How Warren Buffett and Bill Gates Make a Killing Off the Childhood Obesity Epidemic
Warren Buffett’s vertically integrated investments in the production of high fructose corn syrup — a key ingredient in highly processed foods and contributor to obesity in kids — generates massive profits for himself and Bill Gates.
Childhood obesity rates could double among boys and increase by 125% among girls by 2035, according to a new global report by the World Obesity Federation.
In the U.S., childhood obesity rates tripled in the past three decades, increasing kids’ risks of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.
A report last month by The Hill cited multiple contributors to the obesity epidemic, including too much screen time, lack of access to healthy food and socioeconomic factors. Exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is also known to play a big role in childhood obesity, studies show.
There’s one thing most experts agree on: Increased consumption of highly processed foods is a leading contributor to the childhood obesity epidemic.
But here’s a lesser-known fact: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the lynchpin of the processed food industry — and the HFCS industry has generated massive profits for Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, two of the world’s richest men.
‘Is the world’s richest man made primarily out of corn syrup?’
In 2015, New York Magazine ran an article — “Is the World’s Richest Man Made Primarily Out of Corn Syrup?” — in the Intelligencer’s “Diets” section.
The article told a light-hearted story about how Warren Buffett loves Coke, potato chips and other foods with high quantities of corn syrup so much — just like he did when he was a kid — that he bought up the companies that made them.
Buffett is the fifth-richest person in the world with a net worth of $108 billion. His wealth comes from investments in Berkshire Hathaway, the publicly traded multinational conglomerate company of which he has been CEO and chairman since 1970.
Berkshire Hathaway’s investment strategy is to identify valuable companies and acquire increasingly large portions of them.
A look into the history of Berkshire Hathaway’s holdings reveals the deeper truth behind the New York Magazine article showing that for more than two decades, Berkshire Hathaway acquired large stakes in all stages of production in the HFCS industry, from farmland to processed food companies.
This vertical integration investment strategy means that a substantial portion of Berkshire Hathaway’s profits is linked to the proliferation of corn syrup in the food system.
Buffett and his family own farmland where they grow corn. Berkshire Hathaway has a major stake in fossil fuel companies like Occidental Petroleum and Chevron that power industrial agriculture and make chemical inputs for farming.
It owns a company that makes grain storage silos for selling corn. It owns the largest railroad in the U.S., which moves grain and processed foods across the country. It also owns a commercial trailer rental company — the other major means of transportation for grains and processed foods.
Buffett’s company invested in seed and pesticide giant Monsanto, and for a short time, invested in Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), which does the chemical processing to make corn syrup.
Berkshire Hathaway also owns major stakes in some of the largest processed food companies — like Coca-Cola and Kraft Heinz — that use HFCS and other obesogens in their products, which they directly market to kids.
These companies profit off of rising food prices, while consumers’ food bills soar. Kraft Heinz’s quarterly sales rose 10% to $7.38 billion in the last quarter of 2022, beating Wall Street’s expectations, the Wall Street Journal reported. The food conglomerate raised prices 15% last year.
They also benefit from close relationships with organizations meant to protect people’s health — and particularly children’s health — from the damage associated with commodities like HFCS.
For example, peer-reviewed research reveals Coca-Cola’s “close collaboration with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) … The Obesity Society (TOS), and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).”
Here’s how Berkshire Hathaway corn syrup supply chain holdings generate profits for Buffett:
Farmland/grain production: Buffett owns a 1,500-acre farm in Pana, Illinois, and three foundation-operated research farms — including 1,500 acres in Arizona and 9,200 acres in South Africa.
Grain storage: CTB, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway since 2002, manufactures supply chain solutions for the grain, poultry, pig and egg sectors. This includes Brock Grain Systems, which produces grain storage bins and has made considerable profits by making it possible for farmers to hold crops so they can drive up grain prices.
Oil, energy and agrochemicals:
- Occidental Petroleum: Berkshire Hathaway owns a 21% stake in Occidental, which it began purchasing in 2022. Its subsidiary, OxyChem, is the second-largest producer of potassium hydroxide, or caustic potash, a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers.
