Sunday, August 12, 2012

King Corn: is the industry the enemy?

I just saw King Corn (2007—I know I’m a little behind the time to be responding to it, but...) The Movie does an excellent job of demonstrating the problem—that government subsidies have turned farming low-quality corn for a net loss into a major corporate business. The difficulty is that they set their sights on “industrial farming” as the enemy, rather than a subsidy system which forces a low-quality crop to become such an economically viable option. The proposed solution—turning the acre they farmed for a year into a vacant field for playing baseball—is impractical and unhelpful.

 The enemy is not industrial farming, but wasteful and pointless industrial farming. We moved from a system in which the government paid farmers to not produce, to a system in which the government pays farmers to produce a useless product.

 That seems a high charge to make against a product which has found its way into so many things (virtually everything). But I say corn is useless because the price system reveals that people are willing to pay less for it than it costs to produce it. Were it not subsidized, it would not be available for such a low price, and it would not find its way into so many applications; the only reason our entire food system is built on it is because subsidies keep its price unnaturally low, and so companies find it economical to find new uses for such a cheap product. Were the price system allowed to work, corn would not be a cheaper option for sweetener than sugar, and we would end up supporting more third world economies where sugar cane can be grown to produce sweetener more efficiently than can corn, and American farmers would find a more valuable and cost-effective crop to grow--like maybe grass which, farmed a la Joel Salatin’s methods, could offset the low quality beef produced at animal feeding operations.

While Joel is opposed to the industrial food system, I’m persuaded by Tyler Cowen’s arguments in An Economist Gets Lunch that the industrial system could be used to produce better food more cheaply for more people, if we got subsidies out of the way of preventing the market from finding more efficient options. Can grass-fed beef be done industrial style? I’m not sure.  My point is that with the current system we don’t have the opportunity to find out. By making the industrial food system the bad guy, we ignore that that system has brought us from a country that deals with starvation problems, to a country that deals with obesity problems. And I would rather deal with those problems than starvation. If we stop subsidizing the system to produce junk, maybe we can fix multiple problems.
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