9.03.2015

Agriculture between State and Market
Food Issues Book Club, The Politics of Food Supply Chapter 1

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Politics of Food Supply, Chapter 1:
Agriculture between State and Market

Summary:

Beginning with the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) of 1933, The U.S. government endeavored to keep prices for common agricultural goods from falling too low by providing price supports, and by attaching those supports to restrictions on acreage to grow them.  The Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform (FAIR) Act of 1996, also known as the Freedom to Farm Act, removed both the supports and the restrictions, effectively ending any attempt at supply management.

Spurred on by early policy changes, conflict arose among agricultural regions.  "[T]he cotton-producing South allied with the Wheat Belt to support supply management policy, while the Corn Belt pursued more market-oriented policies."  Differences in interests caused strife not only among different types of producers, but also between the private and government agencies that represented them.  Despite Farm Bureau and corn industry efforts, price support and acreage restriction policies did not significantly change until the FAIR Act.

From 1940 to 1954, government involvement in agriculture expanded.  "[P]rice support levels were raised substantially, existing programs (price supports and production controls) were expanded to cover many more commodities, and export subsidies were created to supplement price support and production controls." A period of retrenchment followed from 1954 until 1973, with price supports reduced and production controls eased.  With the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act, part of the 1973 Farm Bill signed by President Nixon, parity was replaced with target prices and deficiency payments, production controls were temporarily suspended, and food aid was replaced with subsidy-free commercial exports.  These changes drastically reduced supports paid to farmers.

Supports increased briefly again from 1978 to 1986 in response to global agricultural turmoil, but receded again by the 1990s.  Thus, from the AAA to the FAIR Act, "the basic tenet of U.S. agricultural policy remained relatively constant: support farm income by raising prices for agricultural commodities through supply management to control surpluses.  ...  [T]he government extensively influenced market prices and production decisions in agriculture."  The FAIR Act removed almost entirely farmer supports which had been in place for over 60 years.  The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 reinstated some income supports, but did not address supply management.

A New Mexico farmer reviews the AAA
Economist Karl Polanyi described the "double movement" nature of the free market economy.  "In a market economy, various groups continually push for a free market unrestrained by government intervention; but as the market becomes less restrained, it begins to wreak havoc on people's lives. ... Whether promoting the free market or regulating the market, national policies will eventually prompt a reaction in the opposite direction."  Various groups inevitably encourage policies which benefit themselves.  "[F]or example, U.S. cotton farmers, who dominated world markets, favored free trade; whereas U.S. sugar producers, who could be undersold by producers in poorer countries such as Cuba, preferred tariffs."

The laissez-faire, free-market influence on agriculture in the early twentieth century, combined with drought, led to the "Dust Bowl" conditions of the 1920s and 30s.  The agricultural supports put in place by the New Deal, including the AAA of 1933, were an effort to repair the damage that had been done to farming by the free market approach.

Though a common myth explains the longevity of strong farm supports as resulting from the influence of a strong and unified effort from farmers known as the "Farm Bloc," divisions among agricultural regions were actually more influential: "[P]olitical divisions and coalitions within agriculture underlie both large and small shifts in agricultural policy."  Additionally, though, conflicts among class segments of agricultural workers - landowners, farmworkers, agribusiness, and so on - were a driving force.  "Class dynamics lay behind the rise and decline of supply management policy. ... "[S]ocial organization of capitalism creates intraclass conflict as well as interclass conflict.  In fact, most conflict occurs within classes, while interclass conflict is relatively rare even though it is the underlying process in capitalism."

New class segments rarely arise.  Those in existence in U.S. agriculture fragmented along three lines: 1) regional crop specialization; 2) different labor requirements and economies for different commodities; and 3) differences in the necessary inputs and outputs for different commodities.  Corn growers in the Midwest had different needs at every point of production than cotton growers in the South.  "With such division, then, a homogeneous "agricultural class" does not exist; instead, segments of agriculture emerge."  Class segments aligned along different political lines, enhancing schisms. 

Discussion:

This chapter covers a ton of material on the history of U.S. farm policy.  It first lays out the ups and downs ("contours," as Winders phrases it) of U.S. farm policy throughout the core of the twentieth century.  It then addresses the potential causes and effects of these waivers, outlining concepts that will be further explored in future chapters.  It seems unnecessary, then, to discuss them in depth here.

I have long thought that capitalism is a poor plan for items necessary to basic human survival - food chief among them.  We can clearly see what happens when food is commodified.  At worst, this method of food distribution leads to famine.  But even at its best, food insecurity runs rampant even in the most developed countries. History has shown that revolution is the inevitable result of long-term food shortage.  If the Western world wants to avoid an uprising, something must change - soon.

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