The Illogic of Farm Subsidies, and Other Agricultural Truths


Last week we solicited your questions for agricultural economist Daniel Sumner. You responded with terrific questions, including some that sounded a bit like riddles:

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

Sumner has answers for questions about organic produce, biofuels, the logic of locavores, whether the U.S.’s attachment to cotton is emotional or financial, and how to talk to farmers about the economics of agriculture: “I do not start by challenging their passions, but I am pretty forthcoming about what most economic analysis finds about farm subsidies.”

His answer to whether there’s a good argument to be made for farm subsidies:


I learned more from reading this Q&A than I have from all the miscellaneous reading I’ve done on these topics in perhaps a year, maybe more. Thanks to Sumner for his answers and to you for the questions.

Q: Is there any evidence to support the claim that agricultural subsidies contribute to obesity?

A: The short answer is no. There are lots of reasons for dissatisfaction with farm subsidies, obesity is not one of them.

The reasoning is that, although farm subsidies programs have made the price of corn and soybeans slightly cheaper for buyers in the U.S., the accompanying trade policies have raised the prices of sugar and dairy products. Furthermore, farm costs comprise such a small fraction of the retail price, the small farm price effects have tiny retail price impacts. Finally, in rich countries such as the U.S., buyers respond little to any food price declines or increases.

We might also note that Australia, which has no farm subsidies, just passed the U.S. as the fattest nation.

We published a popular piece on this here (Volume 11, Number 2, December 2007). There are also a few academic papers that come to the same result. The popular press and some literature in nutrition say the opposite, but I have never seen any careful analysis or evidence that explained the result.

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

A: No.

My longer answer is here.

I look at a dozen suggested rationales for farm programs and reject them all except the last one — which is we have farm programs because we have had them for 75 years and people are afraid of even thinking about a world without subsidies.


1. I am suspicious that many food manufacturers call things “organic” only to pocket a price premium for their products. Where do the risks justify the cost of organic, antibiotic-free, etc. products?

2. I have heard that many “green” classifications are set by industry groups with the result that the bar is extremely low. How do different product standards rate?

3. I want to decide whether to buy an apple from New Zealand or the local farmer. The apple from New Zealand is cheaper; isn’t the price mechanism telling me that this apple has used less resources and is better for the planet?

A: Organic has a specific legal meaning in the U.S. and to use the word other than in accordance with the regulations is costly in fines and loss of reputation.

Other suppliers are the most likely watchdogs to keep their competitors in line. That does not mean fraud does not occur. Organic production is typically much more expensive and the products consequently sell for more. That certainly creates an incentive to cheat.

I have a friend who refers to “Texas organic,” which means farmers only spray pesticides at night.

We also hear stories of dairy farms that have an organic herd and a conventional side-by-side. Given that the price for organic milk is 50 percent higher, it should not be a surprise that the organic milk tank fills up much faster than the conventional tank (especially when we recognize there is no way to tell the two products apart).

Organic eggs cost far more than conventional eggs and even far more than eggs also grown in non-cage housing, because organic feed is far more expensive and the organic hens are much more prone to disease and death. As with most other organic products, most of the organic eggs are produced on farms that may have tens of thousands of organic hens and a million or more hens in conventional cage housing. I have no particular expertise about any health or environmental benefits of organic products.

Q: 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?

A: No question, biofuels have contributed significantly to farm commodity price increases. The range of a plausible estimate of the share of increase due to use of farm resources for biofuels ranges from 10 or 15 percent to 50 percent or more, depending on the precise time period considered, the commodity (corn or rice or wheat), and whether one is apportioning the total impact across suggested drivers.

