Julie Guthman on agricultural subsidies

Julie Guthman writes in Weighing In:

Although the role of subsidies in overproduction is debatable, it is patently false that subsidies make junk food more affordable than fresh fruits and vegetables, a claim that Michael Pollan has promoted. He based this on a finding by obesity researchers Adam Drewnowski and S. E. Specter (2004) that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Although the latter may be true, the reason that processed food is cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables has little to do with subsidies. It is in small part due to market structure; it is in much larger part due to the cost of growing. Simply put, many processing ingredients, such as potatoes, corn, and wheat, are far less costly to produce on a mass scale than fresh fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, corn, and wheat, all primary ingredients in snack food, can be tilled and harvested by machine, whereas fresh peaches, strawberries, and lettuce require a great deal of hand labor in weeding and harvesting. This is not to say that fruit and vegetable production has not been intensified; intensification through breeding, postproduction practices, and sped up crop rotations make crops such as tomatoes and iceberg lettuce, for example, cheaper than they would be, but not nearly as cheap as grains. (122)



  1. Eric B. said

    I’ve leveled more or less the same charge against Pollan, but I think Guthman overreaches here. She says it’s not subsidies but economies of scale, but subsidies have a lot to do with the specialization and large scale of American agriculture, so it’s wrong to suggest this dichotomy between subsidies and scale. Unfortunately, Pollan misses the same reality, suggesting — if I remember correctly — that we ought to use subsidies to support the production of fresh fruits and vegetables. That, too, misses the reality that subsidies are fundamentally at odds with the kind of diversified, chemical non-dependent agriculture that Pollan claims to support. If we want farmers to grow more than corn and soybeans, we ought to stop trying to get them to grow for big, standardized government programs; that’s no way to achieve diversity in the field or ultimately on the table.

    • Adam Merberg said

      I’m curious about the relationship between subsidies and economies of scale. Would mechanized harvesting of grains be impossible without subsidies?

      • Eric B. said

        No, I definitely wouldn’t say that. I’d look at it more in terms of competitive advantage. It doesn’t take much to tip the balance away from smaller, local ways of farming. For instance, apart from subsidies and other government programs designed to support corn farming, a farmer might be much more likely to include millet in a rotation, but when we bolster large scale farms with crop insurance programs and various subsidies and price supports, then the choice facing the farmer isn’t so much the very open-ended question of how to farm but the much narrower question of whether to get with the system or not. Any farming system that’s defined by any Washington policy is inevitably going to favor uniform, standardized ways of farming, crops to grow, etc.

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