Friday, January 27, 2017

U.S.-Mexico agricultural trade helps the U.S. economy and nutrition for consumers

For the United States, trade with Mexico offers many benefits for the economy and dietary quality for American consumers. 

Regarding the economic benefits, a recent August 2016 article in the magazine Amber Waves, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- by USDA economists Steven Zahniser, Adriana Moreno, and Arturo Ruanova -- emphasizes the contribution of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Gradually, from 1994 to 2008, they write, NAFTA removed tariffs and quotas, while at the same time reconciling rules on both sides of the border about how food safety is protected:
Together, this sweeping trade liberalization and ongoing regulatory cooperation made possible a dramatic increase in U.S.-Mexico agricultural trade.
The results included an enormous jump in export sales to Mexico, benefiting U.S. farmers. A chart in the Amber Waves article shows that agricultural trade with Mexico is nearly in balance, with agricultural exports equal to or exceeding imports in most years.


USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service has a page devoted to agricultural exports to Mexico, with statistics, links to agricultural trade offices in Mexico City and Monterrey, and a guide for exporters who seek to do business in Mexico. The top 5 U.S. export industries are dairy ($1.3 billion), pork ($1.3 billion), beef ($1.1 billion), poultry ($1.0 billion), and prepared food ($707 billion). Producers in these industries are important to the U.S. agricultural economy, and they are politically influential.

Like the Amber Waves article, USDA's FAS notes the role of NAFTA in this trade:
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Mexico and the United States have eliminated all tariffs and quantitative restrictions on agricultural goods and have strengthened scientific ties to eradicate diseases and pests, conduct research and enhance conservation.
Moving beyond just agricultural products, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has a web page devoted just to trade with Mexico. For U.S. producers, Mexico was the second-biggest export market in the world. Total U.S. trade with Mexico is more in balance than trade with several other countries. In 2015, U.S. exports to Mexico were an astonishing $240 billion, almost double our exports to China. Meanwhile, U.S. imports from Mexico were $294 billion, much less than our imports from China. Our trade deficit with Mexico is just $54 billion (much smaller than our deficit with China, Germany, or Japan, for example).

For nutrition, federal government sources place a heavy priority on increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. For example, the Healthy People 2020 initiative lists fruit and vegetable consumption as "Leading Health Indicators" and proposes ambitious goals for increased consumption.

USDA data on food imports show that fruit imports from Mexico increased almost 6-fold from 2000 ($0.8 billion) to 2014 ($4.7 billion). Similarly, vegetable imports from Mexico increased 3-fold from 2000 ($1.7 billion) to 2014 ($5.4 billion). With increased tariffs or reduced trade with Mexico, fruit and vegetable prices in the United States would be much higher. The consequence of reduced agricultural trade with Mexico would be that Mexicans would have more fruits and vegetables (and less beef, pork, and processed food), while U.S. consumers would have less fruits and vegetables (and more beef, pork, and processed food).

I always read with great care the large literature by public interest advocates who raise serious concerns about agricultural trade with Mexico. For example, Tom Philpott at Mother Jones describes conditions for agricultural workers in Mexico as "heartbreaking." Food and Water Watch argues that provisions for sanitary/phytosanitary rules in existing and proposed trade agreements are too weak. I hear the point of each, and yet think that reduced trade is not the remedy. I do not think the workers in Tom's story are helped by shutting down the U.S. Mexico border, and I think Mexico is capable of producing food to the same standards as producers in Florida or California. Looking forward beyond the hardships that excellent public interest sources have noted, we can improve labor and food safety standards without exaggerating differences across the border as if we had our own house fully in order.

In short, U.S.-Mexico trade is important and beneficial to the U.S. economy and nutrition. You can hear this view from me, and (as of this writing) you can hear it from the steady, sober online data sources maintained by the federal government.


Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tufts/UConn RIDGE Center releases Request for Proposals (RFP) for economic research on U.S. nutrition assistance programs


Please share this week's announcement with potential researchers:
The Tufts/UConn RIDGE Center seeks to support innovative economic research on domestic nutrition assistance programs and to broaden a network of researchers applying their expertise to USDA topics. The RIDGE Center seeks applications from a diverse community of experienced nutrition assistance researchers, graduate students, early career scholars, and established researchers who bring expertise in another research area.