Factors affecting recent commodity price increases include:

1. Biofuels policy in (a) the U.S.; (b) Europe and elsewhere.

2. Supply shocks due to weather or pests.

3. Reductions in E.U. production subsidy.

4. Demand growth in China, India, and other fast-expanding poor countries.

5. Export controls in places such as Thailand, India, etc.

6. Import expansion policies and stockpiling in the Philippines, etc.

7. Oil price shocks that increase costs of farm production and distribution.

8. Mistaken speculators who will lose money.

9. Hedge funds and other financial traders who are pouring money into commodities because stocks, bonds, and real estate look so lousy; and

10. Oil price shocks that increases the demand for biofuels.

These are not all independent. For example, 1 and 10 may be hard to separate. The oil price shock may have expanded demand for biofuels given the policies, and without the policies an oil shock would not translate into a corn market shock.

Q: Right now a minority get some portion of their food from “local” sources (food that is purchased by the consumer directly from the producer). I’m guessing a fairly small but growing fraction of total food consumption is local. How feasible is it that the majority of U.S. food consumption be shifted to a local mode, how long would it take, and would it necessarily be a good thing?

A: I love to go out and buy strawberries from the little two-acre field a couple of miles from my house. Some days by the time I get there he has sold out of his daily harvest from that field and he will try to sell me the bigger prettier ones from his “other field.” But one taste is enough to make me wait for a day. The season here lasts until June when it starts getting too hot for strawberries, but I am a real glutton during those couple of months. We also get our lemons from the tree in our backyard and we store them on the tree to harvest about 7 months out of the year.

Because of where we live, many of the fruits and vegetables are from within 100 miles or so and most of the eggs, dairy products, tree nuts, and rice are also “local.” The same applies for staples such as wine, but not for bread. Farmers nearby grow plenty of wheat for my consumption, but California as a whole is a large net importer of wheat and it would not make much sense to plow under the grape vines to plant more wheat to go with the local wine. It would use far more resources and be far more expensive to attempt to grow rice or wine grapes in Minnesota. In food, especially, comparative advantage is tied to endowments of natural resources.

Local means the local season and most of us choose to eat grapes in May and strawberries in October no matter what the local season is. Most of us also enjoy variety of diet and the luxury of consuming from the global buffet. I am not about to say that such consumers are morally deficient.

It is also far from clear that local production is more conserving of energy, has a smaller greenhouse gas footprint, or is otherwise nicer to the environment.

Consider the energy it would take to grow lettuce in greenhouses compared to in the fields of Monterey County. It turns out shipping long distances is cheap in many ways compared to fighting natural comparative advantage to grow crops in inhospitable environments.

If wealthy consumers demand more local production they will get it. Rich folks in New York or San Francisco can hire personal gardeners to grow things for them in the backyard or on the roof tops as noted in recent NYT articles. But given the huge costs of such practices, that is unlikely to be a significant share of the food consumption for normal people.

Q: If the U.S. 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?

A: U.S. farm subsidies tend to kick in with the big government payouts when prices are low. Big subsidies last flowed in 2005 (in the range of $20 billion in government program crop payments). Much of this money goes to farm landlords and farm operators with some going to suppliers of other inputs or buyers who get lower prices for grains and cotton.

Clearly the U.S. economy is a loser from farm subsidies and most of U.S. agriculture (hay, fruits, tree nuts, livestock, vegetables) also gets nothing much from the programs. It is also plausible that some of the taxpayer money saved from the farm subsidies would be redirected to public goods such as agricultural R&D, environmental conservation, nutrition education, and other food and agricultural activities that have at least some claim to public support.

For more on these topics I suggest readers check out a set of papers we did for the American Enterprise Institute. There are short readable papers on why the U.S. has farm programs and what effects they have. There are also longer, more technical versions available that have more details. Besides my own papers I suggest you may want to check out the papers by Bruce Gardner and Julian Alston. The URL for the short versions is here. Details found here.

Q: By how much should agricultural subsidies in the U.S. and Europe be reduced to start seeing an impact on the growth of developing countries? What would be the positive impact of this reduction for the U.S. and Europe themselves? What would be the expected environmental impact of these reductions?

