The Biden administration should ensure the correct focus of a conference it will host next Wednesday on food-related issues such as nutrition and access to food.
The primary focus of this food conference, especially when Americans are suffering through food prices not seen in over 40 years, should be on the importance of efficiently producing safe and affordable food. And when it comes to health concerns, the focus should be on the health of Americans, not the health of the planet.
This all may seem obvious, but, unfortunately, it needs to be said.
Let’s start with agricultural productivity and affordable food. The latest Consumer Price Index data show food prices in August were 11.4% greater than they were last August.
Year-over-year food prices have been above 4% (an unusually high level) for 12 straight months, starting in September 2021 (4.6%), with each successive month greater than the previous month.
There are many reasons for this increase in food prices. Government obstacles throughout the supply chain are a prime culprit, with the Biden administration’s current war on energy playing a lead role.
As well as examining how government is driving up prices, the president’s food conference should begin with the underlying assumption that, first and foremost, our nation’s food system should be efficient and provide affordable food. Environmental issues are important, but shouldn’t come at the expense of efficient production and low prices.
The U.S. food system is a model for innovation, productivity, and affordability. According to the Department of Agriculture’s latest data, spanning 1948 to 2019, food output nearly tripled (a 175% increase) while the amount of land decreased. In fact, as farm output increased by 175%, all agricultural inputs increased by only 4%.
In 2021, despite high food prices, American consumers spent an average of about 10% of their personal disposable income on food, which is close to historic lows. For decades, this share has been in decline.
But some, including officials of the Biden administration, want the federal government to transform the nation’s food system and in essence centrally plan the entire food supply chain. Many on the left long have attacked the American food system and agricultural practices, arguing that they have caused incalculable damage and seeking to divert the focus of the food system to addressing climate change, moving away from fossil fuels, and other ancillary issues.
The government doesn’t need to transform our food system, and we certainly don’t need a central plan to do so. The environment or other alleged concerns shouldn’t be an excuse to control lives and push policies that would come at the expense of our food system and drive up food costs for Americans.
It is troubling that the Biden administration has embraced the goals of the United Nations Food Systems Summit. As the Agriculture Department explained:
The stated goal of the Food Systems Summit was to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about foods within the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and to meet the challenges of poverty, food security, malnutrition, population growth, climate change, and natural resource degradation.
In detailing its approach to the U.N. summit, the USDA’s first three listed key positions were advancing sustainable development, shrinking agriculture’s environmental footprint, and promoting agricultural practices to reduce climate change. Agriculture officials mention the safety and affordability of food in the document, but not front and center, nor in the agency’s overall messaging.
When announcing how the Biden administration is going to transform the food system, the USDA focused extensively on “reducing carbon pollution” and “emphasizing equity.”
So, not only does the Biden administration want to centrally plan how farmers produce food, what food farmers produce, and what food people eat, it also appears far more concerned with environmental outcomes than efficiency, productivity, and affordability.
One prime example of the lack of focus on food prices is a recent USDA announcement regarding the department’s $300 million “Organic Transition Initiative.” The USDA explains that:
the number of non-certified organic farms actively transitioning to organic production dropped by nearly 71 percent since 2008. Through the comprehensive support provided by this initiative, USDA hopes to reverse this trend …
In other words, farmers aren’t moving toward organic farming as much as the Biden administration wants. So the administration is going to use taxpayer dollars to induce farmers to adopt organic farming.
And why does this matter for prices? Organic food is expensive. The USDA found: “All 17 of the commonly purchased organic products were more expensive than their nonorganic counterparts.”
Turning to nutrition, Biden’s upcoming food conference certainly will address nutrition issues. But don’t assume that nutrition means solely focusing on the dietary needs of Americans, as demonstrated by recent developments.
In the House, legislation called the Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids Act advanced out of the Education and Labor Committee on partisan lines, with no Republican support. The bill would create “values-based procurement” in the federal school meals program to encourage the purchase of products for children that are produced:
In an environmentally sustainable manner.By a certified organic farm or ranch.By a farm with employees who, as permitted by law, are represented by a collective bargaining agreement or a memorandum of understanding.By a farm participating in a worker justice certification program.By a farm participating in an independent animal-welfare certification program.
Then there are the recent efforts to change the influential federal Dietary Guidelines so they are based on environmental concerns as much as (or more than) the dietary needs of people.
Federal school meals are required to be consistent with the government’s Dietary Guidelines. It would be misleading and arguably immoral to claim children are eating school meals that are the most nutritious, when in fact they could be eating food that some environmental extremists think is best to address climate change or other unrelated issues.
America’s food system is the envy of the world, from our farmers to our truckers to our grocery stores.
The last thing policymakers should do is increase government meddling, especially meddling that is less concerned with the main purpose of a food system (to feed people) than with unrelated objectives that very well could undermine this critical purpose.
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