How EU economists are ‘killing Europeans through CHD’

Surprisingly, it’s not the acronyms that are at the root of the World Health Organization’s damning accusation, it’s our old friends, saturated fats.

The common agricultural policy (CAP) was put in place by the powers that be in Europe, not just to confuse any non-economist who has tried to understand it, but, according to the World Health Organisation, it is ‘a system designed to kill Europeans through CHD’ (or, for the acronym-intolerant, coronary heart disease).

The Common Agricultural Policy was dreamed up in the days when Europe was emerging from war, rationing and widespread starvation. Many deficiency diseases that we no longer see today were rife. But agriculture had just caught the wave of plenty – industrialisation was leading to what was essentially a farming revolution. The future was bright. Applying subsidies to farmers to grow food and grow it in abundance and create a common market for all this produce was going to solve all of Europe’s problems, prevent another war and buffer the continent from the pressures of world free market capitalism. No-one said anything about heart disease.

When economists kill
Now the WHO is speaking out. Clearly no fan of the CAP, it has deemed that the reason that Europeans from the ‘big 10’ (the countries that were already members before expansion began in 2004) are all dropping like flies from heart attacks is that the CAP encouraged farmers to grow high energy, high sugar, or high fat products. But then it was the 1960’s and even smoking was healthy. The EU subsidised that too. The butter mountain it created in the 1980’s became legendary.

The report was published in the online Bulletin of the World Health Organization on February 25, but has not yet been widely reported, except for the British Medical Journal. The WHO estimated that the CAP was responsible for around 7000 extra deaths from CHD and 2000 more deaths from stroke. These deaths, were, according to the WHO (though they don’t say this in so many words), appear to have been funded directly from the taxpayer via an EU policy that encouraged the domestic consumption of starch and, more importantly saturated fat, at the expense of fruits and vegetables.

Cause or effect?
On reading the BMJ’s report on the WHO’s finding, I was struck with the worry that the cause and effect relationship so gloomily described was surprising. Many European countries famously prize their culinary cultures of meat, potatoes, bread, cheese and butter, notably the British, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Austrians and the Germans. This starchy, stodgy, fatty food culture extends east across Eastern Europe; and yet the WHO’s methodology, as described in depth in the Bulletin paper, by its UK authors1, bases its calculations on rates of energy consumption as saturated fat in the EU as it stood before expansion in 2004, and the reported rates of mortality from coronary heart disease in all those countries. The argument appears to be that the EU’s promotion of beef and milk production through subsidies meant that the excess was streamed off into other areas of the diet by being sold to processors at much reduced prices, as well as encouraging high intakes of these products due to competitive prices. And thus, fat intakes across the union soared.

The group’s argument appears to centre on reports from Finland, where the population’s energy intake from saturated fats dropped dramatically from 21% to around 14% between 1972 and 1997; and Poland (not part of the EU-15), who enjoyed a 5% drop over 10 years. The Finnish figures are reflected in a decrease in the nation’s mean population cholesterol level, a measurement that the Liverpool group attribute directly to a shift away from dairy consumption.

However, even in 1998, from when the data used to create the model originate, Finland had among the EU’s highest intakes of energy as saturated fat – 14.4%, compared to an EU average of 13.1%. The lowest intakes were in Portugal and Spain, 10.6 and 10.9%, respectively, and just above the recommended, magic level of 10% at which all ‘premature’ (under age 75) deaths from fat-related CHD mysteriously vanish

Model intakes
So, what does the model entail? It’s based on the conservative hypothesis that without CAP subsidies, the average contribution of energy to the diet made by saturated fats from dairy products would be 1% lower. Though this wouldn’t bring the average intake down to the mythical 10%, the authors also hypothesise that to compensate, consumers would have been able to replace 0.5% of this with mono- and poly-unsaturated fats in vegetable oils, which would have been used instead, because farmers would have grown oilseeds of the land instead of cows. Using previous data from studies into diet, fat intake and serum cholesterol and the relationship between the latter and CHD/stroke mortality, a model was developed. Though the model itself was not included in the paper, its outcomes were reported. These paint a gloomy picture, especially for the UK, Italy, France and Spain, where the lives of thousands of people too young to expect to die of heart attacks and strokes could have been saved, if they hadn’t been lured – or pushed – into consuming so much saturated fat.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised; the following information sources might be of use to you:

CAB Abstracts‘ Agricultural Economics database is home to more than 6000 references to the CAP itself. Use ‘CAP’ rather than ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ while searching to get the best results.

Heart diseases of all types are covered extensively in both CAB Abstracts and its sister database, Global Health; whether directly attributable to economic policy or not. Everything from the lifestyle and genetic factors involved, to the strategies used to reduce the prevalence of this systemic menace are there. Search for ‘cardiovascular diseases’, ‘cardiovascular disorders’, or simply ‘heart diseases’ along with your causative agent of choice to get the best results.

1Division of Public Health, University of Liverpool and Heart of Mersey, Liverpool, UK.


  1. Allan Buckwell on 25th March 2008 at 10:56 am

    Apart from the fact that it is politicians who decide agricultural policy in Europe not economists, this article has got completely the wrong end of the stick. The CAP has resulted for most of the last 40 years in higher prices not lower prices, so consumption of meats, dairy products, carbohydrates and fats (saturated or not) hae been lower in EU countries compared to the situation without the CAP. So we could argue that without the CAP CHD would have been higher not lower.

  2. Sarah Mellor on 25th March 2008 at 11:14 am

    I was under the impression that, politically at least, there was some economic foundation to the CAP, though agree certainly that it is politics that has kept it in place for so long. however, as a nutritionist rather than either a politician or economist, I admit I would struggle to qualify the numbers.
    Either way, I think the authors of the report are also arguing that the production of saturated fats and starch in the EU may not have been so high should the CAP not have been in place…and therefore our dietary exposure not have been so high? In retrospect, who can say? The US also have high rates of CHD, despite a ‘free market’ food production system.
    I’d be interested to hear your comments, Allan, about what health consequences might arise from the predicted competition for land between food and fuel? Any thoughts?

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