The first piece of legislation passed by the new Congress of the United States of America after the ratification of the Constitution included a tariff on the import of foreign sugar. Although this tariff was passed as a means to raise the funds needed to pay the debts accrued during the Revolutionary War, coincidentally it also provided elaborate protections to the nation’s wealthiest farmers of sugarcane and sugar beets.
The indirect subsidies afforded to the sugar producers by the Tariff Act of 1789 have been reapproved and signed, now via the Farm Bill, every five years by every available president up to and including Donald J. Trump. For more than two hundred years, these sugar producers in America have been able to sell their product at prices higher than what the market would normally allow. Later this year, President Joe Biden will get the opportunity to put his signature on the bill as well.
In the late 1960s, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan discovered an enzyme that effectively and easily converted cornstarch into fructose. This technology was ultimately sold to American companies, and in 1983, the Food and Drug Administration approved high fructose corn syrup as safe for consumption. In short order, the food industry took advantage of this cheap, new form of sweetener in extraordinary amounts. Supply of this ersatz sugar became abundant. The market, as you would expect, used this opportunity to undercut the historically high prices of sugar generated by the aforementioned tariff.
Due to this market opportunity, a new agricultural policy was pushed at the highest levels of the federal government. From 1971 to 1976—under the auspices of Richard Nixon—the secretary of agriculture, a loud, boisterous man named Earl Butz, became famous for conjuring up a new “fencerow to fencerow” policy: maximum production for corn and soy, as the demand for these crops were now high. He pushed farmers to take on debt to buy more land and machines to drive production. Henceforth, lavish government subsidies (by way of the same Farm Bill mentioned earlier) were doled out to corn farmers. Production of these crops skyrocketed, and given the increased supply of corn, sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup became cheaper on the open market.
To fully understand how governmental policies lead to adverse health effects, it is important to understand how the human body metabolizes different types of sugar. The most abundant sugar on earth is glucose, a six-carbon hexagonal sugar, which has been what our bodies have mainly adapted to and utilized for energy production. Fructose, a five-carbon pentagon, is another sugar found in nature, natural to many foods and another source of energy for the body. Similarly, both glucose and fructose are broken down in the body during metabolism by a biochemical pathway called glycolysis.
However, due to its shape, fructose happens to bypass a key early enzyme in the biochemical pathway that can serve as a check on energy production. Therefore, a fructose molecule entering glycolysis becomes metabolized and stored faster and easier than glucose. Overall, excess fructose ingestion leads to excess fat in the body.
That is precisely what we have seen scaled up from the molecular level all the way to the population level: soaring rates of obesity driven primarily by excessive sugar consumption. Today, Americans consume an average of 130 pounds of added sugar per year, much of that coming by way of fructose. This is a sharp uptick from the 1970s, when average yearly consumption was closer to eighty pounds. Likewise, obesity has skyrocketed since the 1970s. The obesity epidemic continues to worsen, quickly approaching a 50 percent prevalence in the country.
Obesity can increase one’s chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, renal failure, serious infections (e.g., worse covid outcomes), osteoarthritis, stroke, blindness, different forms of cancer, and depression, and the list continues on. Obesity not only shortens life expectancy but also decreases quality of life, especially by putting financial strain on the individual. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the annual medical costs for adults with obesity were $1,861 higher than medical costs for people with healthy weight.
Obesity is also putting financial strain on the society writ large. The CDC reported the annual medical cost of obesity was nearly $173 billion in 2019 dollars; in all likelihood, this is an underestimate. Looking at the US fiscal year budget as a pie chart, one of the largest slices of the budget goes to Medicare and Medicaid. It is no surprise to find the national debt increasing to unfathomable heights.
Policies put forth by the national government have real-world consequences, sometimes taking decades or even centuries—if you care to draw cause and effect back to the Tariff Act of 1789—to fully manifest. It is both sad and almost comical to have the American taxpayer subsidizing the sugarcane and sugar beet industries—which puts upward pressure on the price of sugar—to then subsidizing the corn industry in order to undercut these high sugar prices, only later for the taxpayer to be taxed again to fund Medicare and Medicaid in the government’s attempt to curb the health fallout from obesity.
Many will cheer the president, from both the high-spending Left and profarmer Right, as he places his John Hancock on the Farm Bill that is due for renewal this year. Understand, however, that subsidizing farmers to mass produce corn is one of the largest drivers of health and economic decline in our nation.