Full details are available in the 2017 Request for Proposals (RFP). Additional information will be provided during the RIDGE Center Information Webinar for Applicants, Thursday, February 2, 2017 at 2PM EST. Please provide your email to receive information on joining the webinar.

Important Dates for the 2017 Submission Cycle:
  • Request for proposals release: January 23, 2017
  • Informational webinar for applicants: February 2, 2017
  • Concept paper due: March 13, 2017
  • Full proposal (by invitation) due: May 15, 2017
  • Funding period (up to 18 months): July 11, 2017 – January 10, 2019
For additional questions, contact ridge@tufts.edu.
Here is our October announcement about the start of this Center:
Medford, Mass./Hartford, Conn.- A new center at Tufts University and the University of Connecticut will focus on economic research aimed at enhancing food security and dietary quality for low-income Americans through the nation’s nutrition assistance programs.

The research center brings together the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts and the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, two institutions with long records of research leadership in this area.

The Tufts/University of Connecticut RIDGE (Research Innovation and Development Grants in Economics) Center will be funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (for one grant cycle immediately and potentially up to 3 grant cycles in total).

Parke Wilde, associate professor at the Friedman School, will serve as the RIDGE Center Director, and Tatiana Andreyeva, associate professor in the UConn Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, and Director of Economic Initiatives for the UConn Rudd Center, will be the RIDGE Center Associate Director.

“Nutrition assistance programs have a central role in making sure all Americans have access to sufficient – and sufficiently healthy – food for their families,” Wilde said. “This Tufts/UConn RIDGE Center will help build the diverse network of researchers needed to study what these programs do and how they can do it more efficiently.”

“The new center will offer competitive small-scale grants to support innovative research on nutrition assistance programs. The center’s mission is to further strengthen and expand the research community through vigorous outreach, mentoring and networking with established scholars and promising new talent in the field,” Andreyeva said. “We will aim to fund a diverse group of experienced and emerging researchers, representing a range of backgrounds, disciplines and regions of the country.”

The new RIDGE Center funding offers an exciting opportunity for a diversity of new and experienced researchers in the area of nutrition assistance, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and child nutrition programs. The Center will help connect researchers from around the country to current information about USDA program and policy interests, offering promise for sound research with real-world usefulness.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

American Enterprise Institute (AEI) report on poverty, hunger, and U.S. agricultural policy

In a new report for the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Dan Sumner, Joe Glauber, and I consider all the different ways that farm programs could affect prices or incomes, which in turn could affect poverty and nutrition for low-income Americans. We conclude:
Despite occasional claims to the contrary, farm subsidy programs have little impact on food consumption, food security, or nutrition in the United States.
It might surprise you to hear that this is a widely held view among researchers and policy analysts in agricultural economics. Interestingly, it depends little on a person's political ideology.

Strongly market-oriented economists tend to describe farm subsidy programs as an ineffective use of tax dollars. Ryan Nabil and Vincent Smith write this week in Inside Sources:
There is no poverty and nutrition alleviation rationale for U.S. farm subsidies because they do not have any meaningful effects on poverty. These programs simply transfer government monies mostly to well-off folks who can afford competent lobbyists but are in no need of government handouts.
At the same time, the Environmental Working Group writes this week:
Last fall, an EWG investigation debunked the agriculture industry’s claims that American farms “feed the world.” In fact, fewer than 1 percent of U.S. exports go toward feeding the hungriest nations.
Now, a study by three leading experts shows that federal farm subsidy programs such as crop insurance don’t help feed hungry Americans either.
An analysis by Joseph Glauber, Daniel Sumner and Parke Wilde for the American Enterprise Institute confirms that farm subsidies don’t improve food security for poor Americans – even for those who live in farm country.
Before reaching our conclusions, Joe, Dan, and I tried to contemplate a wide array of ways that somebody could say farm programs help the nutrition status of the poor in the United States. For example, perhaps the programs lower prices of beneficial foods (but they don't), or perhaps they help the income of poor farmers (but they go mostly to more prosperous farmers), or perhaps they help farm workers by increasing labor demand in certain industries (but the least labor-intensive industries get more subsidies).

In a spirit of open communication across diverse traditions, especially this particular week, I look forward to participating in the AEI event this Monday, Jan 23, connected with the release of this report.

