A Friedman alum recently sent me a draft plan for how to fix the broken U.S. food system, wondering what I thought of it. That prompted a long response which I’ll share with you here.
If you’re in a hurry — tl, dr: The real culprit behind our food woes is systemic political and market failure, and the best way forward is smart regulation aimed at structural change, alongside individual responsibility for what we say and do every day. That lesson follows from the exemplary work of the Movement for Black Lives and so many other youth-led efforts that we might call Gen C activism. The discussion below is not specifically about Black Lives, or about climate activism, but is what I’ve learned from those movements about social change.
Now, the long version:
Any effort to “fix our broken food system” starts with a diagnosis of the problem, observing the many ways that existing institutions harm workers, worsen health and degrade our environment. The draft reform plan I was sent attributes our many woes in agriculture and nutrition to the most visible actors involved, namely the highly specialized agribusinesses and large-scale corporations that supply most grocery stores and restaurant meals. Based on this observation, the plan endorses a widely shared vision of more localized production, whereby each place becomes more self-reliant and resilient through self-provisioning.
Is food sovereignty’s focus on localism the way forward for our food system? Or is the effort to build shorter, locally-controlled supply chains likely to leave other structural problems unchecked? In my view, blaming specialization and trade for our problems is mostly a distraction, and local self-provision is fine as far it goes but that’s not very far. Like other social movements today, we can go look more deeply at the underlying causes of what we see. The food system experiences a variety of political and market failures, the remedies for which include smart regulation aimed at structural change accompanied by individual responsibility for personal choices. That diagnosis comes from academic research in agricultural and food economics, but its societal and policy implementation is heavily influenced by the Movement for Black Lives and responses to climate change and COVID.
In this view, food-specific instruments like package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, fruit and vegetable vouchers as well as soda taxes and nutrition education can all be extremely helpful — especially big programs like SNAP and WIC — but more durable solutions for the whole population come from recognizing that our food system is not just crops, livestock and home cooking: it’s a giant manufacturing and service industry and should be treated as such, with the same kind of regulatory attention that governs transportation, housing, health care and other sectors.
…and now, the really long version:
To start, some context and motivation: Over the past few years, the Movement for Black Lives and young people’s activism around school shootings, climate change and now Covid-19, which I’ll call Generation C, have profoundly altered how I think and talk about food systems. There are threads of continuity but also novelty, unpeeling layers of structural conditions and personal experiences that shape language and understanding. My own life has been propelled by countless privileges, thanks to how my family became white in America. In my view now, Black Lives and Gen C point the way to positive change in three distinct ways:
- First, who’s in charge: older people like me (next birthday is #60, same as Barack Obama) should soon step back and let younger people run things. There is a big need for the wisdom of elders, but my own role is mainly to help Tufts grads go out and do the work.
- Second, structural change. Both the Movement for Black Lives and much of Gen C activism is explicitly anti-capitalist, especially regarding corporate control of government. The system they oppose is what economists call crony capitalism, where legislators and judges and agencies serve the owners of existing businesses instead of newcomers, customers and workers.
- Third, individual behavior. Social science teaches us how large-scale long-term forces reflect and shape our small everyday actions. To shift the whole, each of us has a responsibility to signal our intentions, aligning what we say and do with our social goals. I am a proud member of the Heterodox Academy, and am well aware that overzealous speech police can lead to firing the innocent and self-indulgent guilt, but change starts and ends with personal responsibility for what we do in our professional and personal lives.
For the food system in particular, my perspective comes from working on farms as a kid, then surveying hundreds of farm families in grad school, analyzing terabytes of other data in countless ways and about 40 years of reading everything I can about agriculture, food and nutrition. Most of what I know is academic economics, the kind of social science that I teach in NUTR 238, but I also read a lot in the natural and health sciences.
From all that data and experience, one simple thing we’ve learned about the food system is that supply chains deliver what you put into them. Specialization and long-distance trade can bring good things, like year-round vegetables and rewarding jobs, and they can also do many bad things. For innovation and investment to deliver more of what we want, companies need a regulatory environment and price signals to move in that direction. Most of my adult life has been lived in the Reagan-Bush-Trump era of deregulation and corporate influence in government, but we could soon enter a new era of collective action and personal responsibility.
Fixing the food system in a climate-smart, post-COVID era where Black Lives Matter could involve the Federal government, but only if the U.S. as a whole has a sufficiently large wave election to shift control of the Senate as well as the White House. If that doesn’t happen, the Federal government will remain part of the problem rather than the solution, and steps forward will be taken only by state and local government in progressive places, and by individual consumers, farmers and companies everywhere who choose to align their private behavior with their social goals.
