Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The economic advantages of obesity

Slate's Daniel Gross posted a half-sarcastic article on Thursday last week about the business opportunities presented by an increasingly overweight U.S. population. Thanks to James Chapman for suggesting the link in an email message while I was away.

Like the discussion a couple weeks ago about including breast milk in national income accounts, Gross' article reminded me of a professor's explanation many years ago about some of the quirks of computing gross domestic product: for example, if the government printed money and buried it in deep holes, so that people had to shovel the money out again, all of this activity would appear to add positively to GDP.

Similarly, I have been wondering recently about the role of meat consumption in answering a question I frequently hear in nutrition circles: do USDA farm subsidy programs contribute to obesity? The argument is often that corn subsidies in particular may encourage overconsumption of products such as high fructose corn syrup. But I think the majority of corn is used as animal feed in the United States. To the extent that any farm program lowers market prices for corn, it would make meat production less expensive. Meat is such a resource inefficient way of producing calories. I wonder if such farm programs would actually promote less obesity.

Suppose there were a "national income account" for food calorie production, import, export, and consumption from all farm commodities. In this "national calorie account," would subsidizing meat production through lower corn prices be equivalent to burying currency in holes in the ground? Would it generate lots of unnecessary economic activity (and producer income) while squandering calories and lowering the total amount of food energy consumed in the United States?

1 comment:

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