Food and Public Policy

Government at the Table


Government policy impacts food quality, availability and price in a number of direct and less direct ways. In general, subsidies for farmers can give them a boost while keeping food prices in a comfortable range for consumers. Depending on the details, though, the effect can be positive or negative.

Farm bills in the US have handed huge sums to agribusiness owners, some of whom never touched a tractor, while smaller operations still struggled. Subsidies for chemical fertilizers and pesticides mean that organic farmers are excluded, thus raising the market price of naturally grown food and decreasing its competitiveness. Proposals for electronic tagging of cattle, ostensibly a food safety measure to track and limit the spread of disease, may prove too expensive for small farmers to carry out. The crops selected for subsidy, for instance corn or sugar, can materially affect their market price and contribute to unhealthy, though economical, food choices by consumers.

Biofuels, and in particular corn-ethanol, are another area of contention. Though initially seen as a promising alternative to fossil fuels, it turns out that fossil fuels used to produce ethanol maintain a high CO2 footprint, while land is diverted from food to fuel production. Though use of other crops or agricultural waste as a fuel source seem a better choice, current subsidies weigh in favor of ethanol.

When trade and farm policy cross national borders, further side effects occur. For instance, NAFTA opened borders to increased food trade without labor, food safety and environmental protections. Cheaper, but not always safer, fruits and vegetables entered the US from Mexico. At the same time, corn subsidies in the US undercut Mexican corn prices, and thousands of maize farmers in Oaxaca state were unable to make a living. Many emigrated to the US, seeking jobs and further fueling anti-immigrant sentiment.

Likewise, laws that regulate fisheries can prevent or exacerbate over-fishing of food species. On the environmental front, fishing practices can further threaten endangered species, such as sea turtles caught in purse sein and long-line operations. In recent years, wildlife activists have begun pushing for international standards of fishing practice.

At the root of many food issues is one common denominator: a population that is too big for the planetís resources and that is growing too fast compared to the rate viable, planet-friendly technologies are emerging.

How do you control over-populaton? War and starvation do it efficiently, but a more positive step is empowering women. Giving women education and political rights encourages them to enter the workforce and delay childbearing, make choices about forms of birth control that fit their culture, and insist that policies support, but are not limited to, traditional families. Recognition of housework and subsistence farming as a form of work from which legal and economic rights are derived also increases womenís impact on population choices. Suffrage, education, labor and tax law, and family welfare programs all affect population choices.

In all of these ways, and more, government policy impacts the availability of safe, healthy, affordable food for all.

Read more:

UN Food and Agriculture Organization

Unsustainable Ocean Fisheries - Defenders of Wildlife

Rodale Institute - research and promotion of sustainable farming practices.

Food Provenance - country of origin labeling info, Care2

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Economy & Trade