A Philosopher's Blog

Food Ethics: Subsidies

Posted in Business, Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2012

The United States and other countries face the rather odd problem of having a significant portion of the population both overweight and malnourished. One factor that contributes to this is that calorie dense and nutritionally empty foods are cheap and accessible while foods that are nutritionally rich tend to be more expensive and less accessible.

To anticipate a likely response, a person’s diet is also obviously also a matter of choice-people are not forced to down Twinkies, burgers, chips and cola at gun point. However, a person’s choices are obviously impacted by factors like cost and accessibility (as well as marketing). As such, it is hardly surprising that people tend to choose the food that is cheaper are more readily accessible over the food that is more expensive and takes more effort to acquire.

While calorie dense and nutritionally lacking food tends to be cheaper than more nutritionally rich food for a variety of reasons, one reason for price differences lies in differences in state subsidies. In an interesting irony, the federal nutrition recommendations are a reverse of the federal food subsides. This is nicely illustrated by the following pyramids:


This, as might be imagined, raises some interesting moral concerns in the area of food ethics. The most obvious concern is that the United States government’s subsidies impacts the pricing of food in a way that food that we should (by the government’s own recommendations) eat less of will tend to be cheaper than the food that we should be eating more off. As such, as the heading says, a salad will tend to be more expensive than a fast food burger, despite the fact that the salad is better for a person nutritionally.

To focus directly on the ethics, by making less healthy food cheaper through subsidies, the state is making it more likely that people will make harmful dietary choices. That is, that they will pick the calories rich and nutritionally lacking foods (such as fast food and junk food) over the nutritionally rich food. In short, the folks who make these decisions are contributing to harming people, which certainly seems to be wrong (if only on utilitarian grounds).

If the state is going to subsidize foods, then the rational and ethical approach would be to subsidize foods based on legitimate scientific recommendations. That is, the food that is better for people should be subsidized and food that tends to not be good for people (or is actually harmful) should either not be subsidized or should be subsidized proportional to its nutritional value.

The reality is, of course, that subsidies are not based on concerns of health or food ethics, but rather based on political influence. As such, the subsidies help create a situation in which unhealthy food is cheap and hence tends to be consumed more than healthy foods. This in turn contributes to health problems (obesity, for example) which costs us even more. Thus, we are paying to eat poorly and then paying again for the effects of these poor diets. This seems to be something we should not be doing, both from a practical and a moral standpoint.


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7 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on February 20, 2012 at 9:07 am

    The food pyramid you used has been supplanted by a new one. The new one would not make your point quite as well, but your point would still stand.

    New vs. old shown here: http://www.disabled-world.com/artman/publish/food_pyramid.shtml

  2. T. J. Babson said, on February 20, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Here is an alternate theory from Theodore Dalrymple:

    I found the research mildly disconcerting. Moreover, the heart of the problem — the poor diet of many American children — is for me symbolized in the researcher’s use of the word “student” for children of kindergarten age and for those only a year or two older. Kindergarten children and pupils are not students: they grow into studenthood with age, as their studies become more self-chosen and self-directed. At first, they need a lot of direction.

    What applies to study applies to food:

    for if children are given the choice too early of what to eat, they will forever eat what is childish.

    French children are not given the choice, and therefore quickly develop a more mature taste, and are less fat. They do not need to be experimented upon by psychologists and others to get them to eat well.


    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 20, 2012 at 2:21 pm

      As I recall from my own childhood, I had the usual childish tastes: Big Macs were my favorites and I loved sugary drinks and other junk. As I got older, I found it harder to even keep a Big Mac down and junk food made me sick to my stomach. Assuming I am not a mutant, I suspect that there is an actual difference in the tastes of people as they age.

      But, as Theodore notes, it does make sense that training one’s taste does have a role. I’ve found that I have retrained my own tastes so that I like bad-for-me food less because I have focused on eating good-for-me food. It was tough (my love of donuts was hard to shake).

    • anon said, on February 21, 2012 at 1:33 pm

      “Kindergarten children and pupils are not students: they grow into studenthood with age,”
      That guy has no idea what the word student means. Pupils is even a synonym for student.

      “if children are given the choice too early of what to eat, they will forever eat what is childish”
      Aka, children eat it, then it is childish, if adults eat it then it is “adultish”. This sentence means nothing. Children will eat what they like, no matter what it is.

      All it comes down to is that kids really need is to be forced to eat new and different things so they can expand their “taste horizons” and see that just because they haven’t had somethign before doesn’t mean it is yucky and that its ok to try new things. That and to not stigmatize food as “kid food” and “adult food”.

      Also, subsidizes should definitely be changed as to emphasize healthy eating/living. A few ideas that might help:
      1) Make sure all fruits and vegetages are tax free and certain processed foods (things like twinkies, stuff that really isn’t healthy at all) should be taxed heavier/be taxed
      2) those who farm vegetable, fruit, and grain crops should be helped to some degree (subsidized when needed to exist, help reduce cost for all consumers)
      3) find a ways to help get healthier foods into more places (could be done by running numerious trials over time to see what works/doesn’t work) and last longer

    • Douglas Moore said, on February 23, 2012 at 9:43 am

      “for if children are given the choice too early of what to eat, they will forever eat what is childish.”

      This is absolutely true. One of the plagues on our society is giving kids too many choices.

      • dhammett said, on February 23, 2012 at 5:57 pm

        Setting aside for a moment the likelihood that someone will object to the following on the basis that we should never give a kid ice cream if he chooses to eat ice cream, here’s some anecdotal evidence to ponder. Interpret it as you will.

        When my youngest son was six years old–he’s 36 now–we took him to the local dairy and told him he could have a double dip cone of his choice. He chose peanut butter ice cream and lime sherbet. For many reasons, that’s a childish , ill-informed choice.
        He’s never eaten peanut butter and lime sherbet together, in a cone or in a dish, since.

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