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Something to Chew On

September 4, 2009

I’m no Crunchy Con, but I confess to being sympathetic to the organic food movement in the United States. Although I do not always buy organic, I am glad that the market caters to the segment of the population that does. Locally-grown and otherwise farm fresh meat, vegetables, milk, and eggs often taste better and are healthier than the output of the mega-farm operations in other parts of the country, although you pay a premium for them.

Friends of ours–farmers from outside of Birmingham–often complain to me about USDA regulations that favor their big-farm competition and force naturally grown and organic foods to become relatively more expensive, and I agree with them that the output from mega-farms is greater than it would be without government interference. Nonetheless, I am sure that, absent the USDA, we would still have a preponderance of large farm operations. By creating economies of scale and maximizing output, these operations have made food so inexpensive that we have moved from being a society that 30 years ago was concerned with hunger to one today that is concerned about obesity. This shift is welcomed. It is nothing short of miraculous.

But there are activists who would snuff it out if they could, and who would use the state to require locally-grown and organic food as the only food option. People like Boston University’s Ellen Ruppel Shell are shocked–shocked!–that the poor pay less for food than they did in decades past, and would force them to pay more, even in serious economic times such as these. Indeed, they condemn any effort on the part of the market, not only in the area of food production, to exploit economies of scale and mass production techniques in ways that help the poor. Economic output with lower costs and higher quantities? How dare they!

Thankfully, Charlotte Allen has an eye on the situation, and in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, she delightfully skewers such efforts. An excerpt:

In an online debate with the Atlantic’s economics writer, Megan McArdle, Shell observes with disapproval that, when prices are adjusted for inflation, Americans today spend “40% less on clothes, 20% less on food, more than 50% less on appliances, about 25% less on owning and maintaining a car” than they did during the early 1970s. Over that same period, Census Bureau tables show, U.S. median household income rose by at least 18% in constant dollars — despite the much-lamented (by Shell and others) decampment of “once flourishing” manufacturing jobs to China and elsewhere. That’s why even America’s poorest people nowadays can afford automobiles, cellphones and TVs.

Yet a significant number of social critics wish they couldn’t. Robert Pollin, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst — cited approvingly by Shell — has argued for higher clothing prices and steep taxes on fossil fuels in the name of various social and green causes, even though, as he conceded in a January article in the Nation, the latter measure would “impose higher energy prices on businesses and individuals.”

The most zealous of the spend-more crowd, however, are the food intellectuals who salivated, as it were, at a steep rise in the cost of groceries earlier this year, including such basics as milk and eggs. Some people might worry about the effect on recession-hit families of a 17% increase in the price of milk, but not Alice Waters, the food-activist owner of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant, who shudders at the thought of sampling so much as a strawberry that hasn’t been nourished by organic compost and picked that morning at a nearby farm — and thinks everyone else in America should shudder too. “Make a sacrifice on the cellphone or the third pair of Nike shoes,” Waters airily informed the New York Times in April.

Read the whole article here. As with most of Allen’s writings, It is well worth chewing on.

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