Policy Proposals of the Food Movement

The journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy (AEPP) just published a paper I wrote critically evaluating the policy positions advocated in a series of articles by Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier De Schutter (see here, here, and here). If you don't want to read the paper, I also recorded a podcast with AEPP editor Craig Gundersen, where we talked about a few of the high points.  

Debate about the next Farm Bill is already beginning, and I suspect many people in the agricultural community would argue that the so-called food-movement should be ignored because it does not seem to have much effect on farm policy.  I'd argue that view is short sighted.  First, the population dynamics have change dramatically over the past half century, giving more power to the food consumer.  Second, the larger size and more integrated nature of farms today is likely to make them less sympathetic as recipients of subsidies than has been the case in the past.  And, as I outline in the paper, evidence of the shift is beginning to emerge.

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 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. Former 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 movement, as well as state ballot and local initiatives on labeling of genetically engineered food, soda taxes, and farm animal housing, can also be seen as outgrowths of the impacts of the food movement.

I won't summarize the whole paper here, but the main purpose is to try to bring the food and agricultural economics profession into this debate.  My own view is that Bittman et al. offer no consistent, underlying philosophical basis for when the federal government should (and should not) intervene and that they misjudge the trajectory of health, environmental, and productivity changes in food and agriculture and thus overstate the urgency and scope for intervention.  More specifically, I would argue that many of their specific proposals are unlikely to pass a cost benefit test.

Here is part of the concluding paragraph from the piece.

There are some points of agreement related to the need to reform current farm subsidies and the need to alter existing government policies that act as barriers to entry. However, the authors spend virtually no time discussing those policies that are likely to have the biggest bang for the buck for the present farmers responsible for producing the bulk of the nation’s food supply or 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. 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 nontariff trade barriers based on specious food safety claims; consumers benefit from trade as well by gaining access to more diversified foodstuffs and more affordable food. While Bittman, Pollan, Salvador, and De Schutter’s (2015) are not economists and should not be expected to frame their policy proposals in economic terms, that does not absolve economists of the responsibility to engage with their ideas, particularly in light of the fact that current trends suggest the policy proposals are gaining traction with a growing number of consumers and politicians.