Friday, November 18, 2011

Stopping School Lunch Reform

In case you didn't hear, the food lobby (or lobbies) successfully resisted the proposed changes to make school lunches more healthy by, in part, cutting back on french fries and pizza.

The food lobby argued that pizza and french fries should be counted as vegetables.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Paperback Edition of The Politics of Food Supply!

It's official: Yale University Press is publishing a paperback edition of The Politics of Food Supply!

For the paperback edition, I wrote a new preface that discusses the world crisis of 2007-2008. This new preface explains the connection between that food crisis -- which centered on sharply increased food prices -- and the analysis of US agricultural policy in the book.

In addition, the paperback edition is much cheaper than the hardcover, at only $22. It will be available in February 2012.

Yale University Press lists the paperback edition on its website. And, you can pre-order the paperback edition on the Barnes and Nobles website for just $18. just put it up as well -- $22 per-order.

Check it out!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

French Fries as Vegetables

I was listening to National Public Radio a couple weeks ago, and I heard a story about how the USDA is trying to change school menus to reduce the amount of french fries the kids are served. The point was to try to fight childhood obesity.

The story on NPR pointed out that Senator Susan Collins and others were fighting the proposed regulations. Here is the story.

One of the things that surprised me was the discussion about french fries (potatoes) versus "other vegetables." I get that potatoes are tubers and vegetables, but it's just odd to hear that someone might choose between french fries and broccoli as a vegetable for dinner.

So, in the 1980s, were french fries and ketchup counted as two servings of vegetables?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Book Award

Yesterday, my book received the Book Award given by the Political Economy of the World-System (PEWS) section of the American Sociological Association (ASA).

There were eleven books nominated for the 2011 PEWS Book Award.

I am very excited and pleased that my book won this award, which emphasizes the contributions made to understanding the relationship between national policies and processes and the world economy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Book on Sale

I just saw that has my book on sale for about $38, which is about a 30% discount. Yes, still expensive, but it's a much better price that usual.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fast Food, Healthy Children's Menus?

I saw this article the other day in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, about chain restaurants (few of which are fast food) that are trying to make children's menus that are more healthy.

On the one hand, of course, we should applaud such a move by restaurants, especially of the fast food variety. (Check out the book Fat Land to see how such unhealthy diets infiltrated schools and affected children's health.) Any step is positive.

On the other hand, I find it difficult to believe that even a move such as this will have much of an effect on children's health or diets.

Plus, it's worth noting that McDonald's, KFC, and many other fast food restaurants are not signing up to be part of this program, according to the article.

Resiliency of Farm Subsidies

Even amidst the debt ceiling talks, farm subsidies continue to be protected. This New York Times article discusses attempts by Presidents G. W. Bush and Obama to make cut particular programs, but each one failed.

I wouldn't be surprised if farm subsidies saw a few cuts, but I don't expect them to be very significant. Support for farm subsidies cuts across political party and region. In addition, farm subsidies actually represent a fairly small portion of the overall federal budget.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New USDA Food Plate

Check out this great article about the USDA's new Food Plate that replaced the Food Pyramid. The author's key point, for me, is that trying to educate people on what to eat is a rather ineffective way of changing their eating behavior.

Certainly, it is good that the USDA has changed its recommendations to emphasize fruits and vegetables, and it emphasizes (or at least, discusses at length) beans and other meat alternatives as sources of protein -- that don't have cholesterol, a major contributor to heart disease and heart attack.

Nonetheless, if we look at government subsidies, the organization of grocery stores, mass marketing and advertisements -- in short, if we look at the organization of our food system -- then we have to acknowledge that our food system promotes, indeed relies on, people eating unhealthy diets. To a great degree, that's because unhealthy diets are often the most profitable; those foods have a lot of added-value.

Trying to educate consumers is fine and nice, but ultimately it won't change eating behaviors. To do that, we have to make serious reforms to the system that produces the food we eat. Until we do that, the average American diet will be less than ideal, less than healthy.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Farm Subsidies to be Cut?

There has been some talk recently of cutting farm subsidies among the many other programs to see reductions in spending. For example, see this New York Times article.

Before anyone gets too excited about this, let me point out a couple of things: (1) it's not a surprise the farm subsidies might be reduced, (2) the proposed cuts are not necessarily that deep, and (3) what really matters is the long-term. Let me discuss each of these in turn.

I. First, it's not really much of a surprise the farm subsidies might be cut, for two reasons. One obvious reason is the current budget-cutting rhetoric that seems pervasive in Washington (and much of the rest of the US) right now. When recipients of subsidies are portrayed as "corporate farms" as they are in this article, then public support for farm subsidies decreases dramatically.

