Should federal agricultural policies favor big producers or the local foods movement? The answer to the question is not that the government should pick a winner and a loser. Or even two winners or two losers. Instead, the answer is "no."
The question, which is not a new one, has reared up again recently as the result of a debate between Freakonomics blogger Steve Sexton and Tom Philpott of Mother Jones. Sexton, in a post earlier this month, took aim at a “Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act” he said would award "about $200 million to local farm programs." In Sexton's post, titled The Inefficiency of Local Food, he goes on to argue among other things that a
local food system would raise the cost of food by constraining the efficient allocation of resources. The monetary costs of increased input demands from forsaken gains from trade and scale economies will directly bear on consumer welfare by increasing the costs of food.
Philpott counters by pointing out that any honest discussion of purported inherent efficiencies underlying the system Sexton favors must take into account subsidies. Philpott's 100% right about that, especially because Sexton's argument not only picks on local food but on subsidies for local food.
While Philpott rightly derides Sexton for completely avoiding mention of the billions of dollars in subsidies large producers receive, Sexton concludes his post by noting that
[l]ocal foods may have a place in the market... [b]ut they should stand on their own...
I've argued much the same before:
At its core, true sustainability has an essential economic component: The practices of sustainable farmers must be able in turn to sustain the farmers. In other words, sustainable farmers must be able to succeed without agricultural subsidies.
Though Sexton is a skeptic, I tend to think local foods can stand on their own. (I note this in my linked op-ed above: "Mounting evidence suggests this is possible.")
What about Philpott? What's he have to say about the idea of local food growers supporting themselves in an unsubsidized market? Nothing, it turns out. While Philpott makes an effective, largely market-based argument for locavorism--and makes several thoughtful comments about not banning Cheetos and some of the limits of locavorism in a public-radio debate this week with Sexton--his righteous defense of local foods is as silent on the issue of subsidies for small farmers as Sexton's is on subsidies for big farmers.
Still, a little rooting around finds Philpott arguing elsewhere that
If we want to see local and regional food systems expand beyond niche status, we need to demand.... a serious program to reinvest in the system that has been so cavalierly dismantled.
Serious programs, even if they only exist on paper, cost taxpayers serious dollars. Hence, we're back to subsidies.
So what's going on here? Why are both Philpott and Sexton arguing with each other but past the subsidies each seeks or refuses to disclaim for their own "side"? It's merely a phenomenon that Cato's Walter Olson referred to earlier this year as "let's subsidize things I like." (I like to acronymize this to L.S.T.I.L.) And when it comes to food, this mindset sets up a false choice between big food and local food.
So here's my plea: let's subsidize nothing. Let's subsidize nothing and let everyone compete--small, medium, and large. Let's subsidize nothing and let people make their own choices. People who can afford expensive food can buy that if they'd like, and those who can afford inexpensive food can buy that. But let's not argue for the efficiency and superiority of our own eating habits when taxpayers are footing the bill.
Correction: Philpott writes for Mother Jones (I subscribed when I was in high school!), not The Nation (I never subscribed!). Post corrected to reflect that fact.
Baylen Linnekin is the director of Keep Food Legal, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and increasing "culinary freedom," the right of all Americans to grow, sell, prepare and eat foods of their own choosing. To join or learn more about the group's activities, go here. To follow Keep Food Legal on Twitter, go here; to follow Linnekin, go here.