May 30, 2012
Believe it or not, just because I work for an academic institution does not mean that I relish reading academic reports. Usually, the monotonous, highly annotated text tends to make the eyelids of even the nerdiest of nerds (aka yours truly) grow heavy. And, yet, every once in a while, a bit of magic pops off the page, and with it the eyelids fly open. Such was the case when I read the Institute of Medicine’s report, Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation.
Okay, okay. I have not read all 462 pages of the report, but what I did read was profound. No, the ideas were not new, but what I was reading was a succinct summary—by one of the most respected research bodies in the nation—of connections between agriculture policy and health, and steps we need to take immediately in order to assure improved public health. This isn’t the first time that the IOM or another official body has called attention to these links, but it is the first time that such an urgency has been placed on the call to better understand and address the connections.
I include here, for your enjoyment, said recommendations. They are specific, they are doable, and we need to make sure we do not let this farm bill cycle slip by without including as many of them as possible in the legislation. I challenge you to read them carefully. Think of them like the yoga sutras, pearls of wisdom that need to be unpacked, mulled over and then acted upon. (And, if you need some ideas of how to act, continue reading below.)
1. “the President appointing a Task Force on Agriculture Policy and Obesity Prevention to evaluate the evidence on the relationship between agriculture policies and the American diet, and to develop recommendations for policy options and future policy-related research, specifically on the impact of farm subsidies and the management of commodities on food prices, access, affordability, and consumption;
2. “Congress and the Administration establishing a process by which federal food, agriculture, and health officials would review and report on the possible implications of U.S. agriculture policy for obesity prevention to ensure that this issue will be fully taken into account when policy makers consider the Farm Bill;
3. “Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developing policy options for promoting increased domestic production of foods recommended for a healthy diet that are generally underconsumed, including fruits and vegetables and dairy products, by reviewing incentives and disincentives that exist in current policy;
4. “as part of its agricultural research agenda, USDA exploring the optimal mix of crops and farming methods for meeting the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, including an examination of the possible impact of smaller-scale agriculture, of regional agricultural product distribution chains, and of various agricultural models from small to large scale, as well as other efforts to ensure a sustainable, sufficient, and affordable supply of fresh fruits and vegetables; and
5. “Congress and the Administration ensuring that there is adequate public funding for agricultural research and extension so that the research agenda can include a greater focus on supporting the production of foods Americans need to consume in greater quantities according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” p. 208
NSAC, CLF and partners have been working on specific priorities for the upcoming farm bill, and many align with the five potential actions suggested by the IOM, including urging increased cross-agency collaboration around the health impacts of food and agriculture policy and enabling USDA to do an assessment of the health impacts of federal food and agriculture policies. In addition to the assessment, many of the policies and programs that are part of the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act address the recommendations listed in #4. Research has also been a priority for NSAC, CLF, and others in the health community.
While these IOM recommendations are specific to obesity, there are potential positive implications for other human and environmental health issues (for more on links between agriculture and public health, see this report by CLF, NSAC and colleagues).
Research, while often dry in its presentation, is one of the most powerful tools for shifting policy—if it is carried off the page and into action. As the IOM report states, “…there are real opportunities to adjust farm policies in meaningful ways to better support the nation’s changing food and nutrition needs” (p.209).
Are your eyes still open? If so, spread the word. The IOM agrees, agriculture and health are linked, and it’s time to ensure our agriculture policies support our nation’s health.
This commentary has been also posted on the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s blog.