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Michael Pollan’s False Paradigm on Farm Subsidies


In a 2200 word piece in the New York Times Magazine, (4/22/07) Michael Pollan devotes a large fraction of the discussion to the farm bill.1

 

He begins with Adam Drewnowski’s analysis of cheap calories in grocery stores, where “a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips, but only 250 calories of carrots,” or “875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice.” 

 

Before long he concludes:  “For the answer, you need look no farther than the farm bill.” 

 

Pollan’s Farm Bill Paradigm.

 

From there he goes to subsidies, stating that “the farm bill as currently written offers a lot more support for cake than to the root” (carrots).  The farm bill “supports,” for example, corn, soybeans and wheat,” to the tune of some $25 billion a year.”  The then clarifies this by stating that the farm bill “has been designed to promote … overproduction of, … especially corn and soy.”  

 

Continuing, the farm bill “helps commodity farmers” by cutting them a check based on how many bushels they can grow, rather than, say, by supporting prices and limiting production as farm bills once did.”  “By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce.”  For evidence, he says, “the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (aka liquid corn) declined by 23 percent.”

 

Another similar quote refers to “subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.”  He adds a qualifier, however.  “Subsidies are only part of the problem.”  He then describes other farm bill titles.

 

Later he mentions other impacts of the farm bill “on the environment, on global poverty, even on immigration.  By making it possible for American farmers to sell their crops abroad for considerably less than it costs to grow them, the farm bill helps determine the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria and therefore whether farmers in those places will survive or be forced off the land.”

 

Where Pollan is Wrong:  A Farmer Perspective

 

To a farmer who has followed farm bill politics, Pollan’s characterizations often sound quite strange. Successive farm bills dropped price floors (and reduced supply management) for 40 years and then eliminated them.  These were political decisions supported by the corporate beneficiaries of these policies, the agribusiness output complex and agribusiness input complex (which benefits from the lack of supply management).  Amazingly, Pollan calls this “help” for “commodity farmers,” “a lot more support.” Subsidies were added after the drops, not before.  Consider, for example, the 1985 farm bill, a response to the “farm crisis.”  The corn price floor was dropped from an average2 of $2.58 per bushel for 1983-5 to $1.75 from 1986-90.  That’s an 84¢ drop.  At the same time, the potential (or maximum possible) subsidy was increased  by 78¢, not the full 84¢.  In real life, the market price followed the price floor, dropping on average from $2.69 to $2.12 in the later period.  Farmers got 57¢ less per bushel from the market place, and only 43¢ more in subsidies to make up for that loss.  So that’s how, as Pollan puts it, ‘”farmers” were “helped” and “supported” to plant more corn.  Additional features in the bill reduce these benefits further.  Program “Yields” used in formulas for subsidies were based upon historical production and were less than actual yields.  I’m not sure specifically about the 1985 farm bill, but only 85% of the program “Base Acres” were allowed in calculating subsidies under the 1990 farm bill, a continution of the same kinds of lower program numbers.  (If I find this I’ll post it here as a comment.)

 

It is true that the farm bill “has been designed to promote … overproduction,” as Pollan stated. 
 

 

Pollan insists that “By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to SUPPORT farmers growing fresh produce” [emphasis added!].  Translation: programs weren’t changed to lower market prices, and then hide the market losses with subsidies that only partially compensate for the losses.  Again, this is Pollan’s “help” and “support.”  Fruits and vegetables are not storable commodities, so they need different kinds of programs.  These are mainly marketing orders.  I can’t speak to them, but I understand that, at the least, they do not adequately establish price floors and manage supply. They should do so.  Additionally, fruit and vegetable producers are protected in the farm bill when commodity crop farmers are effectively prevented from planting fruits and vegetables (ie. they lose the benefits of being partially compensated for huge losses with subsidies if they plant these crops).  

