Alas, the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity took a more earnest approach. Last week, at an event hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama, it issued a 70-point plan for reducing the childhood obesity rate.
Unfortunately, the First Lady and her friends devote more time to telling farmers what they should do than to helping us improve our productivity through innovation and reform.
Right now, says the report, about one in five American kids is overweight. It would like to see this figure (so to speak) reduced to just 5 percent over the next ten years.
That’s a worthy goal because obesity is indeed a serious problem. But let’s pause for a moment and reflect upon an important fact. In much of the world, children don’t have enough to eat. Famine and malnutrition are deadly afflictions. In the United States, however, we have such an abundance of affordable food that we have to worry about over-eating rather than under-eating.
I don’t mean to minimize the importance of fighting obesity–but I do want to keep in mind that some problems are preferable to others. Let’s not forget to count our blessings.
We don’t suffer from chronic food shortages because American farmers are so amazingly productive. The White House now would like to harness our energies in the war on obesity.
Americans need to eat more fruits and vegetables, says the task force. It calculates that the average person already consumes 644 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year. It recommends an increase of 453 pounds, or more than 70 percent.
If Americans demand more fruits and vegetables, then farmers like me will grow them. That’s the easy part. Markets always have been the best way of delivering products to consumers.
Yet the task force seems attracted to a different approach: It would have Washington try to steer farmers toward growing additional fruits and vegetables, in the belief that if the supply increases then the demand will follow.
That’s like thinking kids will eat more spinach if we double the portions we put on their dinner plates. This is a miracle beyond the power of legislation.
If lawmakers want to increase the supply of fruits and vegetables, they have better options than issuing stern lectures about eating your veggies–or trying to tell farmers what we should grow. They can get started right now simply by embracing trade and technology.
Free-trade agreements are excellent ways of boosting food supplies. Many of our fruits and vegetables already come from Latin America. In New Jersey, I can grow peaches but not bananas. So we ought to expand trade–especially agricultural trade–with this region. The White House should persuade its allies in Congress to set aside their protectionist fears and approve pending trade agreements with Colombia and Panama. They’re long overdue.
Technology also can help put more fruits and vegetables into the hands of Americans. Land already devoted to fruits and vegetables might be made more productive. One constant enemy is frost. Earlier this year, sub-freezing temperatures destroyed an enormous amount of citrus, strawberries, and tomatoes in the Southeast, especially Florida. Food prices shot up immediately.
Writing in a recent issue of the journal Regulation, Henry I. Miller of the Hoover Institution proposed a creative solution. He suggested that scientists work to develop a special bacterium that can help protect fruits and vegetables from frost.
The good news is that they’ve already done a lot of work in this area: Researchers began to address the problem a generation ago and came close to commercializing a product that relied on “ice-minus bacteria.” The bad news is that the federal government smothered it with unnecessary regulations. A tool that holds the potential to save fruits and vegetables from killer frost remains out of reach. We need a regulatory system that makes sound decisions based on science–one that works with us rather than against us.
In the fight against obesity, will Washington encourage free trade and technological innovation? Let’s hope the odds are better than a “fat chance.”
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org).