Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Meat Consumption and Food Supply

Thanksgiving is upon us, and hundreds of millions of Americans will be feasting on turkey or other animals. At the same time, millions of Americans will volunteer at food kitchens and shelters to help feed the needy during the holidays. (It’s the busiest time of the year for volunteering, often resulting in too many volunteers.) And, people frequently express concern about the food being wasted while millions around the world go hungry.

So, this is a good time to have a slight diversion from my ongoing discussion of national policy formation to talk about meat consumption and the politics of food supply. What’s the connection between meat consumption and hunger/malnutrition? More generally, what the some of the implications of meat consumption?

In 2008, approximately 9 billion chickens are slaughtered and eaten in the United States. This is a 30 percent increase over the 6 billion chickens consumed in 1990. In addition, the average size of chickens slaughtered has increased continuously since 1975, when the average weight was 3.79 pounds. In 2008, the average weight was 5.58 pounds, which represents a 32 percent increase.

(Just in case you’re wondering, approximately 270 million turkeys were killed and eaten in 2008.)

In 2007, per capita meat consumption in the US was about 220 pounds. That is, the average American consumes about 220 pounds of animal flesh each year. (About 87 of those were chicken, and about 17 pounds were turkey.)

This level of meat consumption eats up (pun intended) an amazing amount of corn and soybeans, which are two of the central ingredients for animal feed. The production of feed grains for the billions of animals to consume rests heavily upon chemical fertilizers and machinery that use petroleum. Researchers estimate that a gallon of gas is required to produce one pound of beef, for instance.

On just these two points, we should recognize that meat production consumes immense resources. Redirecting these resources to food grains could make a significant contribution to the potential to reduce hunger.

So, why do we consume so much meat? Part of the answer has to do with the market economy: meat is a high-value commodity. A farmer can get much more profit out of a bushel of soybeans by feeding it to a chicken or cow and then selling that as meat than the farmer can get from selling the soybeans directly to the market. That is, meat is more profitable than the field crops that animals eat.

Another part of the answer has to do with agricultural policy. As I show in my book (here’s my shameless plug for this post…), the combination of price supports and production controls in the 1900s drove up the production of various commodities. One solution to the overproduction of and consequent low prices for feed grains was to increase meat consumption.

Meat consumption is a central part of the politics of food supply. National agricultural policies have supported expanding meat consumption, and rising meat consumption – in the US and elsewhere – have important implications for the supply of food.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Charges of Communist Agriculture in the 1950s

The extensive federal regulation of agricultural prices and production under supply management policy was at times controversial. And, this policy often drew the charge of being “socialist” or “communist.” In fact, a heated debate erupted during a House subcommittee meeting on supply management policy in 1958.

The members of the House subcommittee included several southern Democrats, who generally favored both price supports and production controls. Robert Poage, a Democrat from Texas, was the chair of the subcommittee. The hearing included testimony from representatives of the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest and politically most influential farm organization.

These two sides – southern Democrats and the Farm Bureau – held opposing views of supply management policy. Southern Democrats believed that price supports and production controls were necessary to support prices for southern crops, such as cotton and tobacco. By contrast, the Farm Bureau advocated for a policy that would eliminate many production controls, dramatically reduce price supports, and create greater reliance on markets.

This hearing took place in the midst of the Cold War, in which anything could be labeled “communist” and everything “communist” was automatically bad or wrong.

During the hearing, the southern Democrats wrangled with the Farm Bureau representatives. Tensions rose over discussions of price supports, production controls, farm income, and the Farm Bureau’s policy positions generally. The southern Democrats favored maintaining extensive government involvement in agriculture with high price supports, rigid production controls to raise farm income. By contrast, the Farm Bureau officials advocated for a more market-oriented policy that would dramatically lower price supports and eliminate many production controls.

But, tempers reached the boiling point toward the end of the hearing, when the specter of communism emerged. The exchange over this issue began between Paul Jones (D-MO) and Frank Woolley, Legislative Counsel for the Farm Bureau.

