Friday, March 18, 2005

Small farms redux and America's food fears

Last week we mentioned a NYT op-ed by agricultural economist Bruce Gardner that argued that small farms in America are vibrant and healthy. Since then, there have been several letters to the editor suggesting that the op-ed was an exercise in selective statistics. Many "farms" may be inactive but classified as such for tax benefits. Horse farms now count as farms in NY, which has padded the numbers. And another letter argues that it is the loss of medium-sized farms to consolidation that we should be worried about.

And speaking of worry, one of Gardner's papers from last year is entitled, U.S. Food Regulation and Product Differentiation: Historical Perspective. He chronicles America's food fears and the government regulations that have resulted, which he notes have often intersected with the economic interests of certain industries. He also describes the fiscal inefficiencies that have resulted from many regulatory efforts.

But he seems to overlook many of the inefficiencies of the "efficient" industrial food system. It is very true that fear of pesticides is what often drives people to spend "whole paychecks" on organic food items. However, the public has good reason to scrutinize what they're eating (he notes the past use of lead to preserve peppers). Government standards, though imperfect, are often the only (though limited) assurance in a transnational food economy. Industrial production increases the use of chemicals for growing, processing and transport. And just as important, it means that consumers don't form a relationship with the person who grew/raised their food. That relationship would otherwise foster a personal trust in the quality of their food and help govern what they choose to buy. Without it, the fear and cynicism abound.

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