16 October 2008

Food policy is not health policy

Michael Pollan writes:
Four of the top 10 killers in America today are chronic diseases linked to diet: heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and cancer. It is no coincidence that in the years national spending on health care went from 5 percent to 16 percent of national income, spending on food has fallen by a comparable amount — from 18 percent of household income to less than 10 percent. While the surfeit of cheap calories that the U.S. food system has produced since the late 1970s may have taken food prices off the political agenda, this has come at a steep cost to public health. ... Cheap energy, however, enabled the creation of monocultures, and monocultures in turn vastly increased the productivity both of the American land and the American farmer; today the typical corn-belt farmer is single-handedly feeding 140 people. Farmer in Chief
Much like a see-saw, when government successfully achieves a narrow social or environmental goal, another problem asserts itself. Sadly, our level of aggregation is now so high and our interconnectedness so pervasive that we cannot target social and environmental problems in the usual way, which involves trying to tackle the supposed causes. Society is just too complicated; the relationships between cause and effect are too obscure, the time lags too long, and the number and impact of unanticipated factors so huge that only the broadest social and environmental goals should be explicitly targeted.

And the most meaningful. Raising food production is not a meaningful objective, nor is reducing the price of food. These are bureaucratic or corporate goals, unrelated to the wellbeing of ordinary people. What would make a meaningful is the physical wellbeing of people: more difficult to quantify, granted, but not impossible. It is that goal that an enlightened government-backed Social Policy Bond regime would target, inter alia, law and order, the eradication of poverty, and basic levels of education and housing for all. Governments issuing Social Policy Bonds would focus on ends, rather than means, so that the tragic outcomes of government intervention in agriculture (for example) could be avoided and instead rewards would flow inevitably to those who help achieve social outcomes rather than, as at present, those who can best game the system.

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