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The War on Food
Revisiting Baylen Linnekin's *Biting the Hand that Feeds Us*
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, there are few things more terrifying than a government bureaucrat who is trying to help us. In California, we are now confronted with the stuff of nightmares on an almost daily basis. Baylen Linnekin of Reason Magazine reports on the latest do-gooder legislation that worsens the problem it is trying to solve:
The law, S.B. 1383 … "requires supermarkets and other big food providers to divert as much as a quarter of edible food now destined for dumps to food banks to feed the needy," the Los Angeles Times reported in December.
Sounds great, right? Not so fast…
Yet multiple reports now highlight the fact that complying with the law is "proving easier said than done," ABC7 in Los Angeles reports. That's because grocers, restaurants, food banks, local governments, and others haven't "figure[d] out who is responsible for reclaiming [food] leftovers [under the law], and how to pay the costs of doing so." Those costs have only skyrocketed due to record gas prices. Given these challenges, it's "been hard for local food banks and small towns to implement [the law] due to climbing fuel costs and uncertainty over who pays for food recovery," Reuters notes.
The problem of food waste is a perfect encapsulation of the broader issue of food freedom, and indeed of virtually all “solutions” to perceived market failures. The government gets involved to right a wrong, without considering the myriad ways that the invisible hand is being thwarted in the process.
Linnekin returns to the show this Sunday to revisit his now-classic book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (Island Press, 2016), and how California’s law fits the broader pattern we see over and over again – in food freedom and in all areas related to liberty. Whenever government interferes with the free choices of individuals, the results tend to backfire. We’ve seen this tragically play out in the War on Drugs, but fewer people consider the unintended consequences of the government’s War on Food.
I dug out my old notes from the book, which I summarize below. As always, I commend all my readers to go deeper and buy the book, but for those who don’t have time read the “Cliffnotes” version and listen to the show.
Biting the Hand that Feeds Us, summarized
Food freedom— which I define as the right to grow, raise, produce, buy, sell, share, cook, eat, and drink the foods of one’s own choosing— is an increasingly popular rallying cry that’s uniting longtime supporters of sustainable food with others who favor lowering the regulatory burden on farmers and other food producers. Throughout this book, you’ll read about a loose and growing coalition of farmers, food entrepreneurs, advocates, lawyers, and others across the country who, like me, are fighting for food freedom from a variety of angles. (Kindle Locations 399-402)
[F]ood freedom movement is breaking down many traditional partisan and ideological barriers. (Kindle Location 403)
Regulations are written for large corporations, which can afford to comply, but for small artisanal producers – nonetheless attentive to safety conditions – they can be the death knell for special prep methods.
Chapter 1 - Unsafe at any Feed
FSMA - Food Safety Modernization Act, passed in 2011 by President Obama. Intended to minimize food-borne pathogens. Estimates of the average cost to a small farm are $13,000 per year (!).
Most foodborne illness cases come from factors out of the FDA/USDA’s control (i.e., hospital workers who spread norovirus from handling the food improperly). At best, could reduce illness by 1 to 3%.
FSMA won’t put a stop to foodborne illness, but it’s threatened to put an end to sustainable farming. (Kindle Locations 628-629)
Examples of bad regulations:
Ban on using spent grains from beer brewing process as feed for cattle
Ban on using wooden racks to ripen cheese (the artisanal method) – later the FDA reversed course and pretended it had never issued a statement banning the practice.
Sustainably-raised, locally sourced meats are difficult to find and costly because of restrictions on the kinds of slaughterhouses that can be used (benefitting firms with economies of scale), rules on transport (i.e., you must use a refrigerator, not ice, even if it works just as well and is cheaper).
“When I was researching the law,” Rosenberg told me, of Mississippi’s requirement, “I asked a food safety scientist if there was any advantage to a refrigerated truck over a cooler with ice or cold packs. I was surprised when he said that not only were refrigerated trucks not any better than coolers, but that they were actually less reliable: unlike coolers, refrigerated trucks suffer mechanical failures.” (Kindle Locations 1135-1138)
Vicious Feedback Cycle, Reinforcing Cronyism and Big Agriculture
As we’ve seen in this chapter, perpetual calls to ramp up food safety tie up sustainable food producers in a vicious cycle. Many of those food producers simply can’t comply with rules written with large producers in mind. That means smaller food producers disappear, and bigger ones get bigger as a result. That consolidation, in turn, is often used to justify the need for more stringent regulations. (Kindle Locations 1216-1219)
Chapter 2 - Big Food Bigger Thanks to Big Government
Designations like “USDA Organic” can be abused by large agricultural enterprises, while small farms can’t afford the process, even if their standards are much higher.
The controversy hinged on language in the USDA organic rules that required dairy cows to have “access to pasture” for their milk to be certified as organic. Cows kept inside a CAFO might have “access” to a small pasture through, say, a single door. But the smaller farms argued that the CAFO cows spent nearly all of their time confined inside and rarely, if ever, actually accessed that pasture. (Kindle Locations 1253-1256)
Farm Subsidies & Crop Insurance
Not only do farm subsidies unjustly enrich a handful of wealthy farmers and corporations, they also skew production towards “monocultures” – vast swaths of land with just one kind of crop, which depletes the soil and requires more inputs.
Linnekin is neutral on GMOs, in the sense that he thinks farmers should be able to plant whatever crops they want, as long as their seeds don’t spread to other non-GMO farms (or as long as those farms that are “infiltrated” by GMO seeds have recourse in court).
