I applaud Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador, and Olivier de Schutter for advocating the introduction of a national food policy in the U.S. Greater emphasis in our current farm legislation on nutrition, health, equity, and the environment is clearly warranted and long overdue. As the authors note, Americans’ access to adequate nutrition at all income levels affects educational and health outcomes for the nation as a whole. Poor nutrition thus plays a role in determining the level and distribution of economic and social wellbeing in the U.S, now and in the future. It is surprising that no one within the large circle of Presidential hopefuls has raised the topic of food, not just agriculture, as a major political issue for the 2016 election.
The U.S. is not unique. Virtually every country with an agrarian base has, at some point in history, introduced agricultural policies that support farmers and provide incentives for them to produce major commodities. At the time, governments have been able to justify these policies on several grounds: national security (avoiding excess dependence on foreign nations for food), economic growth (using agricultural surpluses as an engine of economic growth), and social stability (keeping its population well-fed to avoid social unrest). Once agricultural policies are implemented, they typically give rise to institutions and vested political interests that perpetuate a supply-side orientation to food and agriculture. In the U.S., the political institutions that govern food and agriculture have their roots in historical political precedents that date back to the 1860s, and later to the 1930s when the New Deal was promulgated. Farm interests have been entrenched in the U.S. political system for quite some time, and they cannot be easily removed.
There is a general rule for successful policies: Align incentives with objectives. A corollary to this principle is that objectives change over the course of economic development. For the United States in earlier eras, and for many developing economies in recent decades, meeting basic calorie needs has been the first order of business. This objective has been largely achieved through public investments in infrastructure (irrigation, roads), research and development, commodity support programs, incentives for private agribusiness development, and other supply-side measures.
With successful agricultural growth and rising incomes, many countries face a new set of food and nutrition challenges: eliminating “hidden hunger” (deficiencies in iron, vitamin A, calcium, zinc and other micronutrients), and abating the steady rise in obesity that results from a transition to diets rich in energy-dense carbohydrates, fats, and sugar. Hidden hunger affects some three billion people worldwide. It is prevalent among low-income households in almost all countries, impairs cognitive and physical development (especially among infants up to two years of age) and thus limits a nation’s educational and economic potential. Meanwhile, rates of obesity now surpass rates of energy-deficient hunger throughout the world, even in developing nations.
The objectives of food and agricultural policies in virtually all countries need to shift, on balance, from promoting staple food supplies to enhancing nutrition. I am not suggesting an abandonment of agriculture, but rather an enrichment of agriculture with more crop diversity to support the nutritional needs of all people. If improved nutrition is the objective, what are the correct incentives? Proper incentives will differ among countries, but will inevitably require a fundamental change in institutional structure. With a shift from supply- to demand orientation, there needs to be a transition from Ministries of Agriculture to Ministries of Food. After all, the main goals of a Ministry of Agriculture are to increase the volume of agricultural production and to improve economic growth in the agricultural sector. The main goal of a Ministry of Food, by contrast, is to enhance the nutrition and food security of the entire population.
Bittman, Pollan, Salvador, and de Schutter emphasize that replacing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) with a “U.S. Department of Food, Health, and Wellbeing” would be difficult at best. It would require unprecedented political will and cooperation among parties. The same can be said for institutional change in agricultural ministries throughout the world. Regardless of the challenges, however, nothing will change until the conversation surrounding food policies, politics, and institutions takes a major turn.