 

By various measures, fruit and vegetable farmers fare better than program crop farmers.  They achieve higher percentages of parity, they have higher returns on equity, and they have larger shares of the food dollar.4  Translation:  to a farmer they appear to be better supported and helped, or in Michael Pollan’s paradigm, fruit and vegetable “farmers” appear not to be “helped” and “supported” as much.  Pollan knows this.  As he says, supermarket prices increased more for fruits and vegetables (lack of “support”) and less for program crop items (and here too, less for “farmers” is more for “farmers,” er, a, agribusiness, in Pollan’s world).

 

Pollan is weak on connecting the “help” and “support” to the agribusiness output firms (buyers) that get the huge benefits of prices that are far below full costs.  Instead, by association, he blames farmers, the victims.  

 

Pollan can always be quoted against himself.  Sure enough, toward the end of the article he admits that “Simply eliminating support for farmers won’t solve these problems; overproduction has afflicted agriculture since long before modern subsidies.”  So now he’s saying both, subsidies cause the problem (false), and they do not necessarily do so, which surely mystifies readers.  

 

Here we get to Pollan’s sins of omission, along with more sins of commission.  First he mystifies readers with the myth that no one knows what policies are needed.  “It will take some imaginative policy making to figure out how to encourage farmers to” change and reduce oversupply of cheap program crops.  

 

The real solutions, we know very well from history, are price floors with supply management on the bottom side, the policies put forth today by the National Family Farm Coalition and a few others5.  (We also need NFFC’s price ceilings and grain reserves on top, for other reasons and occasional circumstances.)  Pollan then makes a very general statement (which he says “could not be more straightforward,) that “the guiding principle behind an eater’s farm bill” would be measures that “promote the quality of our food (and farming) over and above its quantity.”  Pollan shows no support for the well known solutions.

 

Worse, he then states:  “Such changes are radical only by the standards of past farm bills, which have faithfully reflected the priorities of the agribusiness interests that wrote them.”  So not only does he avoid pointing to the real solutions needed, he argues, surely as most readers would hear it, that all previous farm bills are bad on these issues.  So here again he’s false about farm bill history, and turns readers away from the main known farm policy solutions.  In truth, from 1942 to 1952 under New Deal farm programs and the Steagall Amendment of 1941, U.S. farmers received overall farm parity, including the main program crops.  100% of parity is a fair trade, living wage standard that, if continued, would have significantly changed junk food history and Adam Drewnowski’s findings.  
 

1http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/22/magazine/22wwlnlede.t.html?ex=1182312000&en=61f85db44ee8c4ea&ei=5070

 

2. These varous figures are averages of yearly average numbers rather than overall averages.  Since total production varies from year to year, each year does not hold equal weight.  They are not exact total averages, but merely illustrate the point.

 

3 Freedom to Farm, the 1996 farm bill, failed and was amended by four emergency farm bills 1998-2002.

 

4 I have sources for all of this.  See, for example, USDA ERS on shares of the food dollar here  http://www.ers.usda.gov/Data/FarmToConsumer/pricespreads.htm.  Parity percentages for individual crops can be found for various years in the USDA NASS annuals, Agricultural Statistics, for example, in 2008, in chapter 9, “Farm Resources, Income and Expenses,” table 9-35, pp. IX-27-IX-29.  Divide the Marketing year average price by the parity price for a given year to get the percent of parity of the marketing year average price.

 

5 See my “Farm Bill Primer” back at my blog here http://www.zcomm.org/zspace/bradwilson, or click on the link above.

 

Further Reading and References:

 

“Pollan's Folly in a Nutshell: ‘Food Inc.,’ ‘Fresh’ and Beyond,” http://www.lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do;jsessionid=138C176DF085DD34CF1E1B423BF8FD07?diaryId=3085

 

“To Pollan: Farm Bills Were Never Quaint, Antidrama,” http://www.lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=3066.

 

“Do you support the ‘Farm Coalition Group,’” http://www.lavidalocavore.org/showDiary.do?diaryId=3053

 

“Farm ‘Shock Doctrine?’” http://www.zcomm.org/blog/view/2693

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