- Chevron: Berkshire Hathaway has held more than 8% of the company since 2020. In addition to producing oil, Chevron’s major chemicals subsidiary, Chevron Phillips Chemical, makes chemical inputs for all aspects of the agricultural supply chain — from agrochemical intermediates to flavor and fragrance enhancers to food packaging.
- Berkshire Hathaway Energy: Berkshire Hathaway has owned a controlling stake in this energy conglomerate, formerly MidAmerican Energy, since 1999. It is a holding company that controls power distribution in parts of the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
- Monsanto: Berkshire Hathaway purchased 8 million shares of Monsanto in the fourth quarter of 2016 after the announcement that Bayer would acquire it, merging two of the world’s top suppliers of seeds and pesticides. Buffett increased his stake in Monsanto in 2018 and Bayer fully purchased Monsanto in June 2018.
- Merck: Berkshire Hathaway held stock in Merck from 2020-2021. Merck became a pharmaceutical giant in part because it was also formerly a maker of agrochemicals. It sold its agrochemical business to Novartis in 1997, for just under $1 billion.
- Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF): Berkshire Hathawaypartially purchased BNSF in 2007 and fully purchased it in early 2010. BNSF is the largest U.S. railroad by freight volume (15% of all non-local ton-miles) and owns 23,000 miles of track in 28 states. It transports chemicals, fertilizer, grain, and processed foods, among other things.
- XTRA Lease: Berkshire Hathaway acquired all assets of this commercial trailer leasing corporation in 2001.
- ADM: Berkshire Hathaway purchased a stake in ADM, one of the largest agricultural companies in the world, in late 2012 and sold it in the first quarter of 2013.
Processed food production and distribution:
- See’s Candy: In 1972, Buffett purchased the company for $25 million, his “dream business.” By 2019 it had brought in “well over” $2 billion, an 8,000% return on investment.
- McDonald’s: In 1994, Berkshire Hathaway purchased a 4.9 million share stake in McDonald’s, which was not revealed until a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filing document was unsealed in 1996. Berkshire Hathaway no longer owns shares in McDonald’s, but Warren Buffett said he regrets selling it.
- Coca-Cola: In 1988, after Coca-Cola began using 100% HFCS as its sweetener in the U.S., Buffett started investing in the company and it has been one of Berkshire Hathaway’s top holdings ever since — today it is its fourth largest holding.
- Kraft Foods/Heinz: In 2007, Berkshire Hathaway first invested in Kraft and in 2013, it purchased Heinz. Buffett orchestrated Heinz’s merger with Kraft in 2015. Today Berkshire owns over 26% of the company.
- Mondelez International: Mondelez is a packaged food company that makes Oreo cookies, Cadbury chocolate, Halls cough drops, Trident gum and Triscuit crackers. Originally Kraft was part of this brand, but it was spun off as its own company in 2012.
When Berkshire Hathaway profits, Gates profits
Warren Buffett isn’t the only one of the world’s richest people to make his fortune from Berkshire Hathaway. It is nearly impossible to separate Buffett’s wealth from that of his friend and business associate of 32 years, Bill Gates.
Gates, the fourth-richest person in the world with a net worth of $133 billion, holds much of his wealth in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Berkshire Hathaway is the foundation’s largest holding.
Gates served on the board of Berkshire Hathaway from 2004 to 2020. Since 2006, Buffett has given $45 billion to the Gates Foundation and he served as a member of the three-person board of directors of the foundation until Bill and Melinda Gates split up in 2021.
So Berkshire Hathaway’s profits have been Gates’ profits.
The Land Report also reported that Gates quietly made himself the largest owner of U.S. farmland. His portfolio now comprises about 242,000 acres of American farmland and nearly 27,000 acres of other land across Louisiana, Arkansas, Nebraska, Arizona, Florida, Washington and 18 other states.
Media coverage about the relationship between Buffett and Gates, their investments, the work they fund and their businesses is largely favorable.
