I tend not to read Nicholas Kristof’s columns, typically not finding much worthwhile in them. However, one of my occasional correspondents brought this column of his to my attention and I thought it was sufficiently foolish that it demanded some comment. In the column Mr. Kristof suggests that the Department of Agriculture’s name be changed to the Department of Food and its mission be changed correspondingly:
A Department of Agriculture made sense 100 years ago when 35 percent of Americans engaged in farming. But today, fewer than 2 percent are farmers. In contrast, 100 percent of Americans eat.
Renaming the department would signal that Mr. Obama seeks to move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.
It has apparently escaped Mr. Kristof that we already have a department of food: it’s called the Food and Drug Administration and it’s part of the Department of Health and Human Services. It has also apparently escaped Mr. Kristof that we import a lot of food: roughly 15% of all of our food is imported. The responsibility for overseeing that falls under the FDA and, honestly, they’re not doing a particularly good job of it although they may be doing as well as they can with the limited resources they’ve got.
Agriculture also includes a lot more than food. In particular it includes cotton, an important cash crop, and a host of other non-comestibles.
We could use a lot of reform in our agricultural policy. In particular we should abandon our agricultural subsidies. I’ve been opposed to agricultural subsidies probably since I first heard the words agricultural subsidy which was probably before Mr. Kristof was born. They’re counter-productive, encourage large scale farming operations at the expense of family farms (the opposite of what they’re supposed to do), and are injurious to farmers in developing countries (particularly cotton farmers).
The Department of Agriculture is also burdened with the same conflict of interests that many of our government departments are. On the one hand it’s tasked with promoting American agriculture and on the other with regulating it. That’s crying out for reform.
I mourn the loss of the market gardens and greenhouses that used to ring American cities. It isn’t agricultural policy that destroyed them but tax policy and transport policy. I’d like to see reforms there, too, but I seem to be one of the few American who sees things that way.
Our agricultural industry uses resources more efficiently than nearly anybody’s (particularly China’s) and in the current economic climate it may be one of our few industries to have some prospects for growth. In the coming years I suspect we’re going to need more farmland and more farmers rather than fewer and our policies should be adjusted to those ends. Paving over and otherwise developing prime farmland is not only a sin, it is a mistake.
Encouraging other countries, particularly developing countries, to abandon their own agricultural subsidies and import more from us would be a good thing not a bad one. It should be a primary objective of our foreign policy.
However much Mr. Kristof despises it, we’re going to need to produce even more corn, wheat, rice, and soybeans than we do now. Converting our agricultural industry to producing arugula and Bibb lettuce might be popular among Mr. Kristof’s pals on the Upper West Side but it won’t do a great deal to feed the world.