Taking on childhood obesity by attacking subsidized corn starch

Why, when faced with a childhood obesity epidemic, would the federal government continue to subsidize corn-based sweeteners suspected of contributing to the problem?

That's the question being posed Tuesday by several leading research physicians at Mount Sinai, who took out an ad in The New York Times asking why Congress subsidizes corn starch but not cauliflower. 

"High-fructose corn syrup [HFCS] now represents 40 percent of the non-calorie-free sweeteners added to U.S. foods. It is virtually the only sweetener used in soft drinks," write Philip Landrigan, Mount Sinai's dean for global health; Lisa Satlin, chair of the pediatrics department; and Paolo Boffetta, deputy director of the school's Tisch Cancer Institute. "Because of the subsidies, the cost of soft drinks containing HFCS has decreased by 24 percent since 1985, while the price of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 39 percent."

It's no coincidence, the doctors claim, that childhood obesity — which has tripled over the past 30 years — is skyrocketing at the same time that HFCS consumption has done the same.

Congress has contributed  — in 2008, lawmakers passed a five-year, $307 billion farm bill that provided billions of dollars in subsidies to farming families earning as much as $2.5 million per year, and often times more. Corn farmers were among the top beneficiaries. 

The law also created a new program to have the government buy surplus sugar for ethanol production. Critics noted that the provision reduces market supply, keeping sugar prices artificially high on the grocery store shelves — and encouraging food and soft-drink manufacturers to use less expensive corn sweeteners.

Although then-President George W. Bush tried to block the farm bill  — arguing that the subsidies shouldn't go to wealthy farmers — lawmakers from both parties stepped in to override his veto.

If Congress ever hopes to get the childhood obesity problem under control, health experts argue, a new look at farm subsidies will be vital. 

"Curbing the obesity epidemic requires a multifaceted approach: education, increased physical activity, healthy school food, promotion of unprocessed foods — and a change in agriculture policy," the doctors write. "Coordinated national leadership is essential."