A: Simple questions, complicated answers. Farm subsidies that lower prices hurt farmers in poor countries by helping consumers in these countries. My best estimate in the case of cotton is that the world cotton price would be about 10 percent higher if U.S. farm subsidies for cotton were eliminated. The impact is likely smaller for most other commodities. So the impacts would be a modest improvement of farm incomes, but as we show in our paper for Oxfam, cited in my introduction, even most improvement of farm prices can make a measurable difference to the living standards of the very poor.

Sugar is a special case. U.S. import barriers have a large effect. John Beghin has considered sugar policy in his paper for our AEI project found here.

These papers also consider environmental impacts of farm subsidies. Overall, the next environmental impacts are quite modest because of the modifications to the programs from 1985 through 1996.

Q: Do you have a personal garden at home? If so, what are your major crops and why?

A: We have lemons, plums, peaches, nectarines, oranges, and apricots in the backyard. We used to grow tomatoes, but the local tomatoes here are quite tasty and available during the same months when our backyard tomatoes are producing. Also, any friends and neighbors are happy to share their crops during the peak seasons.

Q: If the U.S. is providing large subsidies that depress cotton rates across the world, doesn’t it mean that it is actually providing discounts to cotton consumers across the world (and in W. Africa too)? That being the case, would it not be better to have the W. African farmers shift to other crops (not subsidized by the U.S./Europe) to get better prices?

A: Your economic intuition is just right. Subsidies that make products cheaper help buyers just as they make it difficult for competitive sellers. It would be nice to think that African farmers could easily shift to other crops. Lots of effort has been devoted to the issue. It seems that certain parts of Africa are simply very well suited for cotton. We shall see how much longer U.S. cotton subsidies last. They are pretty much gone now in the E.U.

Q: If there were some additional background information as to how the animal was treated, where it came from, what it ate, etc., do you think this would change consumers’ buying habits (which would, in turn, alter the industrial farming system)? Is the disjoint between the notion of “meat” and “animal” that we, as a nation of meat-eaters, have willfully cultivated in the mind of consumers beneficial for anyone other than the major food producers?

A: I have a friend who has been in the business of selling identity-preserved beef for many years. His ranch has a self contained genetic stock and he has his own slaughter house. Of course, the beef is very expensive and only the rich are willing to pay the very much higher costs of these practices. But the point is, if very many consumers actually wanted more information to the point they were willing to pay for it, there are farms and marketers ready and willing to provide the service.

On a related point, Sebastien Pouliot is presenting a paper next week at the annual meeting of the agricultural economists in which he explores the very interesting case of cattle traceability in Quebec. The bottom line of his careful statistical work is that there is no evidence that buyers have been willing to pay any premium for cattle that can be traced all the way back to the farm of birth. Furthermore, the slaughter house in Quebec that dealt in the traceable steers could not compete successfully and the traceable Quebec steers are now all slaughtered in Ontario and commingled with Ontario cattle without the traceability characteristic.

Q: What are your thoughts on passing a mandate for gardens in the United States? Do you think having each person who owns a house in this country grow a garden could be feasible?

A: Do you really think “we” were ever willing to accept the backyard inspectors that would come around and check that I planted the government approved crops? Hard to picture John Adams or Ben Franklin happy about opening up their homes to the Crown or the Feds.

Mao tried to enforce backyard steel mills during the great leap forward, with pretty dismal results. Mandates would not work; how about subsidies? I remember when my clever tax-lawyer brother got Jimmy Carter (meaning some poor taxpayer somewhere) to pay for the plastic cover that kept the leaves out of his swimming pool. All he had to do was claim it provided a solar heating benefit.

Maybe we can get rid of farm subsidies sometime in the next decade or two. Please do not suggest instead we should expand the mandate or subsidy programs to every suburb in America.

Q: Does the U.S. government have policies (tariffs, etc.) in place that make processed sugar from corn a more economical choice than cane sugar for food producers? If so, could changing these policies provide incentives for food producers to use cane sugar instead of processed sugar?