Monday, January 16, 2017

A more constructive approach to SSB restrictions in SNAP

An old debate

First, let me review the harsh back and forth in a somewhat typical week of debate about sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The New York Times this week published an article about "lots of soda" in the shopping carts of SNAP participants.

This drew fire from the magazine Jacobin ("Reason in Revolt"), where Joe Soss noted several problems with the NYT article. For example, the NYT listed "milk" first among beverage choices for nonparticipant households, but the original USDA study (.pdf) showed no significant difference in the ranking of food choices for participants and nonparticipants.

The NYT reporter, Anahad O'Connor, said "cities, states, and medical groups" have urged changes to SNAP, such as restricting soda purchases. Meanwhile, O'Connor said, industry organizations have spent millions opposing the changes, so USDA has refused to approve the proposals.

One would think from the NYT article that all the good folks favor the restrictions, and all the bad folks oppose. O'Connor didn't say that the list of supporters for such proposals also includes conservative critics of SNAP, who sometimes include such proposals in an agenda that also has budget cuts, nor that the list of opponents includes anti-hunger organizations, who are concerned that the proposals would increase program stigma and food insecurity by discouraging participation among eligible people.

In truth, people who care about poverty, hunger, and health are painfully divided about SNAP restrictions.

A more promising discussion

Second, let's consider a different approach to this policy discussion.

I have a wish that leading anti-hunger organizations would more sympathetically consider supporting a pilot project that includes SNAP restrictions.

Here is a draft set of principles, which, if met, might make such a proposal deserving of support by anti-hunger organizations, legislators who care about food security, and the USDA.
  1. the policy to be piloted places a high value on both nutrition and food security, combining a policy of interest for public health nutrition goals (the SSB restriction) with policies of interest for food security goals (such as enhanced benefits for some participants who currently receive too little);
  2. the pilot is a true pilot (pilot scale, with genuine empirical curiosity about the outcome, and no assumptions in advance that the outcome will be favorable);
  3. the outcomes for the study include reduced SSB consumption (intended outcome) and questions about perceived stigma and SNAP participation (possible unintended outcomes);
  4. the pilot policy does not have other food choice restrictions beyond the SSB restriction (no hints at more broadly paternalistic plans to convert SNAP into WIC); and
  5. the research protocol has a trigger, enforced by the Institutional Review Board (IRB), ending the pilot in the event of any evidence that the pilot proposal threatens household food security.
I wish such a pilot SSB restriction were not caught up in our poisoned partisan struggle over the safety net more broadly. This is merely a small reasonable revision of the definition of SNAP eligible foods to exclude soda. It is not about "banning" soda, just about altering what can be purchased with SNAP benefits. If the proposed policy turns out to threaten food security, almost everybody in the public health nutrition community would drop their interest in it. And, if the proposal turns out to be successful, and perhaps even popular with SNAP participants themselves -- who may appreciate the health halo associated with the revised program -- then it may merit support within the anti-hunger advocacy community.

Update (Jan 19): A clear and empathetic essay from Marlene Schwartz at the Rudd Center published yesterday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

MLK Day reflection: 8 places I love in Georgia's 5th Congressional District


Today, Martin Luther King Day 2017, feels like a good day to list some of my favorite places in Rep. John Lewis' 5th Congressional District in Georgia, from a visit one year ago, in January, 2016, which I will long remember:
  1. Emory University, where I learned about local food initiatives at the Wholesome Wave annual summit;
  2. the Eastside Trail, where a fun bike ride showed that Atlanta is capable of sustainable alternative transportation, beyond its car-centric reputation, for those who seek it;
  3. the Antioch Baptist Church North, full to the rafters with holy music and powerful Word, and totally welcoming to a (white) Christian visitor from out of town and (of all things) his Jewish friends who joined him for the church service out of ecumenical interest;
  4. the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which hosts the single most dramatic experiential exhibit I have ever witnessed, in which the visitor sits down at a lunch counter and puts on earphones (and to even say what happens next would be a spoiler);
  5. the Atlanta History Center, famous for Civil War memorabilia and the Margaret Mitchell house, but which also was packed with Hispanic visitors on the day I visited, because of a special program for Día de los Reyes Magos.
  6. the World of Coca-Cola, a museum dedicated to proving that any product, no matter how empty of nourishment, can be converted by a sufficiently bold and brilliant huckster into the subject of an advertisement so moving that it brings tears to the eyes of the most hardened food policy analyst;
  7. the Martin Luther King memorial and gravesite, because even young nations such as ours deserve a pilgrimage destination; and
  8. the Amtrak Station, because though I am flying less, our divided country fortunately is still bound together by old rusty infrastructure links that predate our current disregard for the environmental challenges of our times.
I will try to live the next four years with one foot in our democracy's painful contemporary struggles and the other foot planted in the better America that sometimes is hidden in plain sight. This is how I will try simultaneously to do good and enjoy life. Some may slander this good and profoundly American place, but the 5th Congressional District in Georgia has something to teach us. 

