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.

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  1. Sam says:

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

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  2. nathan says:

    There seems to be some amount of talk that biofuel mandates have contributed to food inflation here and food crises in other parts of the world. How much responsibility, if any, do you think the government holds for those problems because of the mandate? Should it be repealed?

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  3. Noah says:

    Right now a minority get some portion of their food from ‘local’* sources. I’m guessing a fairly small but growing fraction of total food consumption is local. How feasible is it that the majority of US food consumption be shifted to a local mode, how long would it take, and would it necessarily be a good thing?

    * lets say the definition of ‘local’ is food that is purchased by the consumer directly from the producer, or through a nearby arbiter (e.g., my Whole Foods selling food from local producers, or a restaurant buying ingredients from the same).

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  4. craig says:

    When land is used to grow crops, much of the inedible portion (stalk, stems, and so forth) is usually plowed back into the soil, thus recycling it. But if the inedible portion is used for things such as ethanol, it doesn’t. Do we need to worry that the growing capacity of the land will eventually diminish if we don’t recycle the inedible portion of the crops?

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  5. Ava says:

    If the US were to do away with all agriculture subsidies (in a similar manner as New Zealand), do you think that we would be better off in the long run?

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  6. Tommy says:

    I first learned about ag subsidies and the need for them to end from Prof. Robert Thompson at the University of Illinois. My question is related in regards to Organics(since organic production may consume excess land and change the international supply equation for food).

    I still feel that there are significant, though long-term, returns on some organic foods. Still, I have doubts about sources like say, even though some info is better than none (what grocery stores provide). Furthermore, in the absence of information, I still prefer to consume fruits, veggies, and fish not from abroad as infrequently as possible since I know less about their usage of pesticides, fertilizers, fungicides, and exposure to ambient pollutants. Maybe we’re even worse in the U.S.

    What’s your opinion? Do my spending habits match the scientific conclusions? Do you think there is a market for grocery stores that reduce market failure by fully informing the consumer about the risks/benefits of their foods?

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  7. Greg says:

    Are farm subsidies ever a good idea in the long run?

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  8. Mozza says:

    By how much should agricultural subsidies in the US and Europe be reduced to start seeing an impact on the growth of developing countries?

    If I may add a second one: What would be the positive impact of this reduction for the US and Europe themselves?

    Oh and why not another: What would be the expected environmental impact of these reductions?


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