Mark Bittman’s transforming himself into a full-time opinion writer instead of doing his “minimalist” cooking column, and I think his initial manifesto has a lot of good ideas. But this one strikes me as bad and it’s noteworthy that he doesn’t even really seem to try to argue for it:
Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages.
Now the context here is a larger program in which we’ve already ended corn and soybean subsidies, begun to tax unhealthy foods, and outlawed environmentally destructive CAFOs. So the hypothesis is that we’re aligning the incentives correctly—farmers are farming food, for people, not subsidies. Taxes encourage people to buy healthy food and regulations dissuade farmers from unsustainable practices. Under those circumstances, why on earth should the government add on extra subsidies for farms that are small?
It seems to me that what we want from our farms is farms that are as efficient as possible in their use of resources like land, labor, water, etc. You don’t want to encourage a kind of narrow economic efficiency that simply reflects environmental destruction. And of course if a smaller farm can produce a better product, that’s excellent for them and they should find a market niche on that basis. But there’s no more reason for public policy to put its thumb on the scale of smallness than to put its thumb on the scale in favor of corn. Personally, I like going to the farmer’s market when the weather’s nice and so do a lot of other people. In the more prosperous America of tomorrow, I bet even more people will enjoy paying a small premium for the premium wares available at such markets. And if we ever managed to curtail subsidies to agribusiness corn and soy producers, I bet those farmers would be in even better shape. But what’s the case for smallness as such supposed to be?