According to a 2020 investigation published in the Columbia Journalism Review, media coverage that tends to depict billionaires like Buffett and Gates as leaders, geniuses and benevolent stewards of society is linked to the fact that as funding for media collapsed over the last decade, the Gates Foundation stepped in to fill the gap.
In 2020 alone, for example, the foundation gave more than $250 million to news organizations including BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera, ProPublica, National Journal, The Guardian, Univision, Medium, the Financial Times, The Atlantic, the Texas Tribune, Gannett, Washington Monthly, Le Monde, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, BBC Media Action and the New York Times’ Neediest Cases Fund.
The money comes with strings attached, limiting the reporting it funds to issues it wants to be covered.
So, while billionaire philanthropists like Buffett and Gates finance media coverage that celebrates them for bankrolling public health initiatives and paints their critics as conspiracy theorists, they continue to make massive profits off the destruction of the food system — and the corresponding destruction of public health.
Obesity makes kids sicker — pandemic lockdowns made kids more obese
Gates and Buffett profited massively from the COVID-19 pandemic because they “bet on Big Pharma” to yield major profits from vaccines.
But the pandemic they profited from was made worse by the obesity epidemictheir investments in corn syrup helped drive, according to numerous studies.
Peer-reviewed studies published in major journals like The BMJ established early in the pandemic period that obesity was a major risk factor in poor COVID-19 outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that obesity may triple the risk of hospitalization from a COVID-19 infection.
Obesity is a major COVID-19 risk factor even in young people who are much lesssusceptible to severe disease.
Systematic reviews and meta‐analyses found that children with obesity are at a higher risk of both severe respiratory disease and multisystem inflammatory syndrome due to COVID-19 relative to healthy children.
The CDC also reported numerous studies showing children diagnosed with obesity may suffer worse outcomes from COVID-19.
Maryanne Demasi, Ph.D., and others advocated early in the pandemic in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine for dietary interventions to fight the negative effects of COVID-19.
But billionaires and politicians ignored these calls and instead promoted pandemic mitigation measures like lockdowns and school closures that increased rates of childhood obesity to unprecedented levels and made COVID-19 outcomes worse.
Research shows lockdowns and school closures increased childhood obesity because they reduced physical activity, worsened children’s mental health leading to over-eating and increased levels of food insecurity, which is linked to increased processed food consumption.
Coca-Cola, Mondelez and others ‘COVID-washed’ processed foods to grow profits
Peer-reviewed research shows that processed food corporations used the pandemic as a marketing opportunity to promote their unhealthy products to vulnerable populations during a time of increased stress and hardship — what researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand call “COVID-washing.”
The CEO of Coca-Cola told investors at the start of the pandemic in 2020 in “every previous crisis, military, economic or pandemic, in the last 134 years, the Coke Company has come out stronger.”
A report by researchers from the Global Health Policy Unit at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, working with the NCD Alliance, found that major processed food corporations like Coca-Cola were able to “adapt quickly and exploit new opportunities” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is illustrated via the pivoting of marketing and promotions to leverage both the pandemic and associated policy responses. For example, snack manufacturers Mondelez [a Berkshire Hathaway company] quickly recognised how lockdown led to increased in-house consumption whereby ‘more grazing, more continuous eating, and snacking takes up a much bigger role.’”
Processed food producers sought to “present themselves and their employees as heroes in the context of the pandemic,” they said.
The report linked to a Kraft Heinz video promoting “everyday heroes” in their processed food supply chain emoting “We Got You America” while visibly promoting core products such as Heinz Tomato Ketchup.
Heinz also partnered with food banks in its Kraft Heinz Project Pantry and Twitter campaign, invoking national solidarity to bring processed foods to low-income people.
According to Paula Johns, director general of ACT Health Promotion, Brazil, quoted in the report during the pandemic, “Unhealthy commodity industries have taken advantage of an adverse environment to sell their products and improve their image in the eyes of consumers.”
