Evaluating the Policy Proposals of the Food Movement

That is the title of a paper I presented a few months ago at a conference put on by the American Enterprise Institute.  

The paper is a critical evaluation of the food policy proposals put forth by by Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutterand (see herehere, and here).  As I argue in the paper, these policy proposals have largely escaped serious criticism, but it is important to take a closer look for the following reasons.

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. First Lady Michelle Obama made food policy a signature issue by planting a White House garden, retooling school lunches, and including the White House chef as a policy advisor. 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.

The authors first start by painting a dire picture of the state of food and agriculture.  Then they offer a set of "guiding" principles before putting forth more than 20 specific policy proposals.  In the paper, I go point by point and address each one.  Here I'll just offer my summary:

I demonstrate that the authors offer no consistent, underlying philosophical basis for when the federal government should (and should not) intervene and offer no framework for making tradeoffs when proposed “guarantees” come into conflict. Moreover, the authors misjudge the trajectory and impacts of changes in food and agriculture and thus overstate the urgency and scope for intervention. The authors’ numerous specific policy proposals tend to represent a hodge-podge of ideas that have already been tried, are already being undertaken by the USDA, or fail to hold up under close scrutiny, although there is some common ground on a few proposals.

In a particularly telling example, where the authors propose funding for all sorts of youth activities to promoting cooking and agriculture, they make no mention of the largest food and agricultural youth organizations already working in schools across the country: 4-H and FFA.