Flawed claims don't fix obesity issue (commentary)

Flawed claims don't fix obesity issue (commentary)

MY previous column (Feedstuffs, Sept. 23) focused on Michael Moss' new book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. I summarized the book's thesis as one in which "we've become casualties of 'big food companies' and ... our collective weight problem is their responsibility."

No sooner had I submitted that column than the newest issue of Foreign Policy magazine arrived in the mail. My attention was immediately drawn to an article titled "Make Them Eat Cake: How America Is Exporting Its Obesity Epidemic" by John Norris at the Center for American Progress.

The article contends that the U.S. is culpable for much of the world's growing obesity epidemic.

Being "casualties" of food companies is one thing, but extending the blame globally is a whole different matter.

"With this summer's news from the United Nations that Mexico has surpassed the United States in adult obesity levels — one-third of Mexican adults are now considered extremely overweight — U.S. foreign policy has come into sharper, or perhaps softer, focus," Norris wrote.

"It quickly becomes apparent that a complex web of American agricultural, trade, marketing and scientific practices together are helping drive a 'globesity' epidemic," he continued. "Many of these policies were designed to give U.S. firms a leg up in international markets, but the domestic economic benefits of the culinary oligarchy are increasingly being outweighed — literally and figuratively — by the toll on international health, particularly among the poor. The American taxpayer is directly underwriting a food production system in which nutrition has become a distant afterthought."

That supposition is largely based on a prior report from the Institute for Ag & Trade Policy (IATP) titled "Exporting Obesity: How U.S. Farm & Trade Policy is Transforming the Mexican Food Environment."

The IATP article explains: "Trade liberalization policies that loosened rules to the benefit of agribusiness and food companies may be partly responsible for epidemic obesity and declining public health throughout Mexico as more low-quality, calorie-dense foods are imported from the United States, according to a new study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Health. The study notes that the increase of obesity and overweight in Mexico — a rise of 12% between 2000 and 2006 — coincides with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)."

High-fructose corn syrup is identified as a key culprit in the obesity epidemic both here and abroad, but IATP's own fact sheet notes that Mexico, in spite of NAFTA, imposed "a sales tax on soft drinks and other beverages that contained any sweetener other than cane sugar. The tax virtually stopped all U.S. exports of high-fructose corn syrup to Mexico between 2002 and 2004."

That's an important fact. While Mexico's obesity rate was climbing between 2000 and 2006, U.S. fructose exports slowed dramatically.

Never mind the fact-checking; what really matters is the assignment of blame.

The Foreign Policy article ends by saying: "The United States, meanwhile, seems to be doubling down on the export of fat and fructose. The farm bill that passed the House of Representatives in July not only stripped out food stamps but also made a number of key agricultural subsidies — including for corn, soybeans and peanuts — self-renewing in perpetuity. Legislation like this, mixed with relentless corporate marketing, means the rest of the world is likely to keep getting heavier — and it's clear whose hand is feeding them."

Apparently, the obesity epidemic stems from just the right mix of greedy food companies, misguided legislators and exploitative farmers and ranchers.

If only the problem were that distinct, then it would be easy to correct. The world's obesity rate has doubled since 1980, with many factors coming into play. The world's weight problem didn't just happen because of some bad actors.

Misdirected claims don't get us anywhere, though. Worse yet, they represent nothing more than wasted time and energy — all of which would be much better utilized for establishing real answers and useful solutions.

*Dr. Nevil C. Speer is with Western Kentucky University and serves on the board of the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a national organization devoted to engaging livestock producers and livestock health professionals in developing solutions for issues in the livestock industry.

Volume:85 Issue:40

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