Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Michael Pollan: Food and Healthcare Reform

I just finished reading 2 articles about food recently published in the mainstream press. Michael Pollan penned Big Food vs. Big Insurance in the New York Times on 9.10.2009. You may be familiar with Michael Pollan as he as written numerous books on food such as The Omnivores Dilemma and The Defense of Food. The second article, Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food by Bryan Walsh, appeared in Time magazine on August 21, 2009. These thought provoking articles illustrate the confusion, greed, vulnerability, and hope surrounding the food we eat.

I admit to being a big fan of Michal Pollan. Although I don’t agree with him on everything, I think his research and forthrightness are not only welcome but essential. In my previous blog posting, I mentioned that the health care reform debate needs a paradigm shift to ensure that all Americans health care needs are met. In Pollan”s article, he connects food and health care reform.

In his article, Pollan focuses on the health care reform debate by stating, “The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care.” The Center for Disease Control has reported that 75% of health care spending is for “preventable chronic diseases.” Startling financial statistics include: Americans annually spend $147 billion to treat obesity and $116 billion to treat diabetes. Treating obesity accounts for 10% of health care spending. Pollan’s article questions why we aren’t discussing food and food system reform.

Pollan proposes that the US government is actually subsidizing the cost of treating Type 2 Diabetes. For example, over the past 10 years, lawmakers in Washington D.C. have given more than $50 billion dollars to the corn industry, thus allowing the corn to remain cheap and therefore widely available. How is corn related to health care? The increasing consumption of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is currently fueling the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Cheap corn allows the average person to buy a Big Mac, fries, and a Coke from McDonalds for about $5. This cheap meal not only has no nutritional value but also contains a whopping 1200 calories. This is more than half of the recommended daily caloric intake for an adult.

Cheap food may be cheap at the point of sale but Pollan and Walsh both point out that when other costs are taken into consideration, the cost of food is actually much higher. Costs normally invisible to the average food consumer include:
  1. the health impact (and treatment): Some of these numbers were discussed earlier·
  2. environmental degradation: 19% of fossil fuels used in the U.S. are used for our “energy-intensive food system); 23 million tons of fertilizer are used annually to grow crops in the U.S.; runoff from these intensive fertilizers pollute Midwest rivers and the Gulf of Mexico killing sea life. The fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico loses 212,000 metrics tons of seafood yearly due to this fertilizer runoff.
  3. animal welfare: 70% of antibiotics administered in the U.S. are given to animals raised for food, not humans, This leads to antibiotics resistance in animals and humans that costs the public-health system $4-5 billion annually.
These are just some of the costs, which illustrate that our food system is not sustainable as it currently stands. Not only do Pollan and Walsh illustrate the problems associated with our current food and health care system, they both invite discussion as to how best to develop a new food and health care paradigm. I’m thankful to both of them for illustrating the “uncomfortable realities of how we eat.”

I don’t believe all hope is lost. In an upcoming blog post, I’ll discuss why I’m hopeful that true change is possible.

No comments: