We Need a Lean Farm Bill

The way the United States feeds its citizens is out of whack because the farm bill distorts the free-market system. In my mind, that means the farm bill interferes with the application of lean principles because it encourages farmers to grow specific crops that are not necessarily what customers would consider to be of value.

            An excellent essay on this topic by journalist Michael Pollan appears in the April 22 issue of The New York Times Magazine. (You need to register on their site to read the article; registration is free.) Pollan notes that the farm bill encourages production – actually, overproduction – of corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton. He writes:


            That’s because the current 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. The result? A food system awash in added sugars (derived from corn) and added fats (derived mainly from soy), as well as dirt-cheap meat and milk (derived from both). By comparison, the farm bill does almost nothing to support farmers growing fresh produce. A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories  in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.


            I don’t agree that a farm bill ought to support prices or limit production, as Pollan implies. In fact, I question whether we should have the government playing any role in determining what should be sold in a free market, or how it should be priced. But if we are going to have a farm bill, it ought to support public goals of good nutrition and good health. Instead, we have a bill that contributes to obesity.

            Pollan also contends that the farm bill distorts the federal school-lunch program by encouraging schools to serve too many calories. And he says it has a global impact, affecting the price of corn in Mexico and the price of cotton in Nigeria, for example, as well as employment of farmers in both of those countries. He argues that this is a contributing factor to illegal immigration of Mexicans to the U.S.; he quotes the Mexican government as saying cheap U.S. corn has thrown two million Mexican farmers out of work since the mid-90s.

            Why aren’t people up in arms about this? Pollan explains:


            Because most of us assume that, true to its name, the farm bill is about “farming,” an increasingly quaint activity that involves no one we know and in which few of us think we have a stake. This leaves our own representatives free to ignore the farm bill, to treat it as a parochial piece of legislation affecting a handful of their Midwestern colleagues.


            However, he sees seeds of change, arguing that “a grass-roots social movement is gathering around food issues today.” A solution won’t be easy, but the first step, he says, “is recognition that the ‘farm bill’ is a misnomer; in truth, it is a food bill and so needs to be rewritten with the interest of eaters placed first.”


            Providing what the customer wants – and changing what you provide when the customer’s desires change – is a fundamental lean principle. The food industry has shown it can be responsive to customers. (The sudden growth in low-carb offerings a few years back is one example.) We need the farming industry to be just as responsive, and that means we need a major revision of the farm bill.

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