Agricultural Policy no cause of overweight
Tuesday 30 January 2007This report covers an exploratory study into the relationship between European agricultural policy and public health. The motivation for this study is the debate on a possible negative relationship between the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and public health in the sense that certain CAP instruments stimulate the production and consumption of unhealthy food. In the current debate regarding the growing problem of overweightness and obesity, some critics therefore point an accusing finger at the government and the food industry. However, it appears that the existence of this relationship is difficult to demonstrate.
Within agricultural and food policy, attention has been devoted mainly to issues of food safety over the last few decades, yet in recent years there has been a gradually growing notion that agricultural policy should take account of public health (and particularly the nutritional value and quality of the products). According to Swedish research, however, there is a negative relationship, in which subsidies on unhealthy products and the high prices of healthy products play an important role. Three Dutch researchers also present the price ratio between different products as an important factor: unhealthy products are often cheaper than healthy products.
If the influence of the agricultural policy on public health is examined per product (or product group) and per instrument, more specific conclusions can be drawn. To this end, a number of market regulations have been examined that have been criticised in various publications for their (supposedly) negative effects on public health.
For dairy products, for example, the sales programmes for butter and school milk (full-cream milk) have promoted the consumption of relatively unhealthy animal fats, but one cannot prove that less butter would otherwise have been consumed.
For wine, the distillation premiums and the relatively low excise duties in some countries may encourage consumption, but here too, one cannot prove that the demand for wine would have been lower without this mechanism.
Tobacco is one of the few products for which there is an absolutely clear negative relationship between consumption and health. The EU policy of on the one hand subsidising the cultivation of tobacco and on the other hand running anti-smoking campaigns is therefore not consistent. This does not necessarily mean that there is a link between the subsidies provided for the cultivation of tobacco in the EU, the consumption of tobacco in the EU and the number of smokers.
Where sugar (and alcohol) are concerned, only excessive use is unhealthy. The fear that lower sugar prices resulting from market regulation reforms lead to increased sugar consumption appears to be unfounded. The relatively high EU prices for sugar - compared with world market prices – have prompted large-scale users of sugar to seek sugar substitutes. Most sugar substitutes (isoglucose and glucose syrups) are actually no better than sugar in terms of calories.
In general, the conclusion can be drawn that although the modification or abolition of certain CAP measures could reduce the consumption of unhealthy food, the effect must not be overestimated.