By Erin Lale
In an odd parody of former Las Vegas City Councilman Oscar Goodman’s usual pair of showgirls, New York City Councilman Dan Halloran reacted to New York’s recent anti- Big Gulp law by appearing in a photo opportunity flanked by women dressed as sodas with straws. It might seem illogical that this photo was shared around the Internet by the same people who are mad that a federal agent dumped bleach on vegetables at a farm in Nevada because the farmer didn’t have a purchase receipt for them and who are up in arms over federal raw milk raids of Rawsome Foods co-op in California and Amish dairies in Pennsylvania. After all, those are health-nut products, and people who want to participate in locavore farm-to-table dinners would be unlikely to be the same customers who want to drink bubbly high fructose corn syrup out of a disposable cup.
The product is not the issue for the food freedom activists though. The issue is personal choice, and government mandates that take away the freedom to decide what to put in one’s body. For that reason, it’s no accident that the lawyers who defend Rawsome Foods also take medical marijuana cases.
Food freedom activists want to be able to buy 32 oz. sodas or raw milk as they choose. They want to be able to choose whether they drink fluoride, so they oppose government mandates for fluoridation of drinking water. They want herbs and vitamins to continue to be sold in stores, regardless of whether the health benefits have ever been studied; they are especially suspicious of criticism of health claims for natural foods and products that come from those in the pay of pharmaceutical companies.
They want to know what is in their food and what has been done to it so that they can make informed decisions as consumers. While they want less government when it comes to telling them what to do, they actually want more when it comes to labeling and truth in advertising. Even those who proudly call themselves libertarians, big L or small, want a law requiring labeling of GMO foods.
What they don’t want is a law like New York’s. Among conspiracy theorists, there is even a story going around—possibly meant as a joke, but presented seriously in the Internet meme—that New York’s new law against large sodas is meant to benefit manufacturers of plastic cups since the law could cause thirsty people who want 32 oz. of soda to buy two 16 oz. sodas, thus using more plastic.
The stated rationale behind New York’s new law is that there is an obesity crisis and government must save people from themselves. This is not just about health, though. It’s an inherently political stance. Those who are for it argue that it’s the government’s business because the government is going to be administering everyone’s health from now on, and obese people cost society more, and those who oppose it are saying that is precisely the point, and that the nanny state justifies itself by referring to itself, and will grow ever larger until it crushes everyone under its boot unless it is stopped now.
Some of the issues surrounding government control of the food supply are much subtler than that though. The government has been in the business of handing out various types of subsidies, both to the poor and hungry and to the rich and land-owning, for a very long time. Those sodas contain HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) primarily because many years ago the federal government decided to prop up the price of sugar cane against foreign sugar cane, particularly Cuba’s. The price of cane sugar remained high while the price of corn-derived sugars, which had to be altered into HFCS, was lower. Cane sugar is coming back in some craft sodas for two reasons: firstly because some people prefer it to HFCS for health reasons, and secondly because government ethanol mandates have increased the price of corn. As corn prices rise, the protected price of sugar becomes competitive for the use of mass manufacturers of sodas, candies, and so forth. The reason the government mandated so much ethanol use was mainly to please farmers in early primary state Iowa, a tiny population with a lock on the Presidency. The rising price of corn for use as automobile fuel took edible grain off the world market, thus increasing prices of other grains like wheat and rice, leading to mass hunger in vulnerable countries.
Many health experts believe that HFCS is one of the primary causes of obesity in America, particularly among the poor for whom price is a primary consideration when buying food. Although we still call the rich ‘fat cats,’ obesity is a sign of poverty in our culture. The government’s role in promoting HFCS cannot be ignored.
Scientists who study soil productivity have shown that industrialized agriculture that uses artificial fertilizers produces greater tonnage and caloric value of food from the same acre as a traditionally or organically farmed acre, but that acre produces the same amount of nutrients whether it’s concentrated in traditionally grown foods or dispersed in industrially grown foods. Thus, industrial agriculture turns even seemingly healthy fruits, vegetables, and grains into empty calories devoid of nutrients. Since industrial food is cheaper, the poor generally eat that. Vitamin supplements would be required to make up the difference, but it’s the people eating expensive organic foods that tend to also buy expensive vitamins. Government food aid for the poor does not include vitamins as a food item, whether it’s giving money or actual food. It’s easy to spot bad food aid policy when one goes to a Native American Indian Reservation where all the houses have wheelchair ramps because the people, displaced from traditional agricultural, hunting, and fishing lands, were given government food products instead and nearly every household has at least one member who lost their feet to diabetes. The kinds of government policies that food freedom activists fight are not as blatant as that, but they fear that’s the future for all of us, rich and poor alike, if the government is allowed to take control of all food decisions: a future in which no one can stand on their own two feet.