me that the farm bill has created a market for cheap food (like corn syrup-based foods), and that many Americans over-eat those foods because they’re literally addicted to the food.  We’re short circuiting how the body is supposed to react to food, it’s making us addicted to high fructose corn syrup and other synthetic food, and it’s leading to an obesity epidemic.

But it’s even more relevant today during our healthcare debate.  The obesity epidemic is costing Americans $200-300 billion each year in medical costs alone, notwithstanding productivity and other losses.  We’re paying for our cheap foods through other healthcare and chronic care costs.  The problem is that those other health-related costs come many years down the road and that’s really hard for most people to understand and act upon in the present. This is a massive problem for healthcare reform today and will continue to drive up costs in the future.

The number of people in the US with Type 2 Diabetes - the current number is around 20-21 million people in the US.

We need to figure a way to get Americans off of this type of food.  Another addition that took a while for Americans to kick was smoking. The most effective tool against smoking proved to be rising prices in the form of increased taxes – not advertising or making people aware of the dangers of smoking.  When smoking became an economic drag, people stopped smoking.

However, food taxes are quite controversial. in that some people who consume these foods are economically challenged as it is – taxing this food would create a greater financial strain.  Additionally, linking smoking to lung cancer and other diseases was relatively easy compared to linking high fructose corn syrup to over eating, obesity and ultimately disease. But, then again, maybe we could also begin to subsidize healthy foods so that people can afford to purchase them instead of high fructose corn syrup based foods.

Ol Earl Butz yet again - I just love the hair and glasses myself.

Whether that’s a tax or some other sort of intervention, something has to happen to change this very fundamental human behavior.  Otherwise we’ll only reform part of our system with the proposed healthcare changes.  And if you think it doesn’t affect you, if you’re a tax-paying American it is affecting you.  You’re helping to subsidize this healthcare – whether through taxes or private insurance payments.  Healthcare reform without this type of policy and behavior reform will only go so far.  Altering farm subsidies may be too much change for now (given healthcare reforms, the wars, etc) – that’s why something like junk food taxes are somewhat appealing.

A farm bill and reform by ol’ Earl Butz in the 1970s still has far reaching effects today – even reaching in to your wallet – no ifs ands or Butz about it!

What do you think?  How can we fix things? What should we do to Ag policy to impact Healthcare Reform?

Afterthought: One simple solution would be to remove the corn subsidy.  But I’m not so sure that will work well.  Reason being that the subsidy supports so many farmers and a large portion of our economy.  If we were to get rid of that subsidy (and subsidize other fruits and vegetables), we’d need to do so slowly and methodically over years, if not decades.  But change needs to happen now – thus the sugary food tax idea.   However, as some of you may point out, that tax would go in to federal coffers, coffers that subsidize corn production, which in turn makes people heavy through sugary food – food we tax.  That’s a pretty bad cycle.  But it’s at least a start.  Something has to be done to curb America’s dependence on these foods.

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