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A consistent policy toward drug testing for recipients of USDA benefits

Governor Scott Walker (R-WI) this week urged President-elect Donald Trump to allow Wisconsin to implement drug testing for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation's leading anti-hunger program and the largest program in the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

One could argue that this is a bad idea, because people in the grips of substance addictions can be as poor and hungry as anybody else. Moreover, SNAP is a household benefit, so it is not clear how benefit cuts based on one person's drug test would affect innocent children and other relatives in the same family. Remedies other than taking away their food may be the most humane approach to this social problem.

Alternatively, if the incoming administration values drug testing, we can all agree that any drug testing for recipients of USDA funding should be consistent and fair across the board. One could imagine:
  1. Drug testing for SNAP participants. In other social safety net programs, evidence suggests that millions of dollars can be wasted chasing very few positives. But, this was Governor Walker's proposal, so it stays on the list.
  2. Drug testing for participants in farm subsidy programs. A 2011 study reported: "Current alcohol use, smokeless tobacco use, inhalant use, and other illicit drug use were more prevalent among high school-aged youths living on farms than among those living in towns." To be consistent with the household character of the SNAP drug tests, the testing would certainly include teenagers in the farm families. The Environmental Working Group shows 1995-2014 USDA payments to Wisconsin farmers of $7.6 billion. Surely, only a small fraction of this sum is spent on illegal drugs, but even a small fraction can add up.
One suspects that this consistent drug testing policy would find less support in the U.S. Congress. 

If Governor Walker's proposal fails to gain traction, perhaps Congress will then turn to more imaginative ways of reducing despair and hopelessness, and increasing prosperity and food security, for all recipients of USDA funding.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The nutrition title in the next farm bill

Choices Magazine, a publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has my new commentary: "The Nutrition Title’s Long, Sometimes Strained, but Not Yet Broken, Marriage with the Farm Bill."

It describes the divergent budgetary forecasts for two major safety net programs, with falling spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and rising spending for the much larger Medicaid program.


Source: Author’s computations based on Congressional Budget Office (CBO), 2016.
Note: SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

There are two different conclusions that lawmakers could draw from these trends:
On the one hand, as they plan the next farm bill, legislators may accept falling SNAP costs and rising Medicaid costs, on grounds that the funding lost from SNAP still is going toward another important safety net program. On the other hand, legislators could reason that preventing poor nutrition and chronic disease makes more sense than treatment after the fact. From the latter perspective, providing extra resources for SNAP to address unhealthy eating and diet-related chronic disease may be a worthwhile investment if it slows the growth of Medicaid costs.
What will happen next? We can only guess.
In most past cycles, congressional debate over the farm bill was comparatively less partisan than debate over other legislation. This changed in the 2014 farm bill, as legislators concerned about the federal budget deficit challenged the traditional bipartisan support for farm programs, and criticism of SNAP had a more partisan character than usual. To reduce partisan tensions over this issue, Congress established a national commission on hunger in the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill. The commission’s final report was released in January, 2016 (National Commission on Hunger, 2015). The report places substantial emphasis on employment and training programs and requirements, and it proposes to exclude a narrowly defined class of sugar-sweetened beverages from SNAP eligibility, which is a provision likely to be opposed by SNAP’s supporters in anti-hunger organizations. At the same time, the report describes SNAP’s overall success in reducing the rates of household food insecurity and hunger in the United States.
In the next farm bill, it is uncertain whether to expect a renewal of the rancorous and partisan argument over the nutrition title. The commission’s report may serve as a roadmap for a less divisive nutrition title, if lawmakers seek such a thing.