With all the dialogue and commentary on Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed health code amendment to limit portion sizes, it seems an important argument in the Mayor’s favor has been missing — that this ban might actually help to put us back on track for a truly free market in our food supply. Yes, that’s right — “anti-consumer freedom socialists” and “the food police” might want to put down their victory flags. The NYC Mayor’s career to date confirms that he is indeed a capitalist, so I am fairly certain that he does not really take well to the “Nanny State” charge. And if we look one layer deeper at the sweetened beverage issue, it might well be that Bloomberg is helping to fight the “Nanny State” through this progressive effort.
What do I mean? Well, the data on the increase in sweetened drink consumption, especially over the past 30 years, is very clear. Americans are consuming about 200-300 more calories today than we did just three decades ago — those calories mostly coming from sweetened drinks. Globally there are over a billion people overweight or obese, and in NYC alone there are 2.1 million overweight and 1.4 million obese. Even more shocking (and sad), 40 percent of NYC school children are overweight. In 1985 less than 10 percent of New York State residents were obese, but by 2010 more than 24 percent of New York State residents were obese. We have seen a staggering increase in just the last thirty years.
This data begs the question — what happened around the 1970s and 80s that started the skyrocketing obesity epidemic? Was it an epidemic of blanket laziness across the whole population? Was it that people lost their human ability to make good choices? I would argue, No, its a food system built on false economics and corporate welfare — the most powerful Nannies have been lobbying on behalf of Big Ag and Big Food, who have been peddling larger and larger amounts of junk.
In and around 1980, a few key things changed the free market of our food supply and sweetened drinks might be the best example of this. Before 1980, the U.S. imported close to 45 percent of the sugar it consumed while it produced only 55 percent domestically. In 1981, the government instituted price supports for U.S. sugar beet and sugar cane producers, which shut our neighbors to the south out of their biggest potential export market for sugar. By 2004, domestic production accounted for 87 percent of the U.S. market for sugar. This means that U.S. sugar, the kind coming to us the “natural way” — from sugar beets and cane — became much more expensive than it would have been if the price protections hadn’t been in place. Because of rising sugar costs many food producers shifted to using cheaper HFCS, a new invention from the 1960s that, by the 70s was being produced at industrial levels.
Starting in 1974, U.S.D.A. income support policies encouraged farmers to continuously increase corn acreage. By November 1984, both Coke and Pepsi switched to HFCS to sweeten their drinks instead of the more expensive sugar. If you follow the path here, as we began to subsidize corn (initially to benefit farmers and increase food supply, but we can hardly claim cheap soda as the goal of the early corn lobby) and create new ways to use it, we created a false economy for what used to be known as “treats”.
Today, sweetened drinks are almost more ubiquitous than water (and then we usually only have the bottled kind to buy and not free fountains). If we really are rational economic actors and our human nature is pointing us to crave sugar, the current policies and price indicators are pointing us to drink way too much soda and eat way too much junk food. Someday, the multitude of externalizes that are not embedded in that 20 oz. cola — like the environmental degradation and soil erosion from massive mono-cropped corn farms, the real price of the petroleum in the pesticides, fertilizer and transportation, and that drink’s contribution of our $147 billion obesity-related health care bill — might actually be factored into the cost of the hapless brown drink. Eventually, many activists, farmers, and entrepreneurs pushing for healthier food want to see a truly free market food system, where sugar is priced fairly so that pay for farmers and farmworkers and transportation costs can be covered and corn is used to feed people healthy carbohydrates and fiber (not feed cars or cows or Cokes). If sweetened drinks were still made from real sugar, they would be more expensive, and most people would only want to pay for 16 ounces at a time and then, hopefully, not as a daily fix.
When this real free market food supply comes to be, we will realize that Mayor Bloomberg’s ban was actually helping to correct a huge distortion in the market and New Yorkers might realize how lucky they were that our Mayor ignored the Big Beverage Nanny and pushed us to switch away from falsely cheap sweetened drinks before the market’s hand priced them, appropriately, to be back in their place in our diet as just occasional treats.