Biden’s food conference should put people first, not environmental extremism

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The Biden administration should ensure the right focus of a conference it will host next Wednesday on food-related issues like nutrition and food access.

The primary focus of this food conference should be the importance of efficiently producing safe and affordable food, especially when Americans are suffering from food prices not seen in over 40 years. And when it comes to health concerns, the focus should be on the health of Americans, not the health of the planet.

All this may seem obvious, but unfortunately it has to be said.

Let’s start with agricultural productivity and affordable food. The latest consumer price index data shows that food prices in August were 11.4% higher than last August.

Grocery prices have been above 4% year-on-year for 12 consecutive months (an unusually high level), beginning in September 2021 (4.6%), with each subsequent month being higher than the previous month.

There are many reasons for this rise in food prices. Government impediments throughout the supply chain are a key reason, with the Biden administration’s current energy war playing a leading role.

In addition to examining how the government is driving prices up, the President’s Food Conference should begin with the underlying assumption that our country’s food system should, first and foremost, be efficient and provide affordable food. Environmental aspects are important, but should not be at the expense of efficient production and low prices.

The US food system is a model of innovation, productivity, and affordability. According to the latest Department of Agriculture data, from 1948 to 2019, agricultural production nearly tripled (an increase of 175%) while land area decreased. While agricultural production increased by 175%, all agricultural inputs increased by only 4%.

In 2021, despite high food prices, American consumers spent an average of about 10% of their personal disposable income on groceries, which is close to an all-time low. This proportion has been declining for decades.

But some, including Biden administration officials, want the federal government to transform the country’s food system, essentially centralizing the entire food supply chain. Many on the left have long attacked America’s food system and agricultural practices, arguing that they have done incalculable harm and are attempting to refocus the food system on combating climate change, the shift away from fossil fuels, and other ancillary issues.

Government doesn’t need to change our food system, and we certainly don’t need a central plan to do it. The environment or other supposed concerns should not be an excuse to control lives and push policies that would harm our food system and drive up the cost of food for Americans.

It is troubling that the Biden administration has embraced the goals of the United Nations Summit on Food Systems. As the Department of Agriculture explained:

The declared goal of the Food Systems Summit was to change the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the challenges of poverty, food security, malnutrition, population growth and climate change encounter , and depletion of natural resources.

In detailing the approach to the UN Summit, the first three key USDA positions listed were promoting sustainable development, reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture, and promoting agricultural practices to mitigate climate change. Agriculture officials mention food safety and affordability in the document, but neither in the foreground nor in the agency’s general message.

In announcing how the Biden administration will transform the food system, the USDA focused extensively on “reducing carbon pollution” and “emphasizing equity.”

So not only does the Biden administration want to centrally plan how farmers produce food, what food farmers produce, and what food people eat, it also appears to care much more about environmental outcomes than efficiency, productivity, and affordability.

A prime example of the lack of focus on food prices is a recent USDA announcement regarding the department’s $300 million Organic Transition Initiative. The USDA explains:

the number of non-certified organic farms that are actively converting to organic production has fallen by almost 71 percent since 2008. By fully supporting this initiative, the USDA hopes to reverse this trend…

In other words, farmers are not moving towards organic farming as much as the Biden administration would like. So the government will use taxpayers’ money to persuade farmers to adopt organic farming.

And why does that play a role in prices? Organic food is expensive. The USDA found, “All 17 of the commonly purchased organic products were more expensive than their non-organic counterparts.”

Regarding nutrition, Biden’s upcoming food conference will certainly address nutrition issues. But don’t assume that diet means focusing solely on Americans’ dietary needs, as recent developments show.

In the House of Representatives, a bill called “Healthy Meals, Healthy Children” was pushed by the Education and Labor Committee at a partisan level without Republican support. The bill would create “values-based sourcing” in the federal school meals program to encourage the purchase of products for children that are made:

  • In an environmentally friendly way.
  • From a certified organic farm or ranch.
  • By a farm with workers represented by a collective agreement or letter of intent, to the extent permitted by law.
  • From a farm participating in a Worker Justice certification program.
  • From a facility that participates in an independent animal welfare certification program.

Then there are recent efforts to change the influential federal dietary guidelines to also (or more than) base people’s dietary needs on environmental concerns.

Federal school meals must conform to government dietary guidelines. It would be misleading, and arguably immoral, to suggest that children eat the most nutritious school meals when in fact they may be eating foods that some environmental extremists believe are best suited to combating climate change or other unrelated problems.

America’s food system is the envy of the world, from our farmers to our truckers to our grocery stores.

The last thing policymakers should do is increase government interference, especially interference that is less concerned with the primary purpose of a food system (feeding people) and more concerned with unrelated goals that do serve that crucial purpose could undermine.

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