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‘Food Movement’ Agenda Not the Best Path Forward

November 2, 2016 - 2:38pm CDT

By Jayson Lusk

The change in presidential administrations is likely to usher in a new set of policy ideas and proposals.  In the case of food and agriculture, the new president does not have to look far, as prominent food writers have already been making an aggressive case to retool the way the federal government regulates food and the farm.

Among the most vocal critics of modern agricultural production practices and farm policies are a group of journalists, authors, and nonprofit directors who have collectively been called the “food movement.” While members of the so-called food movement have historically had much less influence on farm and food policy than, for example, farm commodity organizations, recent events suggest that power dynamic could be changing.

Food movement members have been extraordinarily adept in fomenting the modern-day food and farm zeitgeist, selling numerous bestselling books and garnering space in influential media outlets. For example, in 2015 The New York Times hosted a “Food for Tomorrow” conference which focused on food and farm policy issues that are centerpieces of the food movement agenda.

The emergence of the local food and farm-to-table movements, as well as state ballot initiatives on labeling of genetically modified food and farm-animal housing, can also be seen as outgrowths of the impacts of the food movement.

In a Washington Post editorial, and in a longer document appearing at medium.com, bestselling authors and food writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, along with Ricardo Salvador from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Olivier De Schutter who is associated with the United Nations, propose “A National Food Policy for the 21st Century.” Among other things, they recommend renaming the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and consolidating its activities with that of several other agencies under a new Department of Food, Health, and Well-being, which would focus more on the fork than the farm.

The authors paint a dire picture of the present state of food and agriculture, blaming it for rising diabetes and obesity rates, climate change, pollution, unequal pay, and even income inequality. To be sure, there are some pressing problems in food and agriculture. But an objective look at the changes that have occurred over the past 50 years reveals substantial progress.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture only accounts for 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Improvements in agricultural technologies and production practices have substantially lowered the energy use, water use, and greenhouse gas impacts of food production per unit of output over time. There is 26 percent less land being used for agriculture today than in 1950, despite the fact that US farms are now generating 180 percent more output. Soil erosion has declined substantially since the 1980s, falling more than 40 percent, and farms today are increasingly using cover crops and practice more no-till farming, thanks in part to biotechnology. Overall life expectancy continues to increase in the U.S., the quality of diets in the U.S. has significantly improved over the last two decades, and the share of the word population that is undernourished has fallen by half since 1990.
          
Nonetheless, these authors believe “100 years of progress … has been reversed.” As a result, they propose a set of guiding principles to overhaul the food system that provide consumers with a set of guarantees, and they put forth more than 20 specific policy proposals.
          
Notably absent from the authors’ guarantees are affordable food or food security—issues which are top priorities for consumers, according to my research. Instead, the authors offer what is essentially a list of platitudes, such as proposing it be guaranteed that “all Americans have access to healthful food”—without serious consideration of the costs or tradeoffs. More importantly, the rationale for government versus private intervention is never articulated. What is the market failure that exists, and what are the barriers that prevent entrepreneurs, farmers, and savvy consumers from producing efficient outcomes? We can only guess.

The authors make a number of proposals to “resolarize” the food system, by which they primarily seem to mean avoidance of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fossil fuels. There is no attempt to calculate the costs of such a conversion, and even if such a cost could be borne by relatively wealthy U.S. citizens there is no discussion of impacts on food security for the developing world, which is important because the U.S. exports large amounts of its agricultural production to foreign consumers.

The main innovation that supports today’s population was the discovery of a process (which relies on fossil fuel) to make synthetic fertilizer. It has been argued that this development has been “of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television” and that much of the world’s population owes their very existence to the discovery of “unnatural” synthetic fertilizers. While innovations in precision agriculture and no-till farming machinery can help mitigate problems associated with over-application of fertilizer, simplistic regulations can do much to harm food security.

The authors also want to launch a government-funded “farm corps” to “increase the number of farmers” who grow “actual food” and to expand subsidies for farmers to grow “healthy” food. The broad trend in agriculture over the past century has been that of productivity improvements which have made labor less necessary in agriculture than was the case in the past. It is unclear how government tax dollars that attempt to favor this particular occupation over the other multitude of occupations will stem the tides of the economic forces which have moved the U.S. population from farms to cities.

Moreover, seemingly forgotten is the fact that the USDA already has a number of programs costing hundreds of millions of dollars aimed at promoting small farmers and organic foods. These include the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) microloan program, which aims “to better reach small farms, beginning farmers, niche farmers, and farmers from historically socially disadvantaged groups”; the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI); the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBG); the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP); the Family and Small Farm Program; the Small and Medium-Sized Farms AFRI program; and the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), among others.

Ignoring any of the controversies over past and current dietary guidelines, the authors also suggest engineering our entire food system to create their vision of a healthy food future.

There are more productive paths forward. Which policies are likely to have the biggest bang for the buck for present farmers responsible for producing the bulk of the nation’s food supply and for the average food consumer? These include activities and policies that expand the size of the pie, rather than redistributing the pieces to favored groups. For example, research on productivity-enhancing technology improves both farmer and consumer well-being and lessens impacts on the environment. Agribusinesses which grow large by providing better products shouldn’t be chastised, but care must also be taken to ensure that barriers to entry (including compliance with government regulations) aren’t so high that new startups can’t compete with them. In addition, American farmers are more prosperous when they have access to consumers all over the world by having open borders and freer trade unhindered by non-tariff trade barriers based on specious food safety claims. Consumers benefit from trade as well by gaining access to more diversified foodstuffs (quinoa, anyone?) and more affordable food.