A few days ago, I took on the claim that farm subsidies are making us fat (the answer is most likely "no"). However, there are other government programs that potentially affect food prices - what about those programs? Have they contributed to the rise in obesity?
A new paper in by Julian Alston, Joanna MacEwan, and Abigail Okrent in Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy asks whether funding for agricultural research and development (R&D) can explain the rise in obesity. The chain of logic goes like this: there is extensive evidence that funding for agricultural research increases productivity; higher productivity means getting more food using fewer resources; more food means lower food prices; more food at lower prices means more food intake; more food intake leads to obesity. Ergo, government funding for agricultural research leads to obesity.
So what did the authors find? They found that agricultural R&D spending probably did have a modest effect on obesity rates, but that R&D also resulted in enormous benefits to consumers and producers. The authors write:
And, if we had undone the R&D efforts that led to the food price changes since the 1980s:
Having now discussed the effects of farm subsidies and agricultural research, what about programs like the government-sanctioned check-off programs? That was the topic of a session at the most recent AAEA meetings in Boston. Parke Wilde from Tufts and Harry Kaiser from Cornell debated the role of check-off programs and their role in affecting public health and nutrition. I was unfortunately unable to attend the session, but Parke offered a preview of it on his blog. I hope to see some research on this topic in the near future.