05/24/2011 05:40 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2011

Agricultural Policy Should Fuel Health, Not Epidemics!

Today, doctors wrote a prescription for Congress. If followed, this prescription will not only help heal our country's fiscal woes, but protect the health of millions of Americans.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) sent a letter to Representative Hal Rogers, Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, this morning that outlined a plan to reform the way the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) spends its money on food.

The outcome of this plan would be federal savings and reduced medical costs for Americans because it would reverse the current system that heavily favors the food that clogs our arteries, widens our waistlines and wreaks havoc on our bodies in many other ways.

About 60 percent of all deaths in the United States are caused by diseases linked to unhealthy diet, including heart disease, cancer and stroke. Poor diet is also linked to skyrocketing epidemics of obesity and Type II diabetes.

At the moment, the USDA spends billions of dollars on agricultural programs that, for the most part, support the production and distribution of the very foods health experts tell us to avoid.

That means that the foods linked to those quadruple heart bypasses and kidney dialysis that are racking up our country's health care bills are also the foods that make up the bulk of the USDA's grocery list.

The USDA's own Dietary Guidelines for Americans direct us to choose more plant-based foods, like fruits and vegetables, and to avoid meats, cheese and other foods laden with solid fats and cholesterol. But in 2009, USDA spent more than twice as much buying meat and dairy as it did on fruits and vegetables. What that means is that the USDA used taxpayers' money to buy about $1.5 billion worth of meat and dairy.

The statistics are even worse when we look at the billions of dollars the USDA spends in agricultural subsidies each year. Data shows that about 63 percent of agricultural subsidies support the meat and dairy industries, while fruits and vegetables receive less than 1 percent! Furthermore, the top beneficiaries of these subsidies are wealthy agribusinesses, while smaller more sustainable farms are pushed out of business.

Americans are not only paying for these programs, they are also paying for the health care costs that go along with chronic disease. The American Heart Association estimates that by 2030, direct costs related to cardiovascular disease will triple to around $818 billion. The direct medical costs associated with obesity in 2008 totaled $147 billion. In 2010, diabetes alone cost $116 billion dollars.

The long-term implications of paying huge medical costs make it clear that we need to reform our food and agriculture programs, which is where PCRM stepped in, presenting several specific recommendations.

First, the USDA should align its food purchases with recommendations from its own Dietary Guidelines. It simply doesn't make sense to pour billions of federal dollars into the food that harms our health.

To rein in the outrageous spending on agricultural subsidies, PCRM also recommended ending agricultural subsidies to businesses that make more than $250,000 a year. Lastly, members of Congress and their spouses should be barred from receiving any direct payments. An Environmental Working Group study found that nearly two dozen current members of Congress have received agricultural subsidies. These members have a serious conflict of interest and must be prohibited from propping up a system that is damaging our nation's health.

These modest proposals are a common sense way to begin solving the many problems stemming from a flawed food system. Let's put healthy food back on the country's menu and reform agricultural policy.

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