A: The U.S. has big tariffs on imported sugar. Those tariffs keep out imports, keep the price here high, and provided the incentives for the use of high fructose corn sweetener (always referred to as HFCS) in soft drinks and processed foods. If we now got rid of the tariff we would shift to the use of more sugar and less HFCS. The shift in technology back to sugar would not be immediate however. John Beghin explores this question in detail here.

Q: I have heard that the reasoning behind farm subsidies is to keep farmers farming when market prices are low, so in the event of a demand shift the capacity would be there to meet the need. Do you think this supposed benefit outweighs the negative effects of market interference?

A: This rationale, or rationalization, for farm subsidies makes no sense. Farming is a long-run business and there is no reason to think the government is better at regulating the markets for farm commodities than are the farmers and other who are in the business and have strong incentives to use storage, forward pricing, lines of credit, and the like to deal with commodity markets. I deal with this rational in my AEI paper: “Farm Subsidy Tradition and Modern Agricultural Realities.”

Q: Does the increasing demand for organic and free-range food in developed nations contribute to hunger in the developing world by reducing the worldwide supply of lower priced food? Is some level of “factory farming” necessary to feed the world’s ever expanding population?

A: The evidence is clear that organic production costs more and often a lot more. The spread of large dairy operations follows the spread of large beef feedlots and confinement hog operations.

The rich can pay more and have their food produced however they wish, even in their own backyards. Most people are not willing to pay for that.

For cost of production estimates, including for organic production, I refer you to the work of my colleague Karen Klonsky.

For some estimates of costs of eggs under alternative housing systems, I refer you to our new report about eggs produced by hens in cages compared to those raise in non-cage housing, which is the subject of a ballot initiative here in California.

Our study investigate the economic impacts of regulations that would ban the California production of eggs by chickens kept in conventional cage housing. The bottom-line impact would be elimination of the California industry with eggs produced here replaced in the market by eggs produced in cages in Iowa, Minnesota, and other states that already ship in about half of California’s consumption. Consumers in California probably would not notice any difference. The initiative would not affect how chickens would be housed, only where they would be housed — in Iowa rather than in California.

Q: From the little I read, it’s accepted as gospel in the locavore community that a locally sourced diet has a smaller carbon footprint than the typical mainstream American diet. This always struck me as odd. More recently I’ve noticed some articles that support my skepticism. One claimed that only 4 percent of our food’s greenhouse gas emissions are due to transportation. The other claimed that New Zealand lamb was vastly more energy efficient than domestic. The energy expended in the transportation was swamped by the efficiencies of the New Zealand lamb industry, which presumably enjoys an environment more suitable to raising lamb. Are there more general studies which confirm this or have I been brainwashed by Big Lamb?

Besides carbon footprint, are there other metrics that give any insight into the question of the relative sustainability of various methods of agricultural production?

A: I think you have it about right. “Sustainability” is complex and even the much more simple calculation of the greenhouse gas implications of some production path is not obvious without tracing through the full set of implications. Lamb in New Zealand is mostly grass fed on pastures that have lots of rainfall. Lambs in the U.S. tend to fattened on grain and alfalfa, often from irrigated fields.

The piece in Science last February by Tim Searchinger and others certainly challenged the claim that corn-based ethanol had a pretty big carbon footprint. That article simply pointed out if you use more corn for ethanol, people are still going to eat, so land will be drawn into agriculture that is not now under cultivation. It turns out that land use effect has huge greenhouse gas implications and reversed earlier assessments.

Q: In the western part of Kansas, agricultural subsidy and trade issues are deeply emotional; whole communities feel passionately that any change in our farm policies could quickly leave their towns impoverished. Is there any way you’ve found to open discussion about economic theory with folks who work in small farming communities? Is there any way to get past the intense fear and anger these issues provoke?

