"Because of unhealthy diets, 100 years of progress in improving public health and extending lifespan has been reversed," wrote a quartet of high-profile food-system activists in a Nov. 7, 2014,Washington Post editorial, titled "How a national food policy could save millions of American lives." New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, Union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist Ricardo Salvador and former U.N. human-rights lead Olivier De Schutter wrote in the Post:
"...our fossil-fuel-dependent food and agriculture system is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of the economy but energy. And the exploitative labor practices of the farming and fast-food industries are responsible for much of the rise in income inequality in America.
"...we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.
"That must change."
The four Post editorialists advocate President Obama no longer wait on an obstructionist Congress insistent on treating food issues as "discrete rather than systemic problems," urging he instead move boldly forward via executive order. "...the president won’t be able to achieve his goals for health care, climate change, immigration and economic inequality — the four pillars of his second term — if he doesn’t address the food system," they write.
Whether Bittman et al were privy to its release beforehand or simply beneficiaries of good timing, the new 571-page federal report that will craft the federal government's next set of official dietary guidelines released in February could have come straight from the November Post editorial.
Recommendation in the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, written by a panel of university nutrition experts recruited by the Obama administration got a lot of press. But most of it centered around the advisors' recommendations for a shift to plant-based diet from the typical American meat-centered diet. "Unfortunately, the statement disregards the positive role of lean meat," said the Denver-based National Cattlemens Beef Association in a prepared statement. "Lean beef is one of the most nutrient rich foods, providing high levels of essential nutrients such as zinc, iron and protein, as opposed to empty calories."
But the vegetarianism in the recommendations is only the tip of the bad-news iceberg grocers may have be bearing down upon. Despite the immediate threat to your meatcase the report brings, the worse implicaton of the report is that for the first time, federal dietary guidelines may be formed not just on nutritional implications, but on the environmental and social considerations outlined by the activists in their November editorial. The stated goal of the committee could have been lifted from those pages. It's goal? To:
"Align nutritional and agricultural policies with Dietary Guidelines recommendations and make broad policy changes to transform the food system so as to promote population health, including the use of economic and taxing policies to encourage the production and consumption of healthy foods and to reduce unhealthy foods."
That attempt to “transform the food system” has taken the panel far outside its area of expertise, critics say. The panel's language, although obviously carefully crafted to appear benevolent, hides the strong hand of government dictate beneath, in speaking of its strategy to:
"Incentivize the development of policies and initiatives at local, state, and Federal levels that are carried out using cross-sectorial collaborations to promote individual healthy lifestyle behavior changes and create community 'cultures of health.' These may include improvements in built and physical environments to create safe and accessible resources and settings for increased physical activity and more widely available healthy food choices. They may entail changes in policies, standards, and practices in retail, and public and private settings and programs that promote 'cultures of health' and facilitate the initiation and maintenance of healthy lifestyle behaviors at individual and community levels.
"These actions will require a paradigm shift to an environment in which population health is a national priority and where individuals and organizations, private business, and communities work together to achieve a population-wide 'culture of health...'”
In such a re-thought culture of health, the panelists say, "...the resources and services needed to achieve and maintain health would become a realized human right across all population strata...." It also calls for increased local, state and federal policies to limit access to foods the report deems unacceptable in public facilities, and to set nutrition standards for food offered in public places.
"Efforts are needed by the food industry and food retail (food stores and restaurants) sectors to market and promote healthy foods," the report ominously advocates.
The trade group for the meatpacking industry has given up its lawsuit seeking to halt USDA's Country of Origin Labeling as a violation of the businesses’ free speech rights.
You've heard the doomsayers:
Policymakers and public health officials, such as the 2010 White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, have likewise cited increased costs as their rationale for writing policies aimed at slowing the spread of obesity. But so far, what has stopped full-throttle regulation to tackle the problem has been a lack of hard dollar figures regarding how much the fat are costing the public and society.
Advocates of the "local food system" and "community food security" have argued that market forces cannot be trusted to provide consumers with safe and nutritious food. Says one of the most famous, author and activist Mark Winne, for instance, "To get the food system we want, to be sure that healthy and affordable food is available to all, to breathe clean air and drink clean water, to ensure that everyone earns a decent living from their food system work, and to gather as much joy as possible from the physical and social spaces we share as a people, we must indeed be conscientious consumers, but even more important, we must be engaged citizens."
