The Food System and Public Policy

Note: This post is based on a portion of my presentations at the recent Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference in Denver. Go to the ASPO web site for the complete slide deck. And thanks to Debbie Cook for inviting me to be on her panel. As reported by the Des Moines Register, Colombia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs had some strong words for the food industry at the 2009 Borlaug Dialogue: Sachs said agriculture is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions, and he also linked the industry to depletion of water supplies and fisheries and poor dietary habits. What I’d like to do for this post is ask if government policies contribute to the troubles in the food system. I see ways in which we are we working against our own interests, akin to a giant tug of war game, where the work of one only serves to counter the work of another. Once we identify the policies that support current conditions, we can readily suggest adjustments that will align with broad measures of well being. I also want to acknowledge that part of the reason we produce food the way we do is because it has been incredibly successful at yielding abundantly and at low initial costs. What is more troubling are the unintended consequences that Prof. Sachs identified and that I will discuss further. These are the long-term costs, or externalities, that need to be factored into the transition towards sustainability in food production. Broad Social Goals I am first going to identify some broad social goals that I believe are non-partisan. If you look at these and study the effects of the current food system it is clear that the way we are feeding ourselves is diametrically opposed to general notions of « public good. » I identify four social goals that most everybody can agree on: Environmental Protection, Healthy and Safe Food, Economic Vitality, and Peace and Security.