Catalyst Fall 2013


A Simple Fix for a Deadly Problem

Ricardo SalvadorCardiovascular diseases such as stroke, hypertension, and coronary artery disease are the number-one killer of Americans, responsible for a third of all deaths in 2011. Many other Americans who live with these diseases must rely on modern medicine to manage their symptoms for years or even decades. The most effective treatment for cardiovascular disease is to prevent it in the first place, and there’s a simple way to do that: eat healthfully. As our government recommends, filling half our plate with fruits and vegetables is the most potent and effective prescription for avoiding health-impairing, life-threatening diseases. So why are we as a nation seemingly incapable of doing this?

The problem begins with the federal government undermining its own recommendations by pouring taxpayer dollars into agricultural subsidies that make junk food cheap. Walk into any fast-food restaurant and you’ll see its “healthy” offerings are often more expensive than its “combo meals” that include lots of meat, french fries, and a syrupy beverage. These skewed costs make it difficult for people to choose the healthy option, especially in neighborhoods where budgets are tight and supermarkets are few and far between.

Decades of eating too much of the wrong stuff have taken a toll on our health care system: treating cardiovascular disease costs the United States $273 billion annually. Not surprisingly, most patients need assistance to cover these staggering costs—indeed, about two-thirds of the costs in 2010 ($172 billion) were covered by Medicare and Medicaid. These programs are publicly funded, which means taxpayers are essentially getting billed twice for the same health problem: once for agricultural subsidies that contribute to disease, and once for programs that treat disease.

If we all followed U.S. dietary guidelines, the nation would save $17 billion in annual medical costs. Learn more.

In August UCS released The $11 Trillion Reward, a report that shows how the United States could save 127,000 lives each year (and the $11 trillion in value that economists place on these lives) by investing in programs that would preserve the productivity of our farmlands and provide a greater abundance of fruits and vegetables, while reducing air and water pollution from industrial agriculture. Congress has the opportunity to get this right in the next farm bill, which sets the nation’s food and agriculture policy, and UCS is working with lawmakers to ensure the bill puts maximum focus on health and nutrition. Let your representatives know you agree, and remember to eat your veggies!

Ricardo Salvador is director of the UCS Food and Environment Program.