Farm to Hospital: How the Way We Farm Makes Us Sick

Written by: Ron Weiss, MD

Given the recent turn of events, it is unclear whether the Affordable Care Act really has been given a reprieve, or whether millions still risk losing their current health insurance benefits. Regardless, it is critical for the politicians in Washington to understand that the primary cause of America’s health care crisis is not a lack of health insurance. It is not rising drug costs or insufficient access to primary care medicine. It is federal agriculture policy.

Obesity, heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, dementia…. America is awash in chronic disease. Meanwhile, a whopping 86 percent of the more than $3 trillion our nation spent in 2016 on what is called “health care” does not go toward making people healthy, but rather, sustains us in states of illness — with a never-ending barrage of doctor visits, drugs, and procedures.

As noted by a vast compendium of scientific evidence — meticulously documented in Michael Greger, M.D.’s New York Times best-selling book, How Not to Die — these states of illness are the result of the food we eat in the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is based on animal products, refined oils, sugars, and salt. A diet of whole, unrefined plant foods, to the contrary, can successfully prevent and reverse the very same diseases that are caused by SAD, which are plaguing Americans today.

As a working primary-care doctor, I see this science unfolding before my eyes in the exam room, every day. My patients successfully reverse chronic diseases as varied as lupus, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, kidney failure, multiple sclerosis and on occasion, even cancer, when animal products and processed foods are stripped from their diets. In fact, this diet-disease correlation is why the American Cancer Society, the president of the American College of Cardiology and Kaiser Permanente recommend that we eat a healthy diet with a strong emphasis on plant-based foods.

For Americans who want to eat a plant-based diet, however, the American foodscape can be daunting. Drive down any main street in America, and you will be bombarded by fast-food restaurants, which serve inexpensive food that causes expensive diseases. Walk into the typical American supermarket, and 80 percent of the shelf space is strictly off-limits if you are serious about preventing cancer and heart disease.

This foodscape, which is based on animal products and highly processed foods, is underpinned by field corn, overwhelmingly the nation’s predominant crop. Perhaps most telling is the fact that, unlike the sweet corn most people are familiar with, this variety of corn is completely inedible. Most of it is grown to feed livestock in enormous industrialized animal factories known as CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations. These highly efficient CAFOs produce the vast quantities of hormone-injected, antibiotic-flooded, low-priced animal products we end up eating, while simultaneously wreaking environmental havoc.

This same corn is also processed into a range of chemically processed food additives, such as high-fructose corn syrup. In addition, 98 percent of soybeans — the nation’s #2 crop — are fed to livestock in CAFOs or refined into soy oil, which contains a high level of linoleic acid, which in turn has been shown to induce obesity. Of note, since the 1970s when our farm policy changed and soybean production skyrocketed, soy oil consumption and obesity also skyrocketed. Perhaps these parallel trends are more than a coincidence.

The cheap corn and soybean feedstocks that have poured into the national food production system are courtesy of federal agriculture policy, as implemented by the USDA. Since the 1970s, the USDA has incentivized farmers — and in recent times, mostly giant agribusinesses — through opaque price support and crop insurance programs, to grow massive quantities of these corn and soybean crops. In an outrageous conflict of interest, the USDA has further undermined Americans’ well-being by aggressively channeling these unhealthy foods into school lunch, SNAP programs, and into fast foods, despite the fact that the USDA has a mandate to provide Americans with sound nutritional guidance.

The good news is that just as food has been a primary cause of chronic disease, so can it be the cure, and we now have a unique opportunity to get Americans well, by changing federal agriculture and food policy in a meaningful way: In the coming months, Rep. Mike Conaway, Chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, will start drafting the Farm Bill, which dictates federal agriculture and food policy and is legislated by Congress every five years. By implementing the following measures, the 2018 Farm Bill will have the power to turn the tide of America’s health-care crisis:

First, the government needs to stop subsidizing the relentless planting of corn and soybeans and start promoting the planting of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, utilizing sustainable growing methods. For those who argue that sustainable agriculture compromises profit, keep in mind that 20 years ago, Klaas Martens of Penn Yan, NY,  was growing corn and soybeans and was one of the largest pesticide applicators in the county, yet had difficulty making ends meet. Today he sustainably farms 1,400 acres of a variety of crops, without using chemicals, and makes a good living.

For those who argue that people demand cheap animal products, keep in mind that a large nationwide South African program provided hundreds of thousands of families with up to $500 cash back per month when healthy food purchases were made. This popular program significantly increased consumption of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, while decreasing consumption of foods high in fat, sugar, and salt, processed meats, and fast food – indicating that people will choose healthy food options when they are supported in doing so.

Second, the USDA needs to eliminate animal products and processed foods that are currently in federal nutrition programs, replacing these foods with whole, unrefined plant foods. The USDA needs to otherwise stop marketing foods that cause chronic disease, and instead, do its job of promoting health and well-being.

Based on a large body of scientific evidence, these changes in agriculture policy alone are sure to improve Americans’ health, restore our soils and liberate our lands from the annual application of hundreds of millions of pounds of endocrine-disrupting pesticides. These pesticides now rain down upon us, are concentrated in animal foods, and are associated with an increased risk of a host of chronic diseases — including obesity, diabetes, and infertility.

Changing the way we spend billions of dollars in agriculture will save us the trillions of dollars that we now spend on treating chronic disease. These savings could then be spent on keeping us well, not sick. Real health care, universal in scope, could at last become a right for all Americans. Please contact Rep Conaway at http://conaway.house.gov/contact/ to voice your opinion.

Ron Weiss MD, featured in top media including The New York Times and the Today show, is a board-certified internist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. The focus of his practice is the reversal and prevention of illness, using a whole food, plant-based (WFPB) diet. To this end, he is the founder and executive director of Ethos Health, a farm-based health-care system that connects human health to the natural world and fosters the fundamental connections that exist between all living things. For more information about Dr. Weiss and Ethos Health, visit www.EthosHealth.org