Every year in the United States, various levels of government spend trillions of dollars to help treat illnesses. Our government is adept at spending money on the back end to ameliorate the effects of disease. But what if government spending itself was to blame for much of the sickness?

Take, for example, the federal government’s farm subsidy policies, which pump billions of dollars into the production of certain crops – most notably, corn. Between 1995 and 2006, taxpayers have shelled out $56.1 billion in corn subsidies. That’s nearly three times as much as the next two closest subsidies, wheat and cotton. Between 1995 and 2006, Wisconsin farmers have collected $2.4 billion in corn subsidies.

These subsidies have profound effects in many areas, from the environment to our health. Corn subsidies make it profitable for farmers to plant crops in areas that may previously not have been profitable, which encourages the clearing of forest land and natural habitat for farming. The total planted area of corn, at 93.6 million acres, is up 19 percent from last year, to the highest level since 1944.

But perhaps more importantly, federal subsidies encourage the overproduction of corn, which may be contributing to the deterioration of our health in America. Prior to 1973, the federal subsidy program kept family farms afloat by limiting the amount of corn in production. Essentially, the federal government paid farmers not to farm. In 1973, with lawmakers recognizing the absurdity of paying farmers not to plant certain crops to control the supply, the program was reorganized to promote more production.

Since 1973, production of corn has skyrocketed, due to the combination of subsidies and improved farming technology. These improvements in technology, including fertilization with anhydrous ammonia, gives rise to yields of up to four times what the same land could produce 50 years ago. With these improvements, corn can grow closer to each other, yielding more per acre.

All that corn, however, has to go somewhere. And a great deal of it is working its way into our food and drink, with damaging results. Take, for example, the use of high fructose corn syrup – a sweetener that didn’t exist 30 years ago now inhabits virtually everything you find on a supermarket shelf. Corn subsidies have drastically reduced the cost of high fructose corn syrup, which has made it the primary sweetener in soda, juice, jellies, ketchup, and other processed foods. While studies show the consumption of sugar in America is down, the consumption of high fructose corn syrup has skyrocketed.

While there are numerous studies linking high fructose corn syrup to increased obesity, corn supporters continue to argue that it contains similar ingredients as regular sugar, all things being equal. However, government subsidies, which keep the cost of high fructose corn syrup extremely low, make products that incorporate it extremely inexpensive. As a result, consumers have an incentive to purchase high fructose corn syrup-based products, as they are much cheaper than products sweetened with sugar (which has been subject to a substantial importation tax since 1977.) Thus, high fructose corn syrup products are being consumed at rates well beyond what we saw with sugar, and far in excess of what can be considered healthy.

Meat hasn’t escaped the effects of government corn subsidies, either. During the last 30 years, the avalanche of corn production has also caused it to replace grass as the primary cattle feed. Subsidies make corn cheap, which means more feed for more cattle. As a result, livestock are being fed until they nearly burst, resulting in fattier cuts of meat in our grocery stores and hamburgers. Loren Cordain of the University of Colorado has estimated that a typical grain fed t-bone steak might have 9 grams of saturated fat, while a grass fed steak might have 1.3 grams of saturated fat.

Naturally, much of this cheap, low-quality meat finds its way into our fast food restaurants, which, as a result of corn subsidies, can sell its food for virtually nothing and still make a profit. While, ultimately, everyone is responsible for what they put in their own mouths, markets also determine what people purchase. This exposes one of the ironies of America – it tends to be the poorest people who have the highest incidences of obesity and Type II diabetes – both of which have risen sharply since the corn explosion. This is because the cheapest food tends to be the most toxic to our health. Subsidies make unhealthy food cheaper, and when something’s cheap, people will buy more of it. So when you do go to McDonald’s and enjoy a Big Mac, keep in mind – your tax dollars helped pay for it.

So how unhealthy is America since corn subsidies made their way into the farm program? According to a 2008 study, more than 25 percent of adults are obese in 28 states, up from 19 states in 2007. More than 20 percent of adults are obese in every state except Colorado. In 1991, no state had an obesity rate greater than 20 percent. According to the same study, an estimated two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese. That compares to 1980, when the national average of obese adults was 15 percent. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, obesity is also linked to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, cancer, osteoarthritis, gall bladder disease, liver disease and pregnancy complications.

So the next time you see a report on how much more spending we need on health care in Wisconsin, think to yourself – how much healthier can we make ourselves by scaling back spending on things like farm subsidies? If we cease making unhealthy food artificially cheap, we can end the cycle of encouraging dangerous eating, and save our health in the long run.

-January 12, 2009