As humans, we evolved in an environment where non-processed foods made up our entire diet. But these days, the things we eat rarely resemble the foods of our ancestors. For our predecessors, foods like fats and sugars were limited, and so it became adaptive to crave these things. But today, these previously rare commodities have become the rule, not the exception when it comes to what we eat. And that shift is largely thanks to an unlikely source; farmers may have had a hand in changing what we grow, but the real writers of modern society’s menu have been the policymakers.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Farm Bill, which shapes most of our agricultural policy, underwent a major overhaul. New provisions incentivized producing only a handful of commodity crops even when market prices were low. That ready supply was then sold to processing companies and industrial cattle farms.
Corn is the highest yielding and, consequently, the most harvested of these commodity crops. About half of all corn produced goes to food processing companies where it is broken down into simple parts, namely high fructose corn syrup. The syrup is then resold as sweeteners and other food additives.
The other half of corn is channeled into feedlots for farm animals. Like humans, cows aren’t adapted to consume a diet composed exclusively of corn. As a result, meat produced in this manner is high in saturated fats and low in omega-3 fatty acids — nutrient ratios that our ancestors would never have encountered in wild game.
Commodity crops are also processed directly or indirectly (i.e. by extraction from animals) to yield inexpensive sources of concentrated fats and oils. The overall result is that Americans today are free to satisfy their once-adaptive cravings for fats and sugars to an extreme unknown to our ancestors. An epidemic in obesity has followed as a natural consequence.
It is possible that for the first time in American history our generation will have a shorter life expectancy than our parents. Diabetes, cancer and stroke — diseases all strongly influenced by diet — are on the rise, resulting in increased health care costs for society. Today, half of all obesity-related medical costs are paid by Medicare and Medicaid, publicly funded systems. And most of this can be blamed on the U.S. Farm Bill, which is responsible for the novel foraging environment Americans now encounter everyday at the grocery store.
The worst part is that even if we wanted to, we couldn’t change our ways. Today, only 4 percent of U.S. farmland is used for growing fruits and vegetables. If everyone suddenly decided to eat the foods recommended by the United States Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines we would face a catastrophic food shortage.
The message from all of this is clear: We need a system that is in touch with human biological needs. We need a system that doesn’t provide incentives for producing cheap sources of fats and sugars at the expense of increased cost for whole fruits and vegetables. To maximize human health and well-being, it pays to consider basic human evolutionary truths in policy formation.