Mr. Jones: I have one question before we adjourn. Mr. Woolley . . . didn’t you tell me then that the program we were suggesting of payments on cotton had been originally inspired by Communists, and that it was a Communist-inspired program—did you tell me that?
Mr. Woolley: No. What I said to you was that in 1955—and I am glad you asked that because—
Mr. Jones: . . . did you tell me that?
Mr. Woolley: Now, Congressman, I want—
Mr. Jones: I want you to tell me yes or no.

Woolley said he could not remember if he had brought up the issue of communism with Mr. Jones, but Woolley went on to discuss a pamphlet in his possession that was printed in 1955 by the Communist Party in the U.S. and titled “The Farm Crisis.” According to Woolley, the pamphlet showed that the Communist Party “unequivocally supports production payments.” Chairman Poage then joined the fray.

Mr. Poage: Well, now, let us get this straight.
When you come to making those comments charging communism in this committee, and that is what you are doing, calling us Communists, because we are opposed to your proposal—let us lay it out on the table, and you just go ahead and name the people that you think are the Communists on the committee, and I want you to put that in the record; I don’t want you to be going behind my back and, frankly, if you think I am a Communist, say so here and get it on the record.
Mr. Woolley: . . . I told Mr. Jones . . . that when I said that the Communists were supporting the production payment [program], . . . this did not carry with it the idea that he or anybody else that was proposing production payments was a Communist. . . .
The point I am trying to make . . . [is] that if the Communists spend thousands of dollars propagandizing for a particular method . . . doesn’t it cause somebody to raise a question as to whether it might or might not be against our interest? That is the question, and it is not that you are a Communist—I know you are not—at least, I hope you are not.
Mr. Jones: Are you inferring by your propaganda, are you trying to say that a bill that we introduced here was inspired by a Communist program? I resent that very much. . . .
Mr. Fleming: Might I make a statement, Mr. Chairman?
Mr. Poage: [gaveling] This committee is going to adjourn right here and now, . . . and I am sorry that anybody dragged communism into this, when it has nothing to do with the corn bill or the cotton bill or any other bill . . . and I will not permit it to go any further.
Mr. Fleming: Just one sentence?
Mr. Poage: No; you can make it somewhere else, anywhere you want to.
The committee is adjourned.

Then, according to newspaper accounts, Poage shouted, “But if you want to discuss it further, I’ll meet you in the alley.”

It is not very often that a Congressional hearing ends with the committee chair inviting a panel witness into the alley to settle a dispute. Nor was it common for southern Democrats to be charged with being “communist.” More often, the southern Democrats were the accusers, finding communists among especially among civil rights activists and union organizers.

In truth, southern Democrats could hardly be labeled “liberals” much less “communist.” So, why did they favor a policy that relied so heavily on government and oppose a more market-oriented policy? Why did the Farm Bureau officials opposed to supply management policy so much as to raise the specter of communism?

The answer has two parts. First, painting a policy or person as “communist” could severely undermine its legitimacy. That is, it was political strategy. The real issue is what lay beneath this political charge.

Second, the division between southern Democrats, representing southern cotton producers, and Farm Bureau officials, representing farmers in the Corn Belt. These groups of farmers had very different economic interests. Cotton farmers were suffering from overproduction, declining exports, and growing competition from synthetic fibers. They needed government assistance to turn a profit and bring production in line with demand.

Corn Belt farmers, growing corn and soybeans, did not suffer from these same problems. Then as now, the vast majority of corn and soybeans were fed to livestock, especially hogs. In fact, this was the most important source of farm income in the Corn Belt: hogs were much more profitable that field crops, such as corn or soybeans. So, these corn farmers had little interest in artificially high crop prices. They were more interested in maintaining the significant growth in per capita meat consumption, which prevented any overproduction as seen with cotton.

So, what does this have to do with the current debate about health care reform? The same tone and style of political debate occurred around agricultural policy in the 1950s as is occurring around health care today. We need to look beyond the political rhetoric and red-baiting to examine the underlying economic interests represented in the debates. For example, take the Clinton-era attempts at reform. That will be my next installment.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The case of US agricultural policy -- socialism?

