August 1, 2023

Agriculture Should Lean Into the Food is Health Initiative

There is a lot of conversation currently around food is health. It is absolutely true that consumers who have a healthy diet with more specialty crops will improve their overall health. To push this initiative, there is a lot of activity around program funding that incentivizes the purchase and consumption of healthy foods.

One recent example of a quality program was the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box, which helped turn millions of products that could have gone to waste when food service shut down due to COVID into food boxes that were given to families in need. This was a double win—food did not go to waste and families in need got some really healthy food boxes.

Now, the far more interesting conversation to me is the competing resource allocation between food and pharma as a better health option. So, who is the key player in the resource allocation question between these two segments? How will the insurance companies decide which of the two gets resources, and how will they break ties and measure results?

Think about one of the biggest problems in the U.S. today: Obesity is an increasing problem across age, racial and regional demographics, and it causes related problems like diabetes. There are two possible responses. Consumers can eat more healthy food and reduce the occurrence of obesity and diabetes. Alternatively, they can take medicine and use medical procedures to treat diabetes—and in some cases—to help reduce obesity. Note that pharma solutions fail to address the underlying problem, which is the consumption of unhealthy foods, which can lead to obesity and diabetes.

The U.S. pays $1.9 trillion (yep, trillion with a T) on bad health outcomes each year. Much of that goes to pharma companies trying to fix the results of the problem instead of the real problem. What would we rather have government funding go to—pharma that fixes the result or fresh produce that solves the underlying problem? It’s an easy answer when posed this way.

So how do we get some of the $1.9T to go towards fresh food? We need to help the pharma companies evaluate their results, and we need to start measuring the results of healthier food consumption. From the data I have seen, the advantages of healthier food consumption is already pretty clear and getting clearer all the time. The data on pharma as an alternative spend is a lot less clear, particularly on a relative basis when compared to food. One solution treats the underlying cause, so you have to believe it will deliver better long-term ROI.

I think agricultural providers of specialty crops should lean into this one and help measure the results along a couple of key metrics:

  1. Long-term health impacts of food and pharma;
  2. Change over time in health impacts from behavioral change; and
  3. ROI on the relative investment in both outcomes (i.e., which one delivers better results for the investment made by companies and policy makers).

Once the data is collected, policy makers will be able to make decisions based on real data and real outcomes and be able to allocate resources based on what the data tells us. It would surprise me if food does not end up being a better investment than pharma by a fairly wide margin for the reasons outlined above. Regardless, we should all want the data to get collected so it can drive policy discussions. If that means funding research that can gather the data, the entire ag industry should write that check.