SEATTLE, Washington — In the fight against hunger, food assistance programs are crucial and help save millions of lives. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) writes that “…food assistance is a powerful instrument in alleviating chronic hunger and establishing a base for future food security…” Food assistance programs, such as food stamps and food subsidies, are programs enacted by national governments to provide nutrition to those members of societies who cannot afford adequate food and nutrition on their own. Most national governments of the world provide food aid in some form but there is little focus on subsidizing nutrient-dense food.
What are Food Subsidy Programs?
Food subsidy programs do much to alleviate hunger by providing certain food items at a lower cost to the program beneficiaries. The benefits of these programs can be magnified when nutritionally-rich foods are subsidized. Conversely, the benefits of these programs can be limited when food that is not nutritionally valuable is subsidized, as a new study in India suggests. These types of subsidies may even do more harm than good, by encouraging low-income people to eat unhealthy foods.
The Problem with Subsidizing Rice and Sugar
The study, “Subsidising rice and sugar? The Public Distribution System and Nutritional Outcomes in Andhra Pradesh India,” is the result of a joint project by researchers from four universities in India, the United Kingdom and Italy, and was published in the Journal of Social Policy on 21 July 2020. The researchers examined the benefits of India’s Public Distribution System, the country’s main food subsidy program that subsidizes wheat, sugar and rice. The study suggests that while subsidies on rice and sugar may help address hunger in the short-term, they do nothing to alleviate the more long-term effects of malnutrition.
Malnutrition is an extremely insidious health problem since it is dangerous both in the immediate form of starvation and because it can have long-term consequences. These long-term consequences are especially pronounced when children experience malnutrition for extended periods, which can stunt their growth and their cognitive development and lead to a cycle of poverty. In India, 38% of children under the age of 5 suffer from extended periods of malnutrition. The study found that sugar and rice subsidies did little to address the wide-ranging and far-reaching impacts of this massive childhood epidemic.
Unhealthy Subsidized Foods Cause Health Problems
Not only do subsidies on rice and sugar do little to address the impacts of extended malnutrition but these subsidies may also actually create separate health problems as well. A 2016 report published in JAMA Internal Medicine examined the health outcomes for U.S. citizens that consumed a high percentage of subsidized foods and found that they were more likely to suffer from a variety of health problems, including obesity and high blood sugar. The report gives insight on the consequences of unhealthy subsidized foods for people all around the world.
As a result of the 1973 Farm Bill, the U.S. Government subsidizes a number of agricultural products, including corn, rice and sugar, as a way to support farmers and combat hunger. These products are often put out into the market as processed goods, such as high fructose corn syrup. Since they are subsidized, many low-income people have no other option than to consume these food products instead of more nutrient-dense foods. The same applies to similar government food programs around the world.
Reexamining Food Subsidy Programs
While food subsidies are crucial programs that help keep millions of people around the world from starving, these studies suggest that subsidizing products like rice and sugar may actually be doing more harm than good. Food subsidy programs should be reexamined, co-author of the “Subsidising rice and sugar?” study, Dr. Sukumar Vellakkal argues, because “It is possible that other more nutrient-dense foods could offer greater benefits for improving nutrition.” With a focus on subsidizing nutrient-dense food, global issues such as malnutrition and other nutrient-related disorders can be combatted at the same time as hunger.
– Dylan Weir