Ask an Agricultural Economist


U.S. agriculture is always in the news these days, and agricultural economist Daniel Sumner certainly hasn’t helped keep things quiet.

While acting as a consultant to Brazil in its challenge to U.S. cotton subsidies in 2004, the California Cotton Growers Association accused him of “join[ing] forces with the enemy to cut the heart out of our farm program,” while others praised him for shedding light on the global role of U.S. agricultural programs. (Here’s his paper on the subject.)

His most recent research considers the economic effects of a controversial California initiative that would ban eggs from caged hens.

A former assistant secretary for economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sumner was active in the background analysis for the 2008 Farm Bill. His research focuses on agricultural trade policy, world food issues, biofuels, food safety and traceability, wine economics, and “bee-conomics.” He is the director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center and a Frank H. Buck, Jr., Professor at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis.

He is also the author, co-author, or editor of several books, including Agricultural Trade Policy: Letting Markets Work.

Sumner has agreed to take all your agriculture-related questions — from where you buy your produce to your Salmonella concerns — so fire away in the comments section below.

Addendum: Sumner answers your questions here.


Where do you stand on the matter of Brazilian ethanol (made of sugar cane) versus American ethanol (corn)?


There is an understanding among some people that if the U.S. were to cut agricultural subsidies, the world's poorest countries will be hurt the most since they are net food importers.

Is there any truth to that argument, and if so (seems likely to me) how long will you think it would take for the poor countries to increase their own production?

Bearing in mind agricultural markets in the developing world (such as Sri Lanka, where I come from) are already heavily regulated and over producing thanks to heavy subsidies, guaranteed price supports and (at least until recently) high import tariffs.


Why is there such a deep emotional attachment to growing cotton in the US? Given the historical connection with slavery, I would have thought there would be no appetite to prop up an uneconomic industry.

andrew taylor

Are there any good arguments that support farm subsidies? If so, to what extent and in what manner may they be justified?


This question has popped up already, but I want to add my vote to it:

How much is the biofuel industry contributing to food inflation? I seem to remember reading somewhere that it is only around 10% or so.

My second question: I get the feeling that in America we tend to romanticize the notion of the small farmer as being the backbone of the country. Is this legitimate? How much of our agriculture is actually agribusiness? Is agribusiness more/less efficient than small farms, and does this translate into lower prices in the market?



Who is the real beneficiary of agricultural subsidies? Seed producers (e.g. Monsanto), chemical fertilizer and pesticide manufacturers (e.g. Dow Chemical), distributors (e.g. Archer-Daniels Midland), agricultural equipment manufacturers (e.g. John Deer), farmers, or consumers (by lowering food prices)?

Subsidies are always sold to the public and Congress as helping out the small farmer, but I'm curious who they really help, and how much.

Gene Morris

As a fellow junior agri-economist, I would like to ask how you feel about the president of The University of Florida cutting millions of dollars of funding from the Food and Resource Economics. With his reasoning, " Agriculture in Florida is a dying sector".

Florida = Sugarcane = Efficient Ethanol Production + Nuclear Power = Energy Independence?


How common is toxoplasma gondii in meat? What is being (or ought to be) done to reduce the prevalence of it?

I once saw the results of a study done in new zealand (and I would assume it's similar elsewhere) that said something like 9 out of 32 *pre cooked* hams were infectious (they must not have been cooked well enough.)

Also, can you tell us anything about toxoplasma gondii in the soil that comes along with most foods (since food isn't usually washed much)?(Maybe that's off topic though, but never figured that out. Toxoplasma gondii is very common in soil so you could presumably catch it from the soil on raw vegetables etc. but I've never heard anything about it. Soil is part of the parasite's life cycle, and how mice get infected.)

Hanish Patel

Does Thomas Malthus' 'dismal science' come to mind in relation to today's rising food and energy costs. Will global demand outstrip supply?


Ty, comment 12,

Increasing economic pressures on wheat farmers; at present cereal prices?

Main theme:

Which particular agricultural subsidy probably does most damage to the US economy?

And which probably does most damage to third world farmers' living standards?


How does urban planning affect agriculture?

In architecture school, urban planning discussions focus only on work-home commute and walkability. It was almost expected that raw materials will come from a centralized area (China?) out of the urban areas.

How big a challenge is it to provide food with the current urban planning model? Is there something that can be improve in planning for the better utilization agricultural resources? Which country do you think is best at managing agricultural resources?


I have three questions:

1) Knowing the vast amount that you do about global agriculture, what sort of unique food choices do you make in light of that knowledge (e.g., are there certain foods you avoid? certain risks from certain foods/nations/etc.? do you wash certain foods extra well? etc.)

2) What are some facts that would surprise us about agriculture?

3) If you could overhaul American agriculture, what would you do (and if there is a particular crop you would change to, what is it)?

Thank you--I look forward to your responses!


Are sugar beets a better alternative for ethanol production?


How much would a gallon of milk cost tomorrow, in Chicago, if the dairy subsidies were eliminated today?

Jack T.

Many things have been suggested about the current cattle and chicken industry regarding the treatment of animals. However, most of the industries policies surround efficiency, profit, and bringing extremely cheap meat to the American dinner table. If large farming complexes were to use more traditional grazing/butchering techniques how dramatically would this affect the price? How would this affect the environment? Would more pollution/land impact rise from increased trucking and larger amounts of land for the animals?

Thank you


What do you think of Cuba's recent decision to liberate some of its farmland (NYT, June 19)

H Dizzle

I was a vegetarian for six years in my youth and now that I'm back to the typical American diet, I still want more answers about the meat that I buy.

Even a t-shirt gives you more information about the product than meat at the grocery store. You can find out where it was manufactured and of what it is made.

I am wondering how much effort would be necessary and how feasible it would be to pass legislation forcing the meat industry to put a label on every packaged meat product telling me:

1. from which farm it came

2. where it was processed

3. what day it was processed

4. in what conditions was it raised

5. what it was fed

There could be even more information on a package of meat, but these would ease my mind the most. I'd love to be able to support local farmers (and, selfishly, get the freshest meat available). I think the public demanding to be more informed is way past due.



Is there any evidence to support that agricultural subsidies contribute to obesity?

I can answer that by way of the New York Times: yes.

Ben Karol

What crops do you think are under subsidized or utilized? Do you think algae and palm oil farms will be able to provide sufficient oil for biofuels? What ever happened to government food programs that handed out surplus supply do those work better or worse than subsidies? At least food banks ended up with something on the shelves (Mmmmm government cheese)


Do you have any advice for college students who want to be Agricultural Economists? Would a PhD in an economics department or in agricultural and resource economics be a better program?