A colleague pointed me to a recent The Washington Post opinion piece titled, “How a national food policy could save millions of American lives.” It’s a well-written but misguided credo to the ills of U.S. food policies and a bad stab at understanding and explaining them. The article covers a lot of territory. We’ll just focus on where its ideas on ag are wrong.
The opinion piece (published Nov. 7), starts, “How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity.” The first sentence is an agreeable point to a point. But after it, the piece jumps into a manifesto outlining how past and current U.S. food policies, including farm policy, have caused incalculable damage to Americans and the environment, and that if a foreign power had waged similar harm to America, it would be tantamount to war, and the U.S. government would rally resource to combat it.
The article is penned by four people, each with credible-enough credentials to propose wise council on the issue they tackle in the article, and they pinpoint talking points that can ring true to the average non-farm ear. But the article’s argument on farm policy falls short on several fronts.
The article proposes the fallacy of powerful policymakers who decades ago steered farm policy to benefit certain commodities, which has led us now to bad food policy for the country. The article says:
”Our food system is largely a product of agricultural policies that made sense when the most important public health problem concerning food was the lack of it and when the United States saw “feeding the world” as its mission. These policies succeeded in boosting the productivity of American farmers, yet today they are obsolete and counterproductive, providing billions in public support to an industry that churns out a surfeit of unhealthy calories — while at the same time undermining the ability of the world’s farmers to make a living from their land.”
Why can we now, as a country, not worry about a lack of food as the authors say? What has happened to make farm policies “obsolete and counterproductive”? Nothing. Though not perfect, the policies have worked, making the lack of food not the most important health problem for the country.
The commodities covered by U.S. farm policy through the farm bill are staple commodities, which have for millennia been man’s mainstay to ward off starvation and to produce in-mass to store for the future lean times. The article points to the need for more research and resources to be devoted to fruits and vegetables, considered healthier, to make them more accessible to consumers. I’m all for that. Fruit and vegetable production is a tough business and needs help producing and dealing with perishable products that need processing in some way to stay fresh enough to eat later. Because of this, most fruits and vegetables at times cost more than the “surfeit of unhealthy calories” more widely available.
Federal and state programs help make healthy food available to those who can't afford it. A good thing. But as you know, only 10 to 15 percent of the money spent on the farm bill goes to securing actual food production; by far the majority of the farm bill money goes to figuring out ways to help support folks who get the food.
But let’s be honest, most people far too often opt to spend their $5 on a hamburger meal than pitch in the extra dollar and change for the salad on the menu.
Political activism distorts the image
The article points out farm subsidies as wrong, and, as they say, puts money into powerful agribusiness pockets. They say the latest farm bill signed earlier this year is the same old same old as far as they are concerned. They should be reminded, or learn, the most recent farm bill stopped cold direct payments to farmers, moving the farm safety-net system to a predominately insurance-based one.
And, yes, insurance products premiums established by the farm bill are subsidies by the farm bill, mostly because farming is as risky a business venture as man has created. Insurance companies on their own wouldn’t see the economic benefit of creating farm insurance products without government support, and if they did, farmers couldn’t afford the products anyway, likely being priced way too high to make economic sense to farmers.
The article blames ag and food policies for growing class disparity in the country, saying, “And the exploitative labor practices of the farming and fast-food industries are responsible for much of the rise in income inequality in America.” This statement is extreme. Production agriculture is the life-blood of most rural economies in this country, the same life blood that flows to urban centers of power where, because of access to food, other things are done to benefit the country.
It is hard, very hard, to talk about this subject with a clear, objective view without political activism distorting the image. The authors blame the government’s lack of good food policy on too much government bureaucracy, or too many agencies mucking up the system with competing agendas. The authors call for the president to perform an executive order to make a White House Council to reform and reshape food policy – from farm to table – in the image the authors propose.
The authors take the same tone of other articles I’ve read before: implying either farmers don’t see through the corrupt U.S. food system conspiracy and are duped by it or are willing accomplices to it. Farmers are proud to be in the business they are in and they should be.
Food is the basic necessity for each individual. A lot of food coupled with a civilization’s ability and resources to continue to produce a lot of food is the cornerstone of a civilization. Missing this point alone in their article, the authors’ call to action on reformed food policy rings hollow.