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How Agriculture Subsidies Are Making Us Sick

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Let food by thy medicine. Hippocrates, dubbed the father of Western medicine, gave us this advice over two thousand years ago. Judging by the way Congress is spending billions of tax payer dollars to boost the sales of unhealthy food, I don't think we've learned our lesson.

Let's review some current facts that back the Hippocratic notion.

• More than 60 percent of all deaths in the U.S. are from diseases linked to unhealthful saturated fat and cholesterol laden diet: heart disease, cancer, stroke, liver disease, and high blood pressure.

• Approximately 66 percent of Americans are overweight or obese -- diet-related conditions linked to other diseases such as hypertension and heart disease.

• About 33 percent of children born in 2000 will develop diabetes, another diet-related disease, during his or her lifetime.

• Being unhealthy is expensive! The annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion in 2008. The Medicare and Medicaid spending for obesity-related conditions now totals $61 billion per year. Heart disease costs $189.4 billion per year. Cancer costs $102.8 billion per year. Diabetes costs $128.1 billion annually.

Statistics show that by 2030, the annual medical costs for heart disease alone are projected to triple, to $818 billion!!!

The statistics are stark but it's not all bad news. Food trends show that more people are taking their health into their own hands by changing their diet. When it comes to unhealthy food, the primary culprits are meat and dairy, which are high in saturated fat and cholesterol, and over-sweetened processed food.

On the other hand, plant-based diets, which are naturally nutrient rich, low in fat, high in fiber and cholesterol free (!!) are growing in popularity. Several months ago, Business Week profiled some of those discerning eaters who choose a plant-based diet, like Bill Clinton and Russell Simmons. Even Mike Tyson claims to eschew meat and dairy for better health. Kathy Freston's book on veganism hit #1 on Amazon's bestseller list, and Neal Barnard, M.D., who is head of the organization I work for, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has recently released a 21-day guide to making the switch.

This trend is great news if you care about the health of our country, so why is Congress delegating billions of dollars that help boost the production of the most unhealthy food -- meat, dairy and sweeteners for processed food -- while fruits and vegetables receive almost none?

If you don't like the idea of your tax dollars lining the pockets of wealthy corporations flooding the market with hot dogs and other junk food, now is the time to speak up. Congress is gearing up to vote on the legislation that perpetuates this system of misplaced subsidies.

Misleadingly referred to as the "Farm Bill," this legislation doesn't benefit the family famers who grow the bell pepper and squash in your stew. The beneficiaries of agricultural subsidies laid out in this legislation are the corporations that convert crops like corn into corn syrup and soy into feed for the cows and pigs who end up in a McDonald's wrapper.

The result is an artificially controlled market that floods grocery stores and eateries with foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol and high fructose corn syrup. These are exactly the types of food we should be avoiding if we want to stay healthy.

When Sarah Palin complains about the "Nanny State," I wonder if she's aware of the tens of billions of tax dollars that dictate what food we can choose from at the grocery store. Consumer demand, not corporate interest, should determine what we can put in our shopping carts. And consumers want healthy food that won't lead to a double bypass.

In 2012, Congress has an opportunity to fix agricultural subsidies in a way that will help real farmers and every day people.

By reducing federal subsidies that boost the production of meat, dairy and high fructose corn syrup, and leveling the playing field for fruit and vegetable farmers, more Americans will be able to buy the wholesome foods they need to stay healthy.

An additional benefit to this reform would be that smaller farms that practice sustainable agriculture and better husbandry could more fairly compete with the notoriously destructive mega-operations.

Another benefit will be a savings in health care costs.

As I mentioned before, being unhealthy is expensive. The annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion in 2008. The Medicare and Medicaid spending for obesity-related conditions now totals $61 billion per year. Heart disease costs $189.4 billion per year. Cancer costs $102.8 billion per year. Diabetes costs $128.1 billion annually.

Statistics show that by 2030, the annual medical costs for heart disease alone are projected to triple, to $818 billion.

Want to cut the federal budget? Have a country of healthy people.

Aligning agricultural subsidies with nutritional recommendations would save lives, money and farmers. That means less heart surgeries, cleaner rivers and more fresh vegetables and fruit -- a sweet alterative for everyone.

To find out more about my work in this area, please visit: http://pcrm.org/health/agriculture/index.html