Ag Policy Blog

End of the Food Police?

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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From DTN's Washington Insider Column:

In an Op Ed in the Wall Street Journal recently, Jason Lusk, professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, told us to give thanks this holiday for the defeat California's Proposition 37 that would have required labeling of genetically modified foods. He thinks that defeat marks the death of at least part of the self-proclaimed "food movement" that wants to intrude into the nation's grocery stores and kitchens.

He notes that other intrusive initiatives also failed, including a "fat tax," and that such efforts are also failing overseas; In Denmark, the government this month rescinded its one-year-old tax on saturated fat because of consumer backlash and adverse economic results.

Supporters of these efforts blame negative campaign ads, but that's not the answer, he says, because one of the key lessons of politics in 2012 is that "money can't buy elections," He cites Michael Pollan's New York Times Magazine conclusion that "One of the more interesting things we will learn on Nov. 6 is whether or not there is a 'food movement' in America worthy of the name — that is, an organized force in our politics capable of demanding change in the food system." So, by that standard, says Lusk, "we must conclude that there is no viable food movement worth its sea salt. Right?"

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But not so fast, he says. Lusk argues that there is a successful food movement that has caught fire over the past decade that encourages consumers to provide incentives for farmers and retailers to grow and sell better-tasting, more-nutritious produce, and is causing an "explosion of niche producers of jams and salsas in exotic flavors, the rise of craft brewers in strip malls and backyard garages all across the United States. Wal-Mart is now the country's largest seller of organic produce, he says and "That food movement is alive and well."

By contrast, the food movement that failed first tried to use the coercive power of the state to strong-arm Americans into eating "fashionably." It used scare tactics and misrepresents the consensus scientific opinion about food technologies in an effort to demonize agribusiness, and "... distrusts consumers to pick the right soda size," Lusk observes.

Lusk sees a "delicious irony" in the behavior of food-movement proponents who would orchestrate, from the top down, whatever they find lacking, and argues that they would "impose the natural and the wholesome on everyone by regulatory force." And, Lusk thinks, it is unlikely that these efforts will now end.

In fact, the failure of Prop 37 likely was the result of the advocates' failure to convince voters that the rules they wanted would correct a real and significant threat, in spite of the lack of any real evidence to the contrary. And, voters also concluded that the proposals would be confusing and expensive. And, the debate was vital and widespread, rather than covert and under the radar as is often the case.

So, while this suggests a high hurdle for the food elitists who are peddling a "food culture" without regard to its costs or benefits, it doesn't really suggest the threat has gone away — there is too great a return in book and newspaper sales by advocates. In fact, this fight likely is just beginning and should be watched carefully as it evolves, Washington Insider believes.

I can be found on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN.

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