(By contrast, when subsidy recipients are portrayed as "family farmers," then public support actually quite high for subsidies. Which characterization of farm subsidies is correct? To some extent, both are. Certainly, many "family farmers" receive subsidies. But, in 2007, the richest 3% of farms/farmers received 32% of all direct payments, and the richest 9% of farms/farmers received 54% of all direct payments that year. Yet, some of the largest farms and biggest recipients of subsidies are indeed "family farms" -- that is, farms owned by families as opposed to corporations.)

The other reason that farm subsidies may be cut is because farm prices are high. Corn prices in the US reached over $6/bushel in April 2011. From 2000 to 2007, the price of corn in April averaged about $2.32/bushel. Wheat prices in the US reached $8.18/bushel. From 2000 to 2007, the price of wheat in April averaged about $3.45/bushel.

With prices reaching historic highs, government payments are less central to the income of farmers. Consequently, farmers and farm organizations may see government payments as less important and may expend fewer political resources protecting subsidies. Farm subsidies, then, are politically vulnerable. Importantly, though, this political vulnerability is a result of the particular political and economic context, which can and will change in the future.

II. Second, I would like to point out that the proposed cuts mentioned in the article may sound like large cuts -- $30 billion -- but this needs to be clarified and put into context.

Note, first of all, that the article states that this cut is over ten years, which means that the average annual cut would be $3 billion. While that is a sizable cut, it's still useful to know that between 2000 and 2007, government payments to farmers averaged about $17.5 billion per year and totaled about $140 billion.

In 2007, government payments to farmers totaled about $11.9 billion, according to the Economic Research Service of the USDA. A reduction of $3 billion would amount to a cut of about 25%, which is significant. But, at times I get the impression that people think farm subsidies will be cut altogether. My point is that subsidies will not likely disappear even under proposals such as Ryan's discussed in the NYT article.

III. Third, and finally, I want to point out that cutting farm subsidies in the near future does not necessarily mean that farm subsidies will permanently disappear.

This situation reminds me of the context in which the 1996 FAIR Act passed: prices were high, Republicans controlled the House and Senate, and cutting the budget became a central political focus.

And indeed, government payments to farmers were slashed in the 1996 farm bill. (See my book for a detailed discussion of the FAIR Act.) Within a few years, however, prices began to fall. By 2000, government payments to farmers increased significantly. Thus, the cuts in subsidies were temporary.

By contrast, the FAIR Act made one change that demonstrated much greater longevity: eliminating production controls, which put restrictions on what farmers could grow in terms of crops and acreage.

What was the difference between these two policies (income supports vs. production controls)? A significant political coalition in agriculture emerged to support eliminating production controls. For example, many organizations representing the interests of corn farmers pushed for this change. With such support, production controls have not returned -- regardless of price fluctuations.

The elimination of subsidies did not have the same support in agriculture. So, when prices fell in the late 1990s, there was a significant push to increase farm subsidies.

Will subsidies be cut? Perhaps. Will those cuts be permanent? Probably not.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Bernstein & Byres Award

The editors of the Journal of Agrarian Change recently announced the winner of the Bernstein & Byres Award: Me! (Go to the link and scroll down the page, then you'll see the announcement.)

This award goes to the best JAC article of the year. (This year, the prize goes to the best article in 2009.)

"The articles are judged on: (a) their quality as works of political economy; (b) their analytical
power; (c) their originality; and (d) the quality of evidence presented and its deployment."

Here is the cite and link for my article: "TheVanishing Free Market:The Formation and Spread of the British and US Food Regimes," Journal of Agrarian Change, 9(3): 315–44. (Just go to the link and scroll down a bit, then look at the PDF link.)

To see the editors' comments about the prize and my paper, look here. (Again, just scroll down and look at the PDF link.)

Aside from the self-promotion (but isn't this whole blog about self-promotion?), noting the recognition of this article is appropriate here and now as I begin to turn my attention to food crises in the world economy.

This article on food regimes discusses some of the fundamental processes that underlie the creation of the international food regime -- that is, the rules and institutions that govern the production, distribution, and price of food in the world economy.

Anyway, take a look if you have a moment. You can also download the article and brief comment for free -- that's what winning an award does for you. . .

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rising Food Prices

As you have probably heard, world food prices have been rising.

In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization shows that food prices have been increasing steadily since last June. The FAO has tracked food prices with its Food Price Index since 1990. Over the past four years, food prices have exhibited significant instability. They peaked in June 2008, during the most recent food crisis.

More recently, however, food prices rose even higher in December 2010. But prices apparently have yet to peak, as "Global food prices have reached their highest point in 20 years" in February, according to the AP article linked above.

Food is essential individually and socially. A decrease in food security (the availability of food in a country, and the people’s access to that food) can contribute to political instability. Take, for example, food riots in Tunisia and Algeria in January.

Recognizing the fundamental importance of food -- individually, politically, socially, etc. -- makes it imperative to explore some of the factors contributing to the rise in food prices.

Over the next several weeks, I will explore some of the factors behind rising food prices.