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Who You Calling Subsidized?

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Elizabeth Royte had a nice profile of urban-farming evangelist Will Allen in last weekend's New York Times Magazine. Midway through the article, she mentions Allen's group, Growing Power, is partially sustained by the money from MacArthur Genius awards and Ford Foundation grants. And that, usually, is where this discussion ends: neat model, and certainly the sort of thing that yuppies like to read about, but not a viable business model. But Royte offers a nice counterargument to that easy dismissal:

Employing locals to grow food for the hungry on neglected land has an irresistible appeal, but it’s not clear yet whether Growing Power’s model can work elsewhere. “I know how to make money growing food,” Allen asserts. But he’s also got between 30 and 50 employees to pay, which makes those foundation grants — and a grant-writer — essential. Growing Power also relies on large numbers of volunteers. All of which perhaps explains why other urban farmers have not yet replicated Growing Power’s scale or its unique social achievements.

So no, Growing Power isn’t self-sufficient. But neither is industrial agriculture, which relies on price supports and government subsidies. Moreover, industrial farming incurs costs that are paid by society as a whole: the health costs of eating highly processed foods, for example, or water pollution.

This isn't a hard point to prove: We handed the agricultural sector more than $175 billion in direct subsidies from 1995 to 2006. Confined Animal Feeding Operations, which dominate the meat production industry, probably wouldn't be viable without the $35 billion in grain subsidies they received from 1997 to 2005 and the $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments that help them stay in the black each year. And we're not even talking indirect costs on the environmental or the long-term health of the population.

That's not to say that a more financially-independent agricultural industry would feature a million farmer's markets linked to a trillion hydrogen-powered farms where whole communities would gather on the weekends to watch foreign-language films and hold discussions on "sustainability." Maybe it would be much worse than what we have now.

But there's a tendency to think that our food production system exists in its current from because the market has rendered its impartial judgment and the Way We Do Things Now is the way the invisible hand wants things done. But that's not really true. The government's hand -- which is to say, the public's hand -- has shaped our food production system. The Way We Do Things Now is simply the way we've decided to do things for now. And if we decide it's a bad way, it could be changed.

Update: Matt Yglesias read this post as an argument for subsidizing urban farming. That's not my argument at all. In fact, I think that would probably be a pretty dumb idea. My point, rather, is that our current food production system is heavily subsidized, and so there's no reason to think that the dominant model is either the only possible model, or even the model that's most economically desirable.


Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press Photo .

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2009; 10:02 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

really cute pig in the photo.

set my mind to thinking if Sarah hunts pigs (like wolves) from airplanes, with the pigs confined in small feedlots. she's very sporting, you know.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 6, 2009 10:21 AM | Report abuse

As a conservative who is naturally opposed to subsidies, I've always looked at food subsidies as a national security issue. It's in our interest to encourage over-production and to keep our food supply grown within our borders. Of course the system could be more fair and egalitarian in its distribution, but eliminating it is not the answer.

Posted by: MikeatTheBigStick | July 6, 2009 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Please to explain picture. Am I wrong to be all, "AAAWWW"? Where is that, a State Fair? Is that piglet being treated with kindness by a Greenhorn or tortured by a Big Ag Welfare Queen?

Posted by: JaneG | July 6, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

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