From the 1930s to 1996, supply management was the core of U.S. agricultural policy. Supply management rested on three principal programs: price supports, production controls, and export subsidies. Price supports were essentially guaranteed minimum prices that farmers would receive for certain commodities – including cotton, wheat, and corn. To receive price supports, farmers had to adhere to production controls, which limited the acreage that could be devoted to growing these crops. Export subsidies helped to reduce the costs of US agricultural goods to make them more competitive in the world economy.

Through supply management policy, then, the federal government set prices, closely regulated production, and was deeply involved in trade. This was a tremendous about of government intervention in the market economy. More than seen previously in agriculture, and more than seen in almost any other sector of the economy. Supply management policy severely restricted the “normal operation” of the market economy - for more than 60 years.

This policy was meant to (1) raise prices for farm commodities and (2) prevent the overproduction that plagued agriculture (especially cotton and wheat) in the 1920s and 1930s. All of this was also intended to raise farmers’ incomes.

How did the policy exist in the U.S. for the duration of the Cold War, when socialism and communism were vehemently eschewed in every corner of society? Why did the US engage in such extensive regulation of the market at a time when it was the leader of laissez faire economics?

Was supply management policy an example of the federal government imposing its socialist will on American farmers and consumers? Was this policy an example of anti-market (i.e., socialist) groups winning a national policy?

The answer to these questions will come soon. (Or, you can just read my book…)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

National Policies, the Market Economy, and "Socialism"

This book (and blog) is about more than agricultural policy; it’s really about national policies, in general. Of course, I explain many details about the politics surrounding the formation and development of agricultural policy in the United States.

But, the explanation that the book offers for why we have this particular agricultural policy – one that relied heavily on national regulation for most of the twentieth century – applies in varying degrees to other national policies, including labor, social security, welfare, and health care policies. The case that I examine just happens to be agriculture.

My focus is how the market economy prompts political coalitions (sometimes unexpected coalitions) that can reshape national policies. I see these same dynamics in recent policy debates.

This perspective leads me to find much of the debate around health care to be overly simplistic – especially the references to “socialism.” Critics of the Obama administration have called the president and his policies “socialist” for some time now, but the charges have grown more frequent and more vocal in the battle over health care.

Why are the president and his policies socialist? At least part of the answer is because the policies bring more regulation and government oversight, more government influence over businesses and their practices, and more taxes (at least to some degree) and redistribution of wealth. In other words, government policies are socialist to the degree that they limit the operation and functions of the market economy.

There are important parallels to be found in past arguments about federal policies, which often revolved around similar questions: Is a policy “socialist” if it intervenes in the market economy? Are people/groups who favor such policies “socialist”? Do such policies lead to “socialism”?

We might pause, therefore, and ask if these attributes (e.g., more government regulation and influence) really make a person or a policy “socialist.” Stepping back for a moment and considering some of our own political history suggests that these charges are typical political name-calling. By taking this perspective, we can see that more is going on, and we can look a little deeper into the underlying political context.

For instance, we might ask, who receives and advocates for such government support and regulation? And, who makes the charges of “socialism”?

Over the next couple of weeks, I will draw on several historical examples of policies that have seen such charges of socialism. My first essay will focus on an example from agricultural policy in the 1950s, which is the story with which my book begins.

But, other forthcoming essays will also draw parallels with policies related to the coal industry, economic policies surrounding the civil war, and of course the last attempt at health care reform in the Clinton administrations.

What I will show that who opposes the market economy is sometimes quite surprising. Quite often, the proponents of such national policies hardly qualify as “socialist.”

So, stay tuned.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Welcome to my blog! This blog is dedicated to topics and issues related to my book, The Politics of Food Supply. My book explores the development of U.S. agricultural policy from the 1920's to the early 2000's.

This space will consider a variety of issues related to food, politics, the world economy, and so forth.

Watch for more posts soon!