Farm Subsidies

My Subsidized Food Choices Superior to Yours


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 hereTo follow Keep Food Legal on Twitter, go here; to follow Linnekin, go here.


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  1. When you encourage the less efficient production of a scarce resource, you reduce the access of the poor to that resource.

    Doing this with food should have obvious moral consequences.

    1. That is a lovely, succinct way of putting it. Thanks, I’m stealing it.

      Sadly, it’s also an argument for subsidizing the resources you are encouraging the less efficient production of.

  2. Not choose a winner? Why would we have a government then?

    Snark aside, my friendly CSA makes decent money and I save money on good produce. I’m sure the government can only make it worse.

    1. Yeah, my friend joined a CSA last summer. I can’t believe how much food she got…if you do the calculations, it’s pretty cheap.

    2. Confederate States of America?

      1. With savings passed on directly to you, the gentile customer!

  3. So here’s my plea: let’s subsidize nothing. Let’s subsidize nothing and let everyone compete–small, medium, and large.

    But, but..ANARCHY! SOMALIA!!11!!1

    Why do you hate farmers?

  4. Just because you like nothing doesn’t mean we should subsidize it. Hypocrite.

  5. Uh oh, this sounds like a thread that “White Indian” would show up on.



  7. The politicization of food has to be one of the stupidest fucking things the human race has ever done. Are we really so bored that we have to turn food into a religion? And when I say “we”, I mean the fucking cretins who turn food into a moral crusade.

    1. The notable excepting being the debate on what counts as pizza, apparently.

      1. That’s not politicization, that’s having taste. Right, ProL?

        1. I was thinking more of religionization.

    2. Maybe, but it’s not new. Back when churches were government, we got stupid bullshit like Kosher, fish on fridays, etc.

  8. I like this idea. And since many liberals can’t help arguing that tax deductions are subsidies, let’s stop taxing income, too. In the name of fairness, of course.

  9. Forget 100 mile food, we should encourage a 100 mile lifestyle.

    1. Most people probably already do stay within 100 miles of home for the most part.

  10. The problem with everyone’s analysis here (including Baylen’s) is the assumption that the Big Food market and the Locavore market in any way interact or intersect.

    They don’t.

    I consume a lot of locavore products here in New England. I belong to a CSA. I buy farmer’s market stuff. I buy food at co-ops. And you know what? All of that production is taking place parallel to the “real” food market, using land and production resources that would have just lain fallow and not been employed in the absence of the locavore market.

    It’s not like these little Vermont farms would be producing wheat and corn for the national market if they weren’t producing artisan cheeses and grass-fed meats. They MAYBE would be adding to the local milk glut. More likely, they would be out of production entirely.

    So the economic analysis that says that the price of food is being raised by local production because resources are being diverted is just false, at least here in New England. New England farms can’t compete with the rest of the country in producing bulk commodities for the “real” food market, so if the locavore market goes away these farms will go away too.

    And you might say that’s the result of the subsidies for “big” farmers, but that’s hard for me to believe. We’re talking about 50% or 60% advantages in cost of production and in yield for Iowa or California farmers over New England farmers. That can’t all be subsidies.

    1. Good point. There is a reason why farming is no longer a major economic activity in New England, and the reason is mostly that New England is a lousy place for agriculture (with a few fairly specialized exceptions). Rocky soil, short growing season. It is not surprising that most people stopped farming when it was no longer necessary.

      1. New England’s natural crop: rocks.

        We had some awesome rock walls on our property when I was growing up, though.

        1. Like 1/3 of our farm growing up was rocks.

          1. My grandfather insisted that instead of taking rocks out of the field (New Hampshire) you were supposed to dig under them each year when the frost pushed them up.

            Every single year, my dad had to do this.

            1. Grandfather was misinformed. Should have pulled the rocks from the fields.

              1. He was a chemist from Boston who decided to relocate to the country to avoid his kids getting contaminated by the city.

            2. We had to comb over our goddamn lawn every spring and toss the rocks into the woods so our mower wouldn’t get fucked up. That was a more miserable chore than stacking wood.