A: I talk to farmers all the time and find the exchanges really valuable. My experience is that farmers are smart, articulate, and very interested in an open exchange of ideas. I do not start by challenging their passions, but I am pretty forthcoming about what most economic analysis finds about farm subsidies. My experience is that most farmers do not disagree with the analysis, but that does not mean they volunteer to give up their subsidies.

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

A: First, go to a graduate program that you will enjoy. Economics is wonderful fun for purely intellectual reasons and because it helps you understand the world. Second, make sure you get solid grounding in the tools of theory and statistical analysis. Third, go to a graduate program that encourages you to think about applying economic theory and statistical tools to real issues. If you can find a program that meets those characteristics you are set. Among economics programs, I may be biased towards Chicago, but there may be one or two other decent places to learn some useful economics.

Q: I grew up on a family dairy farm. Does government price fixing help or hinder small farmers?

A: The dairy programs have some small built-in features to help small dairy farms, but they have not been able to stem the tide of consolidation. If a farmer spends his days milking his 50 cows, he earns, at most, what a cow milker gets paid — say $10 per hour. To make a middle class living in the dairy industry, a farmer needs to pay milkers to do that job while he spends more of his time being a manager. That means a farm big enough to make better management pay.

Q: I’ve read Jeffrey Sachs’s opinion that ending farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe won’t have much effect on poorer countries, as the main beneficiaries will be high- and moderate-income countries with reasonably efficient agriculture industries like Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina. Will these countries see a much greater benefit from the end of European and American farm subsidies than African countries for example?

A: To benefit from higher prices a farmer has to have something to sell. Many farms in Africa are not really connected much to the global markets. (That is not true for cotton.) Also, on a national basis many African countries are net importers of farm products and would pay more if subsidies ended.

There is no question that big gainers from ending subsidies would be places like Brazil, Argentina (unless their government destroys their productive agriculture), and others. For cotton, parts of Africa are competitive net exporters and would gain substantially as we show in our Oxfam paper.

Q: 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?

A: We recently looked in some detail at the egg industry. Large scale farms seem to have much lower costs and the cage housing allows eggs to be produced much more cheaply.

The report is posted here.

I suspect the story is similar for other industries. Certainly larger farms which provide more scale economies and more scope for talented farmers seem to be expanding relative to smaller farms. There remain lots of small part time farms that are run by people retired from other jobs or who farm on nights and weekends, but those farms produce a small share of the total. The USDA’s economic research service has dozens of reports with these data.

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

A: These days the trade barriers that raise the overall price of dairy products are no longer binding. The government does run a pricing scheme that inflates the price of drinking milk (and reduced the price of cheese and other processed products). The net effect on a gallon of milk at retail in the Chicago market is probably in the range of 20 cents or so. Joe Balagtas has looked at that question and one place to see some of his work is here.

Q: Are sugar beets a better alternative for ethanol production?

A: The general consensus is that sugar cane in Brazil makes a good cheap feedstock for ethanol, but beets make no sense at all even relative to corn. That is doubly true in the U.S. where sugar is expensive because of our trade barrier.

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

A: The attachment is financial, not emotional. Cotton is a significant crop economically and politically in a few places and the cotton lobby has been very successful in explaining their case (and providing election assistance) to members of Congress.


Wow, there sure are a lot of "experts" making comments.

I like what IKE had to say - Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field. Dwight Eisenhower, 1956

Everyone’s opinion counts, but you can't hang your hat on any given university study done where all economic factors where not taken into consideration, and the work was not guided by people whose tax returns demonstrate that they make their living at least 75% directly from production agriculture - sorry guys, ag researchers NOT included. Economic research is the most underfunded, and yet most needed in the current Global economic climate.

We have way too many people making simple assumptions based on under-researched topic areas, and representing them as fact.


Sumner avoids the obvious: who pays for agriculture's externalization of costs for the loss of biodiversity, contamination of water supplies, depletion of the aquifer, diminished animal welfare, and increased zoonotic diseases? Sumner also avoids mentioning the Pew Commission's recent report on Industrial Animal Agriculture that goes against much of his apologetic stance for factory farming in America.