For example, Coca-Cola rebranded bottles and cans in Mexico to invoke COVID-19 solidarity, promoted the fact that it shifted advertising budgets to “fight COVID-19,” partnered with the United Nations Development Programme in several countries, funded Red Cross initiatives to link its brand with COVID-19 aid and partnered with the Gates Foundation to promote COVID-19 vaccination in Africa.
Krispy Kreme and Dunkin’ Donuts gave away free donuts to people who showed their vaccination cards in 2021.
This branding was supported by the highest levels of government. In May 2021, McDonald’s and the Biden administration partnered to promote COVID-19 vaccines by advertising together on billboards and on McDonald’s cups and other items.
HFCS is as bad as you thought
Strong and consistent evidence links high sugar consumption and obesity in children and adolescents, with many studies pointing specifically to the role of sugary drinks like Coca-Cola.
Excess dietary sugar adds “empty calories” to the diet, affects hormone and blood sugar levels, stimulates appetite and overeating and replaces healthy foods in a child’s diet.
In the U.S., sugar in processed foods often takes the form of HFCS, a processed sweetener with high levels of fructose — which is harder for the body to break down than natural glucose.
HFCS is cheaper, sweeter and more quickly absorbed into the body than regular sugar. Eating too much can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, type 2 diabetesand high blood pressure.
It can trigger processes that cause liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases, and it increases appetite and promotes obesity even more than regular sugar.
But fructose is not the only driver of obesity in HFCS. Virtually all corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified and grown with pesticides and herbicides — making it almost certain that HFCS is a GMO product laden with chemicals.
HFCS also contains mercury, a fact hidden by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Renee Dufault, Ph.D., an FDA whistleblower, left the organization when it blocked her from publishing her research on mercury in HFCS.
HFCS is so notorious for its negative health effects, that the Corn Refiners Association petitioned the FDA to change its name to “corn sugar,” claiming its long name is what gives consumers a bad impression of it. The FDA turned it down.
Despite all this, HFCS is ubiquitous in processed foods — used as a thickener, a sweetener and a humectant to retain moisture and the appearance of “freshness.”
In the 1970s and 80s, when sugar prices were skyrocketing, the corn industry — which had a glut of corn starch — jumped into the sugar market. By the mid-1980s, HFCS had captured more than 50% of the market, and by 1984 it replaced sugar in Coca-Cola.
Corn syrup is primarily derived from a corn variety called yellow #2 dent corn, largely grown in the Midwestern U.S.
To turn corn into corn syrup, the corn goes through a mechanical process to separate cornstarch from the corn. The cornstarch then goes through a chemical process involving either sulfur dioxide or hydrochloric acid and heat to convert it into corn syrup.
Finally, another industrial process called enzyme conversion turns the processed corn into HFCS.
Medicalization of obesity market will generate massive growth for Big Pharma
In January, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued controversial new clinical guidelines — its first update in 15 years — for treating childhood obesity that recommend prescribing weight loss drugs for children as young as 8 years old,
As The Defender reported in August 2022, as obesity rates rise — in children and adults — Big Pharma can expect windfall profits, creating a new node in the HFCS supply chain.
According to Fierce Pharma, analysts at Morgan Stanley Research told clients last July, “Drugmakers like Eli Lilly and Novo Nordisk are poised to unlock a global obesity market that could be worth more than $50 billion by the end of the decade.”
Wegovy, one of the drugs approved for obesity in kids, helped fuel the forecasts.
It is not just high drug prices that make obesity a hot market. Since obesity in 2013 was officially classified as a chronic disease, it is now “on the cusp of moving into mainstream primary care management,” said Morgan Stanley — because it can be treated directly instead of treating its consequences, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“Therefore we expect excess weight and fat loss to become treatment targets for obesity and for treatment guidelines to adopt obesity as a primary target ahead of other associated diseases,” wrote Morgan Stanley analysts, who predicted a $54 billion market within seven-and-a-half years.
As obesity shifts from an aesthetic market to a medical one, J.P. Morgan forecasts “this could be an over $30 billion annual opportunity,” according to Chris Schott, senior analyst of U.S. Major and Specialty Pharmaceuticals for J.P. Morgan Research.