What has Trump done for agriculture?
Trump’s administration has made progress on a few points that farmers – or at least the Farm Bureau, the biggest agricultural lobby, which can fairly be described as an organization representing agribusiness interests rather than actual farmers per se – have clamored for. These include changes to the estate tax, rolling back the Waters of the United States rule, and easing restrictions on genetic engineering. As a result, the beleaguered rural economy will soon be “roaring back to life,” according to Trump.
Experts aren’t so sure that the President’s policies will have that effect, though it’s fairly clear that they will benefit extremely wealthy people who happen to live in rural areas. The recently passed tax bill, for example, will effectively raise taxes for the bottom fifth of farm households, according to a USDA analysis obtained by the New York Times. The USDA’s economists project that “70 to 80 percent of the law’s benefits will flow to the top 1 percent of farm households by income,” the Times wrote earlier this week.
May farmers are very concerned about the possible collapse of NAFTA, which Trump has repeatedly threatened to “rip up.” The decades-old trade agreement, which is currently being renegotiated (the talks aren’t going well), enables American farmers to sell their wares to Canada and Mexico without profit-killing tariffs. The economic viability of many American farms is built around those low tariffs. Pulling the plug would certainly bring out the pitchforks. Which is probably why Trump dialed back the anti-NAFTA rhetoric in his speech.
Here’s a couple of other recent news items from the intersections of food and policy.
#MeToo Movement Comes Knocking
The most feminist Golden Globes production ever had plenty of shoutouts to female farmworkers, 700,000 of whom recently made a statement in solidarity with Hollywood’s stars stating that they, too, endure frequent sexual harassment, assault, and rape on the job. Think about this for a moment: if it’s hard to speak up about harassment when you’re an affluent and well-connected American citizen, try being an undocumented farmworker for whom the loss of a job could result in homelessness, nothing to eat for your family, and deportation.
The perpetrators in fields and packing sheds aren’t famous enough to be called out in the media for their bad behavior, but well-known chefs have been feeling the heat, among them Ken Friedman of the Spotted Pig, and Mario Batali, of Eataly fame.
A 2014 survey found that 90 percent of female food service workers have experienced harassment, more than in any other industry. For anyone who works in restaurants, those facts are unsurprising. What is surprising is that it took this long for the faÁ§ade of denial to crumble. Tom Colicchio, one of the few prominent chefs to take a stand on the issue, didn’t mince words when summing up the pathetic state of affairs of his profession in an open letter to male chefs: “The recent ‘revelations’ of rampant harassment in the restaurant industry weren’t exactly a shocker to the women working in it. Or the men, for that matter. This isn’t just a matter of a few bad eggs and ”‹we all know it,” he wrote. “Something’s broken here. It’s time that chefs and restaurant owners… have some hard conversations amongst ourselves that are long overdue.”
Pollan Re-Emerges with Carrots and Twinkies in Hand
Michael Pollan has kept a low profile on food matters as of late while he’s been busy writing a book about the therapeutic possibilities of psychedelic drugs. But he did show up to support his friend Earl Blumenauer, a democratic congressman from Oregon, who released the text of the Food and Farm Act – dubbed the “alternative farm bill” – in November.
Blumenauer’s proposed legislation is essentially what we’d have if Michael Pollan was responsible for writing the farm bill: it cuts way back on subsidies for commodity crop farmers, boosts funding for environmentally-responsible agriculture, doubles down on animal welfare, and prioritizes local food systems. It’s a noble effort, but the bill isn’t expected to become law. It’s more of an exercise in what an ideal farm bill would look like, published in hopes of moving the needle on the actual farm bill (which is up for its every-five-year renewal this summer) in the right direction.
During his speech at the alternative farm bill launch in D.C., Pollan held up a bunch of carrots in one hand and a package of Twinkies in the other, noting that the latter cost several times as much as the former, but has none of the health benefits and comes with a laundry list of negative implications for human and environmental health. “This perverse state of affairs is not the result of the free market,” he exclaimed. “It has more to do, in fact, with the farm bill.” Pollan then went onto explain that the farm bill, through subsidizing certain types of agriculture, is effectively making Twinkies cheaper than carrots, and thus subsidizing a host of problems.
The foodie blogosphere went into something of a tizzy over this ruse, with Tamar Haspel of the Washington Post penning a lengthy diatribe that deconstructed why Pollan’s comparison was, in a word: “false.” She continued: “I have pointed this out before, but people keep saying it, so now I’m going to shout: IT’S FALSE. Yes, junky food ingredients get much more subsidy money than fruits and vegetables. But here’s the key overlooked fact: Produce is inherently much more expensive to grow than grains, and that difference dwarfs the difference in subsidy levels.” She then goes on to provide a mathematical proof.
John Ikerd, a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, soon published a rebuttal on civileats.com, lambasting Haspel for failing to see the worth of Pollan’s bit of theatre. He admits that Haspel’s claim is correct, technically speaking, but notes that Pollan wasn’t attempting a dissertation on the economics of subsidies so much as making a broad point about the priorities embedded in our agricultural policy. “The Twinkie-carrot example is simply a convenient, accessible entry point to those who are new to learning about our nation’s many misplaced public policy priorities,” he writes. “And treating it as the beginning and end of the discussion distracts from useful public discourse.”
Haspel then rebutted the rebuttal on Twitter, sarcastically noting that perhaps Pollan should consider “this quixotic idea that we need EVIDENCE” to inform policy. But despite her evidence that subsidies aren’t the reason that Twinkies are cheaper, she admits that it really would be a good idea if we adopted Pollan’s ideas about subsidy reform: “[He] is correct about a lot, and I share his concerns about a farm bill that disproportionately subsidizes food that is unhealthful.” The actual problem, she says, is that “I have bored the pants off my readers on more than one occasion, saying just that.”
In other words, the (depressing) moral of the story is that people are more interested in seeing people argue online than in understanding the nitty-gritty details of important food policy issues. Shucks!