If you and I disagree over the wisdom of eating junk food, that is not food politics.  If you and your allies organize and take political action to impose (or block) new government regulations on junk food — for example, keeping certain junk foods out of school cafeterias  — that is food politics.

No matter what your political leaning, there are likely some statements in this book that you will agree with, and there are likely some statements in this book that will ruffle your feathers.

Paarlberg applies a matter-of-fact mindset to answer questions like “Is chronic undernutrition a problem in the United States” and “Are genetically engineered foods safe?”. Most answers are given in four pages or less.

Parts of the book reminded me of Freakonomics (eg. America’s health crisis is linked far more to overnutrition than undernutrition) and other parts of the book rubbed me the wrong way although I did continue reading.

At the start it was a bit to heavy on US Food politics but some portions were interesting:

If [the] important Food Stamp program had been given a more accurate name — “an income supplement and insurance program for the poor” — it would enjoy far less political support in Congress.  It gains strong bipartisan support because of its brand as a program against hunger.   It also enjoys broad political support because it is routinely bundled into the same legislative package that delivers subsidies to farmers, the so-called farm bill, ensuring that representatives from agricultural districts will vote for food stamps in return for urban votes to preserve farm subsidies. (p.42)

It would be interesting to figure out the Canadian versions of some of the facts.  Like how, on one recent year, the largest 7% of American Farms received 45% of American agricultural subsidies.   In Europe, the wealthiest 20% of farmers receive more than 80% of the subsidies.

I don’t know about you, but you REALLY have to wonder why such huge portions of the subsidies are given to the wealthiest farms.

This has got me interested in digging up the Canadian numbers …  (oh dear internet, you make this almost too easy.  No wonder so many governments censor you!).

The orange represent Program Payments (an endearing term for subsidies?) on this chart from Agriculture Canada.   Like the US and Europe, it seems to me that the most profitable farms are receiving the lions share of the subsidies.I want hard working farm families to be profitable.  I want them to make a good living. But do I feel that our government should be paying the wealthiest farmers the most money?!?  No matter what the justification I feel it’s a bit odd.  You almost have to wonder if the subsidies are just temporarily extending the life of expensive farm operations, or if they are simply making wealthy farm families more wealthy.

The welfare of food producers and food consumers usually depends more on what governments do inside the border than on what they do with their trade policy at the border.  Arguments between open trade advocates and trade protectionists too often miss this point (p.109)

Two other take-aways from this book:

Most poor farmers in Africa do not make any purchases of seeds at all, and they make minimum purchases of fertilizers and pesticides… Private international companies are not significantly interested in African farmers because they lack the purchasing power to be good customers. (p 123)

Note that too much food is now six times deadlier than unsafe food.  Yet any illness from foods found already contaminated at purchase will cause public outrage because (in contrast to smoking or overeating) this kind of exposure to risk is involuntary.  Also, because purchasing food at a supermarket is a commmon experience, anxieties can spread quickly to vast numbers of citizens when any danger…is confirmed or even rumored. (p.157)