Agricultural Policy in the 21st Century: Economics and Politics

This paper provides a framework for thinking about agricultural policy, why and how it is introduced, and how it changes over time. This framework suggests that agricultural policy will be influenced by both concerns for efficiency and lobbying. While agricultural policy will not always be effective, it will be relatively stable, at least in terms of its broad outlines. Underlying this broad stability, however, will be considerable small-scale change as program and policy details shift in response to a changing environment. When policy changes in a major way, which it almost always will, the shift will be abrupt—a punctuation. These abrupt changes come as attention is eventually paid to areas and/or issues that are increasingly understood to be not working. While there is considerable room for economic analysis in the policy process, it will not be the main driver; this role belongs to politics—the ability to change the discourse around a policy issue in such a way that different evaluations and interpretations of the policy and its impact are created. Based on the analysis in this paper, it is argued that supply management is more likely to see significant change than business risk management programs, since more attention seems to be currently directed at the former issue. It is also argued that although proponents of local food, organic production, and urban agriculture have had some success at getting attention focused on these issues, this success will not translate into any major policy changes, in part because markets for these products are developing and appear to be working reasonably well.

That’s the abstract of an article by Murray Fulton in the latest issue of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics. The emphasis is mine.

My favorite part of the article, because it happens to capture how I tend to think about policy making in general, was this excerpt:

… agricultural policy rarely, if ever, gets formed to maximize economic efficiency. While policy makers clearly worry about the size of the economic pie and have taken steps to try and increase it, understanding policy making solely as an economic surplus optimization exercise does not provide a complete picture of the process.

On Science Denialism

[F]luoride is a natural mineral that, in the weak concentrations used in public drinking-water systems, hardens tooth enamel and prevents tooth decay—a cheap and safe way to improve dental health for everyone, rich or poor, conscientious brushers or not. That’s the scientific and medical consensus.

To which some people in Portland, echoing anti-fluoridation activists around the world, reply: We don’t believe you.

We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge—from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change—faces organized and often furious opposition. Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts. There are so many of these controversies these days, you’d think a diabolical agency had put something in the water to make people argumentative.

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What Are “Local” Foods?

The local food movement is arguably the most dynamic segment of the food system, contributing to the challenge to define it. Turning to a dictionary, Webster defines the term local as, “characterized by or relating to position in space: having a definite spatial form or location.” In a recent US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report, Low and co-authors, suggest that localness may vary by the audience, purpose and data of the food system dimension where local is applied (Low et al., 2015).

Although geography is typically one of the key factors considered in local food systems, policy and program initiatives implicate a connection to a myriad of other aspects as well. According to the 2008 [farm bill], local foods are defined as any foods produced within a radius of 400 miles or in the state where the food was produced as local foods, but this mix of transportation, distance, and jurisdictional criteria hints to the complexity of characterizing local foods (Low et al., 2015; Martinez et al., 2010). As one example of the implications of this complexity, Martinez et al. (2010) showed evidence that geographic proximity considerations have led to some controversy as to whether State-funded branding programs, which are aimed at promoting or identifying state-produced agricultural products, are part of the local food system. More recently, the [farm bill] of 2014 did not provide a definition of local foods, perhaps because arriving at agreement on a definition defied consensus.

So what other criteria—stated or simply assumed—may be underlying the term local foods … ? The growing set of consumer research and community development literature sheds some light on a broader characterization that suggests sustainable production practices, smaller businesses, more producer-oriented governance, and shorter supply chains which may all be implicit assumptions held by those supporting, investing in and consuming local foods.


From a new paper (ungated) in Choices by Dawn Thilmany McFadden.