Michael Pollan is our second favorite writer on food. (Hey, we’re Chelsea Green after all. Our own writers are all tied for first.) Ezra Klein also likes Michael Pollan, and Pollan’s recent NYT Magazine article got Ezra thinking (and blogging) about food issues. And then readers of Ezra’s blog got to commenting. And that lead Ezra to write this interesting post, “Why is bad food cheap?”
Put aside the externalities. The weight gain and the chronic diseases and the carbon pumped into the atmosphere. Bracket it, as my college political science professors used to say. There’s a tendency to believe bad food is simply cheap. We make it like that because it saves us money. Sometimes, that’s true. More often, it’s not. Bad food is subsidized. Take high-fructose corn syrup. These days, the average American consumes almost 60 pounds of the stuff each year. Forty years ago, they consumed a pound or two of corn-based sweeteners. What happened? Well, high fructose corn syrup was invented. But that wasn’t enough. It’s not — or at least, was not — naturally cheaper than sugar. It’s subsidized:
He also takes on the example of concentrated feedlot production of meat animals. Again: it’s not the “free market” that makes them a cheaper system for producing meat, it’s badly conceived and politically inertia’ed subsidy policies. I spend my fair share of time harshing on “free markets,” but I’m not foolish enough to think that that’s the only system that can fail. Sometimes it is definitely the lesser evil.
Anyhow, reader comments to that posting led Ezra to draft yet another on the food topic that clarified some of what he was trying to show, and you might want to see that as well.
But more interesting, to me at least, was what was still to come. (That Ezra really likes his food blogging!) This time it was more on the political side of the “political economy” equation.
I have enormous respect for Pollan as an author, so it’s odd to say this, but I think some of the problem here might have been in the writing. The discussions of subsidies — the key issue in food policy — is subsumed within section one’s discussion of polycultures. They exist in the piece, but not clearly, and not with sufficient force. Sections two and three, on “reregionalizing” food and changing our food culture, are important, but from a policy perspective, rather muddled. The polycultures portion did come first, so there’s evidence that Pollan thought it most important. But I think he’s focusing on the wrong end of the issue: We need to dismantle the subsidies before we can really talk about incentivizing different agricultural behavior. To do otherwise is to put the tractor before that weird machine that sprays pesticides.
Laskawy also links to the Q&A with Pollan, where he engages the political economy of the issue. And I’d argue that this is actually a more compelling and important idea than anything that appears in the actual piece: