May 11, 2010

Ag policy needs teardown, rebuild

Every now and then the people who say that government is the problem are right, though perhaps not in the way they think.

Two recent Ithaca Journal articles made clear just how strange our federal agriculture policy has become. The first looked at a local shortage of slaughterhouses, the second at Senator Schumer's plans to help apple growers pay for expensive plants.

In the first case, we tried to reduce the cost of government by looking at less food directly. For a brief and painful summary, see this Chicago Tribune article, though you have to scroll down to see the actual content. The USDA created an immense pile of paperwork, which inspectors spend a lot of time inspecting, and slaughterhouses spend a lot of time creating. If you're a big slaughterhouse, this pays off because:

After the Jack in the Box case, the USDA required each meat plant to adopt a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point plan. The plans let companies design their own food safety measures, usually around the need to process beef quickly....

The hope was that meatpacking plants would adopt better practices. But inspectors today say their jobs have been reduced to monitoring a company's hazard analysis plan, instead of enforcing USDA's own inspection regulations. "They [meatpacking companies] write their own plan," said one inspector, who asked to remain anonymous. "They write everything for themselves. We're 'monitoring' that now. It's just a joke. We mostly check paper now. You can put anything you want on paper."

For the small slaughterhouses, though, it's a lot of paper and a lot of regulation that doesn't necessarily make sense for a small-scale operation.

(It's not just meat inspection, either - there have been problems in the organic certification side of the FDA as well, with similar dynamics.)

As for Senator Schumer's generous offer to help apple growers buy the more expensive trees producing Gala, Honeycrisp, and Sweet Tango, there's a reason those trees are more expensive. Supply is much more limited than it is for older varieties because those varieties are patented.

And why are such things patented? Well, Gala (along with its many variations) was created privately. But Honeycrisp and Sweet Tango (as well as the Cornell varieties also mentioned in the article) come out of the land grant universities - Minnesota for these two varieties - that used to do such breeding for free. Thanks to the Bayh-Dole Act, which shifted institutions toward creating profitable patents with federal research dollars rather than expecting their government work to be for the common good. Instead of the land grant universities supporting agriculture through research that can be freely shared, they've moved into helping agriculture by selling them things.

Once again, we tried to reduce the cost of government, and it popped up someplace else. Now Senator Schumer wants the government to subsidize that someplace else.

Yes, this is crazy. I haven't even mentioned the impact of farm subsidies yet...

Posted by simon at May 11, 2010 9:35 PM in ,
Note on photos


Roy said:

This has been going on for a while in the tech sector. Major schools brag on NCAA TV ads about their number of patents obtained through research.

"Farm policy, although it's complex, can be explained. What it can't be is believed. No cheating spouse, no teen with a wrecked family car, no mayor of Washington, D.C., videotaped in flagrant has ever come up with anything as farfetched as U.S. farm policy." P. J. O'Rourke

I think that quote was from Parliament of Whores back in the early '90s when I used to follow the farm program closely. Not sure it's gotten any more believable, but I'm no expert.