Following the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, maintaining stable commodity prices became a priority of the US government. A policy originally built on the idea of supply controls (i.e. - paying farmers to product less to keep prices stable) switched in the 1970s to one where farmers were encouraged to produce whatever they could and the federal government would maintain prices by purchasing the surplus.
Since that time, Americans have spent an increasingly smaller percentage of their income on food.
They’ve also spent $2.6 billion per year on weight loss programs.
The result of 50 years of policy focused on overproduction has created some perverse incentives, resulting in the decline of the small farm, an increase in the amount of calories in the American diet, and unsustainable farming practices that have degraded topsoil and have had substantial impacts on the environment, such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
In this week’s episode of YDHTY, I spoke with Chris Bosso, Professor of Public Policy at Northeastern University, who’s spent much of his career studying the economic and environmental impacts of America’s agricultural policy.
You can listen to the full episode below, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever else you might get your podcasts.
Improvements in agriculture over the first part of the 20th century resulted in greater farm yields, as well as lower commodity prices. This required farmers to sell more to maintain their income, resulting in a further depression in commodity prices, over-farming, and, eventually, the Dust Bowl - possibly the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in US history.
In order to maintain a stable food supply, the US government entered the business of agriculture, paying farmers not to produce crops in order to keep commodity prices at a profitable level while keeping family farms afloat.
This mindset changed in the 1970s under the Nixon Administration, moving from a policy focused on maintaining prices via supply controls to one where the federal government would be the guaranteed buyer of any surplus.
Impacts of this policy were:
- The advantage was given to larger farms - The Secretary of Agriculture referred to this policy as "get big or get out". Under the new regime, smaller farms were at a disadvantage, leading to a rise in agribusiness and a decline in the family farm.
- An increase in the supply of corn and, by that, meat - This policy encouraged overproduction of row crops, such as corn and soybeans, much of the surplus being used for feed. The result was an increase in the amount of meat in the American diet, as well as an increase in the number of calories.
- Environmentally unsustainable farming practices - The current focus on overproduction has resulted in stress on local water supplies, farming techniques that degrade the topsoil, and an overuse of fertilizers that have polluted groundwater and rivers.
Oddly enough, a policy originally born out of environmental catastrophe that threatened the US food supply seems now to be in the process of creating one.
There are some bright spots in all this. Republicans are safe enough in rural districts where they no longer need to trade favorable farm policy for votes, and Democrats are so hopelessly disadvantaged that they have no incentive to do so. Recently, Republicans have been the ones to vote against the Farm Bill, and both parties are beginning to look at policies such as the ethanol fuel standard, which are bad for the economy, the environment, and the budget.
While the idea of safe congressional districts is something that comes up frequently on this podcast as a negative, this might be the one situation where it works to our advantage.
Chris was kind enough to send some resources you can use to better educate yourself on the food supply and how you can have an impact on sustainable farming practices:
US Department of Agriculture resources
- Food and Nutrition Resources: https://www.usda.gov/topics/food-and-nutrition
- USDA inks to a wide variety of topics, such as a farmers market finder: https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program guide to seasonal produce: https://snaped.fns.usda.gov/seasonal-produce-guide
Other guides to local food sources:
- FoodPrint seasonal food guide: https://www.seasonalfoodguide.org
- Harvest is an iPhone app ($1.99) that allows users to see what produce is currently in-season by inputting a location and month: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/harvest-select-best-produce/id320650307?ign-mpt=uo%3D4
- Massachusetts Coalition for Local Food and Farms: https://www.localfoodma.org/find-local-food/guides/
- Local Harvest / Local Foods Near You (links to local food sources across the US): https://www.localharvest.org/locations/
Environmental / Sustainability