Labeling and Standards
Looks at ridiculous naming standards for food products, such as almond/cashew milks that aren’t allowed to call themselves “milk” but instead have to call themselves “vegetable oil” even though nuts aren’t vegetables.
Also, some products fail inspections because they are “too natural,” and don’t add artificial vitamins, i.e., Vitamin A, even though studies show that people already get enough vitamin a, and there is a danger of getting “too much vitamin A, because your body can store it and cause damage to the liver.”
When the federal government and state governments can use Orwellian logic to redefine the meaning of traditional foods such as skim milk— when they can mandate that “up” means “down”— and use standards of identity to disparage a 100-percent natural food such as skim milk as “Non-Grade ‘A’ Milk Product, Natural Milk Vitamins Removed,” then standards of identity have failed to prevent food labels from misleading us. Instead, they serve to promote deception. Who benefits from this deception? Certainly not sustainable producers, their customers, or the buying public. Instead, it’s large producers who benefit from these rules. (Kindle Locations 1867-1871)
Chapter 3 - Wasting Your Money Wasting Food
This might provide a chance to argue over the nature of what counts as “food waste,” although Baylen’s argument mostly rests on perverse government incentives:
Generally, research indicates that nearly 40 percent of all food goes to waste. (Kindle Locations 2009-2010)
You’ll learn that food waste piles up from good intentions just as easily as it does from lesser motivations. You’ll also see time and time again in this chapter that rules that promote food waste usually arise from a combination of poor foresight and backward incentives— as in Oakland— and also from economic protectionism or outright ignorance. (Kindle Locations 2005-2007)
Food waste ends up getting broken down into methane, a very potent greenhouse gas.
School Lunch Program
The purpose of the program, as Congress stated in establishing it in 1946, is “to safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food.” The origins of the program lay in federal government efforts in the 1930s “to encourage the domestic consumption of certain agricultural commodities. (Kindle Locations 2072-2075)
So long as the student takes the minimum fruit or vegetable portion, the federal government will reimburse the school for providing the student with a meal. If the student does not take at least the half-cup of fruits or vegetables, the rules require the federal government not to reimburse the school for providing the meal. (Kindle Locations 2087-2090)
The grading system for the appearance of fruits and vegetables makes it unprofitable for farmers to bring much of their crop to market. Some of this, Baylen admits, is due to the grocery stores’ meeting of consumer expectations. You might have some disagreement over whether this really constitutes food waste. He also talks about a market-based solution, a company called “Fruta Feia” (ugly fruit) in Portugal that is arbitraging the current system and selling ugly fruit.
Narrow permitting requires fishermen to throw away edible bycatch (even when it’s dead) that they are not permitted to catch.
But it takes will. With school lunches, we’ve got to show a willingness to save, prepare, and eat leftovers. With fruits and vegetables, we must be willing to eat so-called ugly fruit. With seafood, we must be willing to choose the so-called trash fish. (Kindle Locations 2602-2604)
Chapter 4 - I Say “Tomato”; You Say “No”
Looks at crack-downs on front-yard gardens, the criminalization of foraging (i.e., picking berries and mushrooms in the wild).
In many jurisdictions, feeding the homeless is illegal:
New York City, under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, banned many food donations to the homeless there in 2012 “because the city can’t assess their salt, fat and fiber content”— as if grams of fiber is a chief concern of hungry people. (Kindle Locations 3105-3107)
Chapter 5 - There Are Good Food Rules
Beyond the importance of rules that prohibit making and selling food that kills people, there’s room for rules— good ones— that do take into account and even embrace sustainable food practices. (Kindle Locations 3173-3174)
A new set of “Cottage rules” have sprung up in some states:
Cottage food laws eliminate the need for commercial kitchen space and reduce some or all of the other barriers. They permit home-based food entrepreneurs to sell low-risk foods such as many baked goods, spice mixtures, teas, and jams. Although state laws vary, states may permit sales from the home, at farmers markets, online, and even to restaurants. (Kindle Locations 3251-3254)
Conclusion - More Sustainability, Fewer Food Rules
If you’ve made it this far into this book, then you know the absence of sustainability language in the dietary guidelines is hardly the thing that’s keeping the USDA from embracing sustainability. (Kindle Locations 3409-3410)
Some rules I’ve identified— such as basic food-safety rules, fishing quotas, restrictions on trawling, the federal ban on shark finning, and prohibitions on unsustainable foraging— are absolutely necessary. But so many are counterproductive. How do we distinguish between the two— and get to a place in which fewer and better rules promote a more sustainable food system? How we can best identify and foster “good” rules and eliminate “bad” ones? More importantly— returning to the second question I asked above— from this point forward, what are the principles we can use to guide food policy in that direction? (Kindle Locations 3480-3484)
Conceptually, here’s how that looks. If a rule promotes unsustainable food practices, it’s best to ask whether the rule also truly protects food safety or promotes one of a handful of other absolutely mandatory societal goals. If it does, then ask whether there is another way to achieve the same outcomes without promoting those unsustainable food practices. If there’s a way to achieve the same goal without this negative unintended consequence, then we should simply abolish the rule. The same line of inquiry holds true for rules that prohibit sustainable food practices. If there’s a way to protect food safety or promote some other absolutely mandatory societal goal without restricting sustainable food practices, then we must abolish the rule. (Kindle Locations 3532-3537)