Saturday, April 30, 2016

Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

Here is a small example of Washington at its worst.

The Capital Press reports this week that several agriculture commodity organizations have successfully lobbied members of Congress to include a provision in the House agricultural appropriations bill that would protect the federal government's "checkoff" commodity promotion boards from public records disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Through these programs, the federal government uses its taxation powers to enforce the collection of more than $500 million each year in mandatory assessments on commodity producers, to be spent on campaigns such as "Got Milk" and "Pork. Be Inspired."

Because these semi-public programs are established by Congress and the commodity boards are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, they have always been subject to freedom-of-information rules. It stands to reason: farmers and the public deserve to know what's really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs.

As a reminder, or for new readers, here is the story of how this U.S. Food Policy blog used FOIA to get information about the dubious $60 million sale of the "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) to the National Pork Board (NPB). We concluded that this sale -- for a slogan that now is nearly worthless and has been replaced by "Be Inspired" -- really was just a way for the checkoff program to funnel money to the NPPC.

Our investigation is exactly the type of public interest research the new bill is designed to prevent. The House appropriations bill language reads as follows:
“The funding used to operate and carry out the activities of the various research and promotion programs is provided by producers and industry stakeholders, and employees on the boards are not federal employees. Therefore, the committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552 (the Freedom of Information Act).”
Let people know what you think about this.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Jayson Lusk's new book: Unnaturally Delicious

Noted agricultural economist Jayson Lusk's new book is Unnaturally Delicious (St. Martin's Press, 2016), a love letter to food and agricultural technology.

I can see the potential appeal of the object of Lusk's praise in his many examples of new technologies that help solve serious food system dilemmas -- for example, faster microbial detection to allow food manufacturers to respond to hazards, electronic sensors for precise crop nitrogen requirements to allow farmers to avoid over-application of fertilizer, and so forth.

In other cases, it feels like Lusk is singing the beauty of an airbrushed model on a magazine cover, when a more natural look would have sufficed. I do not see the point of personalized food from a 3-D printer ("the new killer app"), robots that can cook Mexican food (so we might not "even need a home kitchen in the future"), or meat grown directly from stem cells for boutique novelties ("If stem cells from cows can grow a hamburger, why not take stem cells from a rhino and create rhinoburger? Or mix a few stem cells from a giraffe or rabbit to create a truly unique delicacy?"). What appeal can the multi-colored confection on the book's cover possibly have, in a world that actually contains sweet natural pink grapefruit?

Much more than his previous book, Food Police, Lusk's new book pays attention to important environmental concerns. Still, in every case, the costs of environmental problems are portrayed as fully internalized. Sure, Lusk says, waste from manufacturing plants could be a problem in principle, but he gives us an image of 19th century processed meat baron Gustavus Swift inspecting the drainage pipe from his factory to prevent byproducts from pouring into the river, highly motivated to protect the value of any bits of economically valuable fat that might thereby be wasted. Sure, Lusk says, there is in principle the environmental problem of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico, "and some experts believe that agricultural runoff is largely to blame," but farmers are highly motivated to prevent over-application of fertilizer because of the internalized cost.

This gives us a fantasy world in which new technology spares us from the need for regulation or any type of shared response to environmental problems. As I read, I wondered if it would be too unkind to say that Lusk treats new technology and environmental sustainability as equivalent by definition. But, in the last words of Chapter 8, Lusk spared me the dilemma, by making the book's thesis explicit: "As I see it, sustainability and using agricultural technology are one and the same."

I love agricultural technology, and often argue that productivity gains and increased efficiency are not some capitalist scam, but are profoundly environmental virtues. But I would never say that sustainability and agricultural technology are one and the same. For my profession, food and agricultural economics, it is better to jointly address the environmental good and bad from new technology, and to jointly consider (a) market economics, (b) other new technologies, and (c) public policy as the remedies for environmental challenges.