Food and agricultural policy

23 October, 2011 § Leave a comment

Diverse perspectives on food policy for foodies, economists, and policy wonks:

  1. From Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” a detailed proposal for reforming food and agriculture policies.
  2. From Chris Edwards of the Cato Institute, an argument for ending farm subsidies.
  3. From Wenonah Hauter at Food & Water Watch, an argument that deregulation, not farm subsidies, is responsible for obesity and poor nutrition. (See also “When Some Farm Subsidies Go Away, Will Our Food System Be Healthy?“)

Here are my take-aways from these reports regarding how to manage the agriculture industry:
  1. End (or drastically reduce) the monoculture subsidies (although not necessarily all at once).
  2. In their place and even before cutting the subsidies, institute other policies to encourage more sustainable and productive farming practices and to stabilize the agriculture industry. To discourage overproduction and manage supply, promote crop diversity and rotation rather than idling land, and reinstate the federal grain reserve.
  3. Develop incentives and infrastructure to support more integrated, efficient, and ecologically sound agricultural practices (raising meat and dairy animals together with growing crops on farms, composting rather than fertilizing, growing perennial rather than annual crops, banning or penalizing use of antibiotics).
  4. Develop mechanisms to support local distribution networks (building year-round farmer’s markets, instituting regulations sensitive to scale and local markets, coordinating transportation, incentivizing regional food procurement).
  5. Encourage more agricultural R&D to promote innovation and efficiency, train farmers to use these agricultural practices, and support more small- and mid-size farming operations.

Edwards argues strongly for #1 but doesn’t discuss how to accomplish it. The FWW/PHI report notes that ending subsidies alone won’t resolve the problem of overproduction or strongly influence consumer food prices, and that additional policies such as those in #2 and #4 are needed. Pollan gives the most comprehensive account and addresses #1-5.

For the most part, it looks like they’re all correct, but not necessarily complete in their individual analyses. There seem to be two important discrepancies between Edwards and FWW/PHI: Edwards describes eight types of subsidies while FWW describes two; and Edwards suggests that subsidies don’t help small farmers much (“the largest 10 percent of recipients have received 72 percent of all subsidy payments in recent years”), while FWW notes that “82 percent of full-time small to midsized family farmers receive subsidies.” It seems that if we want to avoid putting the small farms out of business by pulling out their subsidies too suddenly, we need to look more closely at the whole picture of who receives how much of which type of subsidy.

Possibly the most interesting lesson from reading these analyses was noticing how their omissions influenced their implications. If I’d read Edwards alone I’d think subsidies are horrible. If I’d read the FWW/PHI report alone I’d think subsidies aren’t so bad, deregulation is. It’s only upon putting them together that I could see where each oversimplified their argument and how their conclusions actually complement each other.

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