Members: Daniel Bornstein, Yesha Maniar, Hilary Hamm, Katherine Rowe, Kali Pruss, Taylor Watson, Jocelyn Powelson
Twenty years in the future…
“How would you like your burger done, sir?”
“Medium, please. And why don’t you add some cheese and bacon to that. We’re celebrating.”
The waiter fills their exquisite, long-stemmed glasses with Coca-Cola, smiles, and turns around, leaving the couple alone.
He swirls the Coke in his glass. “This is beautifully aged. And from one of my favorite factories. The fruity undertones are simply divine ”
She takes his hand and looks into his eyes. “I thought you had forgotten our anniversary. I can’t believe you brought me here! Can we even afford this?”
“Tonight, we can.” They glance around New York’s most expensive restaurant. In soft candlelight, Manhattan’s CEO’s, models, and celebs unwind from a long week. They delicately slice their burgers with steak knives, dip their fries in crystal dishes filled with every condiment imaginable, and dab at the corners of their mouths with freshly pressed white napkins.
“I haven’t stepped foot in a McDonald’s since the subsidy change of 2014. It’s incredible to me that they used to have a Dollar Menu. My grandpa loves to tell me stories about when it first opened. He and his friends would always go buy Big Macs after their baseball games.”
“I’m glad I could bring you here, then, hon. Let’s enjoy tonight.”
…So, how can we get to a world where a McDonalds Big Mac is a luxury meal, and shopping for fruits and vegetables is the more affordable option?
The US Farm Bill, created in 1993, subsidized corn and soybean crops for several billion dollars a year, paying farmers directly for bushels produced in a quantity over quality rewards program. Since 1995, $277 billon was spent on U.S. farm subsidy programs, and of that $277 billion, $26.3 billion was used to subsidize soybeans and $81.7 billion has been used to subsidize corn. However, the Farm Bill spent less than 5% to subsidize nutritious produce. Thus, corn and soy-based junk foods became cheaper than more nutritious produce. Meat also became cheaper, as corn and soy form the base of livestock feed.
Once corn and soybeans were processed into additives, they became the primary component for the cardiac-arrest-causing, diabetes-inflicting, and just generally life-reducing junk food industry. From soda (liquid corn) and Twinkies (a combination of corn and soy products) to meat and milk (both reliant on soy-based animal feed), the government directed the American diet towards unhealthy, high calorie foods. In a study conducted by the US Public Interest Research Group, “Apples to Twinkies”, it was found that $17 billion of the total $277 billion the government spends on subsidizing agriculture went to four food additives: corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils. In comparison, the government only spent $261 million subsidizing apples. Thinking about this in terms of subsidies give to taxpayers instead of farmers, each individuals would have been given $7.36 for junk food and only 11 cents for apples per year.
When a fast food restaurant offers a mouth watering triple bacon cheeseburger for $1 and a wilted salad for $5 or at a grocery store 1,2000 calories of potato chips can be bought for $1, but only 250 calories worth of carrots for $1, the choice is obvious to most Americans. Choosing the burger saves $4 (and tastes better), but puts many Americans one-step closer to a heart attack. High consumption of low quality foods such as those high in fat and cholesterol have a direct effect on obesity, and obesity is a key risk factor for poor cardiovascular health. In 2012, nearly a third of US adults and a fifth of US children were obese and it is projected that by 2030, half of the American population will be obese. The New York Times claims obesity is responsible for 30% of the increase in health care spending since the 1990s. Currently, the government already spends $150 billion per year on obesity and related diseases, and will spend an additional $66 billion per year if predicted obesity rates are correct. With 36% of the American population overweight, and 26% of America obese, it is safe to say that we are no longer subsidizing only corn and soybeans. We are subsidizing obesity.
So what happened to make our counterfactual future come to fruition?
In 2014 Congress placed health higher than the interests of corporations on the political agenda. The Farm Bill was rewritten to remove subsidies on corn and soy in response to increasing rates of obesity. By ending these subsidies, the artificial demand for corn and soy products decreased, and farmers were able to return to a quality-over-quantity production model. In turn, this led to higher prices for meat and many junk foods and individuals instead purchased fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, more expensive corn made it costly to create artificial corn derivatives, such as high fructose corn syrup. Americans stopped eating fast-food, instead choosing to frequent farmer’s markets. Diet Coke was no longer the go to drink, and Americans re-discovered water. Obesity rates were cut in half and cardiovascular disease is no longer a leading cause of death.
The elimination of U.S. corn and soy subsidies not only affected American health, but also the health of the Global South. It led to a radical transformation in the diets of emerging nations’ growing middle class, for whom the availability of cheap U.S.-grown food had for years rendered their eating habits more and more American-like. The price of beef, stuffed with soybean imported from the U.S., has escalated beyond the means of those who once saw this delicacy as a symbol of their own Westernization. Junk food packed with high fructose corn syrup is also nowhere to be found. Instead, large supermarket retailers in the developing world are stocking their shelves with fruits and vegetables, whose diverse array of colors is luring customers previously unaware that some of these foods ever existed. Teenagers can be seen carrying huge watermelons, even holding little competitions among themselves to see who can hold the heaviest.
In turn the “double burden of disease”, the global health crisis the Global South began to face in the 21st century, was brought to an end. No longer do they have to bear the burden of both malnutrition and infectious diseases and non-communicable, “Western” diseases. The double burden had emerged in the Global South because of an adoption of Western diets and lifestyles. Western diets play a major role in the emergence of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease. In countries like the U.S., these problems were often associated with the poor since unhealthy foods were cheaper than fresh produce. However, in the developing world, it was the growing middle class that was purchasing imported junk food.
Since the end of the subsidies in 2014, the cardiovascular and obesity component of the "double burden of disease" is almost nonexistent. Furthermore, doctors say that cases of micronutrient deficiency in children in the developing world are at their lowest level in 10 years, in large part because snack products with the Nabisco label are less and less likely to be found these days.
Removal of subsidies in 2014 has improved the health of many around the world. Americans frequent grocery stores and eat meals rich in vegetables and fruit and those in urban areas in the Global South no longer strive to eat fast food. When many Americans were questioned, they wondered why they ever ate fast food in the first place. Fast food has been stigmatized as the food of the rich and unhealthy, a luxury only meant to be eaten once in a while.
Returning to the couple celebrating their anniversary...when asked how they enjoyed their meal at McDonalds, the wife responded:
"While tasty and delicious, it was no tastier than the meals I cook at home full of fruits and vegetables. I felt sluggish and gross after finishing my Big Mac. I have no idea why my grandfather ever ate at McDonalds and at my next anniversary, I hope to try out a new vegetarian recipe."
And what is going to happen if our counterfactual doesn’t come to fruition?
Estimates have shown that by 2020, ischemic heart disease will be the largest single cause of the global disease burden…