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Are Agricultural Policies Making Us Fat? Likely Links between Agricultural Policies and Human Nutrition and Obesity, and Their Policy Implications


  • Julian M. Alston
  • Daniel A. Sumner
  • Stephen A. Vosti


Rates of obesity among adults and children in the U.S. are soaring, with potentially huge private and social costs. Increasing attention is being paid to agricultural policies as both the culprits through their perceived roles in reducing the relative prices of energy-dense foods, and as the potential saviors through their perceived ability to do the opposite. However, the effects of agricultural policies on human nutrition and obesity are not well understood. This paper considers (1) trends in agricultural commodity prices, and the contributions of commodity policies and agricultural R&D policies to those trends, (2) the links between changes in commodity prices and changes in food prices; and (3) the implications of price-induced changes in food characteristics for human nutrition outcomes. Preliminary results suggest that agricultural R&D has led to dramatic decreases in costs of production and to consequent long-term declines in commodity prices, but the links between commodity price declines and food prices are less clear and are conditioned by the changing structure of food markets. Commodity-specific trade policy has clearly put upward pressure on the domestic prices of several major food commodities, but the consumer prices for most of these foods have fallen nonetheless. Changes in relative prices of 'healthy' versus 'unhealthy' foods are difficult to establish empirically, but even if 'healthy' foods are becoming relatively more expensive, food prices in general play only a small role in determining food consumption; hence, policies aiming to reduce obesity through changes in relative food prices may prove ineffective or inefficient.
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Suggested Citation

  • Julian M. Alston & Daniel A. Sumner & Stephen A. Vosti, 2006. "Are Agricultural Policies Making Us Fat? Likely Links between Agricultural Policies and Human Nutrition and Obesity, and Their Policy Implications ," Review of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 28(3), pages 313-322.
  • Handle: RePEc:oup:revage:v:28:y:2006:i:3:p:313-322

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Julian M. Alston & Philip G. Pardey & Jennifer S. James & Matthew A. Anderson, 2009. "The Economics of Agricultural R&D," Annual Review of Resource Economics, Annual Reviews, vol. 1(1), pages 537-566, September.
    2. repec:aph:ajpbhl:2000:90:6:854-857_7 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Kuchler, Fred & Tegene, Abebayehu & Harris, James Michael, 2004. "Taxing Snack Foods: What to Expect for Diet and Tax Revenues," Agricultural Information Bulletins 33607, United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service.
    4. repec:aph:ajpbhl:2004:94:9:1555-1559_9 is not listed on IDEAS
    5. Cash, Sean B. & Sunding, David L. & Zilberman, David, 2004. "Fat Taxes And Thin Subsidies: Prices, Diet, And Health Outcomes," 2004 Annual meeting, August 1-4, Denver, CO 19961, American Agricultural Economics Association (New Name 2008: Agricultural and Applied Economics Association).
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    Cited by:

    1. Bonnet, Céline & Requillart, Vincent, 2010. "Is The Eu Sugar Policy Reform Likely To Increase Obesity?," 115th Joint EAAE/AAEA Seminar, September 15-17, 2010, Freising-Weihenstephan, Germany 116414, European Association of Agricultural Economists;Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.
    2. Cash, Sean B. & Lacanilao, Ryan D., 2007. "Taxing Food to Improve Health: Economic Evidence and Arguments," Agricultural and Resource Economics Review, Northeastern Agricultural and Resource Economics Association, vol. 36(2), October.
    3. Julian M. Alston & Joanna P. MacEwan & Abigail M. Okrent, 2016. "Effects of U.S. Public Agricultural R&D on U.S. Obesity and its Social Costs," Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, vol. 38(3), pages 492-520.
    4. Beghin, John C. & Jensen, Helen H., 2008. "Farm policies and added sugars in US diets," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 33(6), pages 480-488, December.
    5. Céline Bonnet & Vincent Requillart, 2011. "Does the EU sugar policy reform increase added sugar consumption? An empirical evidence on the soft drink market," Health Economics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 20(9), pages 1012-1024, September.
    6. Alston, Julian M. & Sumner, Daniel A. & Vosti, Stephen A., 2008. "Farm subsidies and obesity in the United States: National evidence and international comparisons," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 33(6), pages 470-479, December.
    7. Bimbo, Francesco & Viscecchia, Rosaria & Nardone, Gianluca, 2012. "Does the alternative food supply network affect the human health?," 126th Seminar, June 27-29, 2012, Capri, Italy 126060, European Association of Agricultural Economists.
    8. Bradley J. Rickard & Abigail M. Okrent & Julian M. Alston, 2013. "How Have Agricultural Policies Influenced Caloric Consumption In The United States?," Health Economics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 22(3), pages 316-339, March.
    9. repec:ags:aare13:148420 is not listed on IDEAS
    10. Alston, Julian M. & Mullally, Conner C. & Sumner, Daniel A. & Townsend, Marilyn & Vosti, Stephen A., 2009. "Likely effects on obesity from proposed changes to the US food stamp program," Food Policy, Elsevier, vol. 34(2), pages 176-184, April.
    11. Ehmke, Mariah D. & Willson, Tina M. & Schroeter, Christiane & Hart, Ann Marie & Coupal, Roger H., 2009. "Obesity Economics for the Western United States," Western Economics Forum, Western Agricultural Economics Association, vol. 8(02).

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • H5 - Public Economics - - National Government Expenditures and Related Policies
    • Q18 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - Agricultural Policy; Food Policy
    • Q16 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Agriculture - - - R&D; Agricultural Technology; Biofuels; Agricultural Extension Services
    • I0 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - General


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