              But still & all, I do love me some northern New England.

            3. Our farm has gotten to the point where the fields are pretty rock-free, but that means the pastures are twice as rocky.

      2. you’d think 200+ years would be enough time to dig up all the rocks. slackers.

        1. It’s rocks, rocks, rocks, all the way down.

  11. ” All of that production is taking place parallel to the “real” food market, using land and production resources that would have just lain fallow and not been employed in the absence of the locavore market.”
    Ok, you are claiming that local food doesn’t take from industrial farming. It is still allocating that land that could used otherwise. So it is still raising prices somewhere.

    1. “So it is still raising prices somewhere.”

      And so is every other economic choice that people make.

  12. On a separate topic, highlights from my first experience booking a trip on the taxpayer subsidized Amtrak low speed rail system:

    When I completed my ticket selections and tried to pay online, I received a helpful message that the process had failed, and would work better if I went through all steps without hitting the “Back” button at any time to make changes.

    Unlike any major airline for the past several years (at least), you can’t get an electronic ticket or print out a boarding pass. You have to buy it at the station.

    The station at one end of my journey turned out to be not so much a “station” as an empty, uncovered platform for boarding the train, with no ticket office. With 10 parking spots.

    Fortunately, many stations have vending machines for printing the tickets that can be purchased with a credit card. Unfortunately, the local station doesn’t even have that. So I have to pay 15 bucks extra to have the tickets Fed-Exed to my house, where someone has to be home to sign for it. Or you can buy them on the train. Maybe.

    It turns out that coach/general admission seats are not only not reserved (you sit wherever you want), buying a ticket does not guarantee admission. During busy times, seats may not be available. Apparently it’s too difficult to track how many seats have been sold.

    Fortunately, for 17 bucks extra you can upgrade to Business Class, with laptop stations and a power outlet. And there’s free Wi-Fi, with the disclosure that it may not support activities such as downloading video or anything requiring any significant bandwidth.

    1. You want a new license for your car? Get in Line #3. Or maybe #4.
      Just get in one of them. When you get to the front, they’ll tell you if it’s the right line.

    2. At Amtrak, ticket buy YOU!

  13. Redo analysis w/o new england. That region is irrelevant.

  14. What is up with the glory-hole flashlights in that picture?!

    1. They’re the deadlights, dude. Don’t you know that Pennywise was a giant alien carrot?

      1. Oh, carrots. That is not what I saw.

    2. What is up with the glory-hole flashlights in that picture?!

      They’re Fleshlights.

  15. Off-topic, but does anyone else wonder if Justin Bieber is really a 23-year-old butch lesbian? Bedcause I sure do. And if she is, what a great position she’s in to get chicks.


  16. the right of all Americans to grow, sell, prepare and eat foods of their own choosing

    You should add “buy” to that list.

    1. Everyone should have a personal farmer, just like they their own doctor, dentist, barber.

      1. I have a man who makes his living doing only one thing and only for me. He’s a monocle maker. The best.

  17. Here I was, living my life, perfectly content never having heard the word “locavore”. That’s a synonym for “douchebag” right ?

    1. Look up Slow Food. Then watch Meet your Meat.

      1. No time. I’ll be picking up some corndogs at Walmart on my way to the tractor pull.

        1. Don’t forget your monocle! You left it on the table by the door.

          1. What a coincidene, I’m a callipygist.

  18. I want to start the local higher education movement. From now on, Columbia can only accept students from Harlem, U of Penn can only accept students from West Philly, …

  19. In most cases, these are two completely different products. While a carrot from a mono-culture industrialized farm that uses ammonium sulfate fertilizer and man made pesticides may *look* the same as a carrot from a farm that grows a diverse number of crops in good humus packed with beneficial bacteria without the use of pesticides, the reality is, these two carrots are worlds apart, both in flavor and nutrition. Not to mention the damage to the environment done by the industrial farms (killing the soil, pesticide run off, etc).

    Comparing these two types of agriculture require a deeper look into the actual products produced and the state of the environment when the harvest is done.

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