In economics as in medicine, successful interventions start with correct diagnoses and specific remedies, aiming to limit solve problems effectively with few side effects. The way COVID hit the food system, for example, includes illness among meatpackers and migrant farmworkers (migrant meaning that they move from farm to farm). Outbreaks at big companies got the headlines, but the virus itself spreads wherever it can. The astonishing COVID map from Leah Douglas at FERN reveals that, as in nursing homes and other workplaces, big groups are more likely to have cases but may actually be safer on a per-capita basis if the space is managed well. Replacing one 2,000-worker plant with ten 200-employee facilities or a hundred 20-person sites could be better, worse or the same for their communities, depending on how workers are treated.
Even where the illness itself is controlled, COVID has killed jobs for millions of low income workers, and forced a sudden shift to groceries for food at home. Did having a highly specialized food system with long supply chains make us more vulnerable to COVID, or less? The transition from restaurant supply to retail sale did involve a lot of spilled milk and spoiled vegetables, but was about the same problem as switching toilet paper from office to home use. In any case the resilience of supply chains is no consolation to the millions of food workers who lost their jobs, disproportionately Black and brown and low-income people with limited education, but their job loss is a different problem than supply disruption – and the solution to food-system unemployment is not to have all those restaurant kitchen workers become local farmers, since there is not nearly enough capital or land to go around.
At last, we get to the conclusion of this essay: If our food system woes aren’t caused by the big specialized companies involved, what is it that caused our many problems in agriculture, food and nutrition?
For that I’d say: The systemic failures behind our food woes are regulatory in nature. We are trying to manage agriculture and nutrition using institutions like the USDA and FDA that are over a hundred years old, and our debates focus on Farm Bill measures, tax/subsidy instruments and programs that help some people while leaving structural problems unchecked. Food-specific instruments like SNAP and WIC as well as package and menu labeling, school meals, dietary guidelines, soda taxes and nutrition education can be shown to help, but the most durable large-scale solutions for everyone come from recognizing that our food system is fundamentally like other manufacturing and service industries and should be treated as such. Most importantly:
- For heathy diets, we need to treat nutrition and food safety the same way we’ve gotten safer electrical appliances, buildings and transportation. What’s sold at grocery stores and restaurants should be governed the same way we govern what’s at hardware stores, auto dealerships and apartment buildings, ensuring that consumers have choice among options whose safety and functionality is enforced by law.
- For decent jobs, we need to help food service and farmworkers the same way we’ve improved employment conditions elsewhere, with minimum wages and collective bargaining and labor protections that treat every worker with dignity and respect.
- For environmental quality, we should treat water and farmland the same way we treat resources in other sectors, with direct regulation of pollutants and other external harms; as with housing, the goal should be more farming rather than less, adopting new practices that reduce the overall footprint of the whole system.
- For plant and animal life, we should treat antibiotics and pesticides the same way we should treat other public health concerns, with a focus on harm reduction from misuse.
- For monopoly power, we need the same anti-trust enforcement to promote competition, entry of entrepreneurs and survival of small businesses as in other sectors.
The pattern here should be clear: all too often, we still think of food as it comes out of the ground, to be managed with 1930s-era policy instruments. One we see food as a modern manufacturing and service sector like any other, where agriculture produces ingredients and food companies make food, then we recognize the opportunity for a lot of helpful regulation. That may seem like an anti-market view, but it’s straight from the modern ‘neoliberal’ playbook of policing the marketplace to be a level playing field so it can attract as much activity as possible, to be pro-farmer and pro-business in a way that promotes public health and long-term resilience.
To conclude… this is a teaching blog, aimed at supporting NUTR 238: Economics for Food and Nutrition Policy. The purpose of that course, and of academic economics in general, is to help people identify and meet our societal goals. These goals include all peoples’ dignity and living standards, human health and the environment as well as “the economy” in the sense of market activity. Like all of economics, our goal is to identify both market failures and policy failures, and help people solve both with the appropriate instruments. In the U.S. food system, the most under-used part of the policy toolkit is regulation, due to decades of anti-regulatory fever that came to power with Ronald Reagan in 1980. The era of electing leaders who dislike government may finally be coming to an end. If America does have a sufficiently strong wave election in 2020, the U.S. and the world could begin using a more complete armory of policy instruments to improve the food system and so much else — with hundreds of Friedman School graduates on the front lines of change.
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