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Author: Food subsidies harmful to nation’s health

Caitlin Yoshiko Buysse

In a wide-ranging talk last week, food guru Mark Bittman addressed a crowd at the Museum of Science on the connections between food, health, the environment and social justice.

On personal and societal fronts, he opened, “the state of food is not a particularly happy one … And we need action on both.”

 Author of The New York Times column, “The Minimalist,” and of the cookbooks “How to Cook Everything” and “How to Cook Everything Vegetarian,” Bittman has become one of the leaders of the new food movement in the United States.

“The so-called food system which we have now is profit-driven,” he explained to the audience — nearly a trillion dollars have been spent on food marketing, most of which encourages Americans to eat unhealthy food. While Coke brought in $7 billion of profits in 2009, Bittman pointed out, the United States is left with unprecedented levels of obesity and other health problems.

But Americans subsidize these corporate profits, he said — another trillion dollars has been spent on farm subsidies. This money primarily goes to the production of corn, soy, and other crops. Fifty to 60 percent of this corn and soy is used to make animal feed, and to produce the oils and sugars that are used in processed foods.

 “So when you look at something like a Chicken McNugget,” he said, “you’re looking at an animal that was … raised on meal that’s been subsidized, its meat is combined with meal that’s been subsidized, and it’s fried in oil that’s been subsidized. So you can look at so-called foods like that and see subsidies everywhere.”

Soda is similarly subsidized, he said —  soda is made from high fructose corn syrup, which is made from corn, the second most heavily subsidized crop in the country.

These subsidies, Bittman said, explain the “unrealistically inexpensive food” in the nation’s grocery stores — and why a hamburger only costs 99 cents.

But the cheap, processed food that relies so heavily on subsidies, he emphasized, is not what Americans should be eating. “We don’t, after all, need animal products, white bread or Coke,” he said. “No one is born craving Skittles or Whoppers.”

Instead, these desires are manufactured by a “nearly trillion-dollar propaganda campaign encouraging us to consume things that are bad for us.”

In addition to declining human health, Bittman emphasized food’s cost to the natural environment. Americans, he said, comprise just 4 percent of the world’s population, but use 25 percent of its energy and eat between 18 and 22 percent of its meat.

Americans kill 10 billion animals each year, not including seafood, to feed themselves, he said. While health experts recommend eating a half a pound of meat per week, Americans, on average, eat this amount in a single day. Meat requires more energy, and more land, to produce than plants — so the country’s eating habits have a deleterious effect on the environment.

“If everybody consumed like Americans, we’d need four planets,” he said.

Bittman does not advocate vegetarianism, or veganism. Instead, he pitches what he jokingly calls “less-meat-arianism” — a diet based mostly on plants.  But he does strongly reject junk food, in particular, soda.

It is no coincidence, he explained, that when Americans’ consumption of high fructose corn syrup jumped from 0 to 200 calories per day between the 1970s and 1990s, they also gained 20 percent of their body weight.

“Decreasing our consumption of soda is efficient, smart, preventive medicine,” he said.

 But Bittman was sure to stress that changing America’s eating habits can not come from individual decision-making alone — significant policy changes must accompany good personal choices too.

He suggested an array of social and political changes that could help turn the country’s diet around — eliminating existing subsidies and subsidizing good food, removing vending machines from schools, better food labels, more honest food marketing, incenticizing good eating, and, most creatively, a “Citizen Cooking Corps” that would train families how to cook healthy meals.

Americans can even take a lesson from its fight against tobacco several decades ago, he also explained, by stigmatizing and taxing soda and other junk foods.

After all, he said, the food industry “acts like the tobacco industry, which hires experts to back up specious claims. It maintains its marketing to children, it endorses bad science, it fronts front groups, it lobbies like mad, it claims that its products are safer and better” in the name of profit.

And this is precisely what Bittman sees the emerging food movement as striking against. “When we talk about the food movement,” he said, “we’re generally talking about people who value a system in which consumers and workers and land and even animals come before corporate profits.”

Mark Bittman’s latest book is called “Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating.” His lecture was part of the Museum of Science’s on-going series, “Let’s Talk About Food.”

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