But what exactly does that look like, the image of the consumer turned "engaged citizen?" Now, a new online database of dozens of metropolitan, county and regional food-policy ordinances, statements and plans offers a glimpse at the mechanics of a food system driven by policy rather than markets. Compiled under the urban planning school of the State University of New York at Buffalo, the "Growing Food Connections" program, in cooperation with the American Planning Association and several other local-food advocates offers the searchable collection of policies that explicitly support community food systems. The group advertises the database as a tool to help local food-policy councils--the number of which have roughly doubled nationwide since 2010--to model their own food-related laws and public plans. Meanwhile, it makes fascinating reading for grocers and others who believe the traditional for-profit food system is worth protecting. Some examples:
For more, check out the advance search tools for the database by clicking here.
"Soda taxes can work, according to a new study," the Huffington Post breathlessly proclaimed in June. "We've just been proposing the wrong type." Post contributor Kevin Short reported on a new study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, in which North Carolina economist Chen Zhen compared the effect of taxing soda by volume vs. taxing soda by the calorie. Zhen's elaborate mathametical modeling showed that a per-calorie tax was more efficient at inclining people to buy lower-calorie drinks than taxes based on the fluid ounce. His modeling predicted that a nickel tax on a every 125 calories--or 6 cents for a 12-ounce Coke--would drive the average American consumer to drink 5,800 fewer calories over the course of a year.
There's only one problem with Huffington's glowing interpretation. According to work published in the very same journal by the very same author, which Farmer Goes to Market reported here, soda taxes may change consumption, but that doesn't mean they work. In the real world, taxing consumers on their soda purchases appears to simply drive them to consume more fat and sodium, potentially defeating the original aim of reducing obesity and improving their health.
That mistake in gauging long-term effect is only one of the problems with soda taxes, Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk writes in a short commentary for the February issue of the Canadian Journal of Diabetes. A number of important questions, Lusk cautions, must be considered before legislators leap to consider taxes like the one proposed for Nebraska last year by Lincoln Senator Bill Avery, which was killed in legislative committee.
Taxes may change consumption, but does that equal less obesity? Lusk points out the same logical flaw Zhen identifies in his July 2013 study: Taxes don't just affect the consumption of soft drinks, but of the other foods and drinks around them. Because consumers are free to substitute one drink for another, the only taxes that are likely to significantly reduce obesity are across-the-board taxes on all food and drinks. That kind of one-size-hits-all taxing leads to the second problem Lusk identifies, which is...
Sin taxes are regressive. As regulators have learned from taxing tobacco, sin taxes aimed at changing people's behavior by discouraging poor eating tend to hit the poor harder than the wealthy. And in fact, Lusk writes, because the poor spend a relatively higher proportion of their income than the affluent on food, any tax on food should be considered a regressive tax.
The taxes tend to be hidden. "A tax will be effective only to the extent consumers see it reflected in the retail price," Lusk writes. When taxes get added at the register, as Avery's bill would have accomplished by removing the sales tax food exemption from soft drinks, their effect on consumption can be expected to be even lower than when they are simply added into the shelf price.
Skipped calories do not equate to lost pounds. Or, at least not to the extent that's often assumed by tax advocates. Even if you grant that taxes will force consumers to drink less sugar, the research shows the amount of weight loss that equals is highly unpredictable. Lusk points for example to a recent study showing the traditional assumption that every 3,500-calorie reduction will lead to a one-pound weight loss actually overestimates the actual weight loss by more than a fourth.
Those realities help explain the real-world paradox that the researchers' simulations clearly show soda taxes should affect weight even as real-world taxes seem to have no impact. But there's an even "more fundamental" problem with them, according to this author of The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate. Pronouncing someone else's consumption level of soft drinks as "too much," he writes, smacks of a parternalism that may be justifiable in the case of children and the mentally impaired, but offends when applied to the general population. Granted, excess soda drinking may lead to health problems, but "life is full of difficult tradeoffs," he writes. Some people care about tasty, satisfying food and drink in addition to health. If they don't understand the attendant risks of that tradeoff, he argues, the answer isn't more taxes. It's more information.