I was talking with one of my sisters last night and she mentioned reading a piece by author and food ethicist Michael Pollan, who sees an interesting twist to the health insurance reform debate.
As Pollan notes, many of our health problems, and so many of the high costs related to health care, are directly related to the way we eat:
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.
We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.
The American way of eating has become the elephant in the room in the debate over health care. But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform.
As things stand, the health care industry finds it more profitable to treat chronic diseases than to prevent them. There’s more money in amputating the limbs of diabetics than in counseling them on diet and exercise.
He then goes on to discuss how health insurance reforms, which would require insurers to provide a standard level of coverage to everyone at the same rate, will result in a “sea change” between the health insurance industry and the food industry.
The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet. A patient with Type 2 diabetes incurs additional health care costs of more than $6,600 a year; over a lifetime, that can come to more than $400,000. Insurers will quickly figure out that every case of Type 2 diabetes they can prevent adds $400,000 to their bottom line. Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits.
Agribusiness dominates the agriculture committees of Congress, and has swatted away most efforts at reform. But what happens when the health insurance industry realizes that our system of farm subsidies makes junk food cheap, and fresh produce dear, and thus contributes to obesity and Type 2 diabetes? It will promptly get involved in the fight over the farm bill — which is to say, the industry will begin buying seats on those agriculture committees and demanding that the next bill be written with the interests of the public health more firmly in mind.
Wow, sort of like Godzilla vs. King Kong.
But that’s what it likely will take to wean America off its deadly King Corn diet, which is not only making us sick, but animals and the planet, too.
Meanwhile, some very intriguing research has emerged that further defines the link between our corn- and soy-dominated diet and obesity. It seems that we, and the animals we eat, used to consume a lot of omega-3 fats, but in the last century, we’ve all upped our intake of omega-6 fats — the kind found in corn and soy.
We are now eating a diet that is supposed to fatten us up for winter, when weather is harsh and calories are scarce. But today food is never scarce for the average American. The base of our food supply has shifted from leaves to seeds, and this simple change means our bodies are storing more fat, leading to obesity and all its associated diseases.
The question now is how do you unravel all this? Farmers are deeply dependent on subsidies, people have grown addicted to their sodas and fast foods, medicine is geared toward repair and maintenance, rather than prevention, government policies favor the status quo.
The same scenario exists in our equally dangerous attachment to fossil fuels, with its own set of powerful interest groups, gas-addicted consumers and government policies that heavily subsidize fossil fuels. According to research done by the Environmental Law Institute in partnership with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars:
Fossil fuels benefited from approximately $72 billion over the seven-year period [2002-08], while subsidies for renewable fuels totaled only $29 billion. More than half the subsidies for renewables—$16.8 billion—are attributable to corn-based ethanol, the climate effects of which are hotly disputed. Of the fossil fuel subsidies, $70.2 billion went to traditional sources—such as coal and oil—and $2.3 billion went to carbon capture and storage, which is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Thus, energy subsidies highly favored energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases over sources that would decrease our climate footprint.
If it will take something as powerful as insurance interests to topple agribusiness interests, what will it take to topple fossil fuel interests? And what will it take to topple a system that is guided not by the best interests of the people and the planet, but the shareholders?