Thursday, December 11, 2008

Should the Department of Agriculture have a new mission?

Nicholas Kristof argues that instead of an Secretary of Agriculture, we should have a "Secretary of Food":
"Renaming the department would signal that Mr. Obama seeks to move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars."
Kristof points out a number of absurdities of our system of agricultural subsidies, including the fact that he himself receives $588 from the government, "in exchange for me not growing crops on timberland I own in Oregon (I forward the money to a charity)."

It does seem strange that we have a whole department devoted to agriculture when we don't have one devoted to other specific industries or even economic sectors. After all, 98% of Americans work outside of the agricultural industry.

It's important to remember why the government got so involved in agriculture in the first place. According to Bruce Gardner and Daniel A. Sumner:
"Poverty in rural America was a major force behind the original establishment of commodity programs in the 1930s. Rural poverty remains a blight in the American economy to this day, and the idea that higher commodity prices could reduce that poverty attracts support to these programs. Evaluating farm policies therefore must be considered in light of their effects on farm and rural incomes, and especially on the effectiveness at dealing with rural poverty compared to other approaches to this concern."
Rural poverty is still very much a concern, but agricultural supports are clearly not a good way to solve it. First, 75% of agricultural production comes from family farms with over $250,000 in annual revenue. These are not people who need government support. Smaller family farms derive a majority of their income from non-farming activities. And these families still earn well above the average US household:

We spend over $300 billion in agricultural subsidies, which ultimately go to agricultural corporations and families that are comfortably above the average US household income. So I agree with Kristof: it's time to shift the focus of the Department of Agriculture towards the needs of the nation's 300 million consumers of food.

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