Daniel Reeves

@KC (18 and 19):

Economists have statistics that cover everything. You have your myopic experiences coupled with your petty biases. The economists certainly see things in a much broader scope. They definitely see more of the real world than you ever could without statistics. It is you who is living in a fantasy world. A very myopic fantasy world.

Also, people won't go hungry if farms aren't subsidized. That defies all logic of how revenue-generating firms work.


I would argue agricultural prices should, in addition to the market mechanism, reflect at least the following factors:

1. Cultural heritage

2. Maintaining biodiversity

3. Environmental impact

4. Food security

5. Connecting communities to their local


6. Chronic disease

7. Animal cruelty

These factors don't seem to me to play any role in the points Mr. Sumner makes.


"Among economics programs, I may be biased towards Chicago, but there may be one or two other decent places to learn some useful economics."

That has to be one of the most arrogant statements ever on this blog.


I'm not sure I agree with your response to the question on the pros/cons of local production. Sure it would take a whole lot of energy to try and grow oranges in north dakota so that the consumers there can eat local foods, but that's missing the point. Being a locavore means enjoying the foods and products that are naturally (or easily) grown in your area, not demanding that the farmers in a 100-mile radius somehow recreate the variety of products that are grown worldwide and shipped to our mega-sized supermarkets. Mr. Dubner, your answer carelessly misrepresents the positive side of eating local, a movement that I believe will only make our country healthier and more aware of our communities as well as the environment.

science minded and practical

Dear Iron Man;

Thanks. You can have one. Working (as fast as possible) to share it- We will have a toast!

Nancy- Are the cows raised on grain- healthy and what about the people who eat them- and where is the grain from (foreign countries or large company farms)

I would buy a corn fed car- if it were affordable and safe- and could get the sort of excellent service that I get from a large Japanese car maker- and I wonder what the price of a gallon of corn oil would be? Pickins- where are ya? The Pickins Motor Company- Would send him a letter. And make sure he signs for it- You need political clout and some economic muster! And someone to build it (if it has not been built already! And someone to do the marketing etc. etc. Farms in the car business or farms and car businesses working together- the American Way.

And so if nitrogen is way cheaper, who is gaining from the use of carbaryl?



1. Okay, lamb raised "on grass in NZ is more efficient than lamb raised "on grain" here. What about lamb raised !on grass! here? Thousands of acres of grassland in the lower Midwest lie idle because of (formerly cheap) grain-fed meat. My neighbor can sell whole processed & packaged lamb for $4 a pound. Sounds pretty efficient to me.

2. Would anyone even have considered making fuel from corn, if farmers had been getting a decent price for it? Subsidies have encouraged over-production and a zero-sum situation wherein, for one farmer to make a profit, 3 or 4 others must fail. This misery has been justified by telling farmers there are too many of them. Now the answer is ethanol.

3. KC - you keep the bugs out of grain in storage with nitrogen flushing, which is non-toxic and waaay cheaper than carbaryl.


The trouble with the way this information is presented, in Q and A format, is that it suggests that each answer is THE answer to the question; however, I note that Mr. Sumner refers us to the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank with a rightwing agenda, which causes me to suspect that there is a political agenda underlying his answers. While I'm not suggesting that every point of view needs to be paired with its opposite in print, it would be better journalism to convey a sense that Mr. Sumner's answers are opinions, not facts, by--for example--placing his remarks in some kind of context.


As always in freakonomics, smartypants trumps sensibility. Ok, Australia is fat without the help of farm subsidies, but the question isn't really whether or not farm subsidies causes obesity, it's whether (artificially) low prices for fattening, non-nutritious commodities contributes to obesity by making unhealthful food the only affordable choice for poorer people, among whom there is a high rate of obesity. One reason people eat more Twinkies than apples because Twinkies are less expensive.

science minded, but practical

Dear richard;

am not even sure if the problem is completely one of internalizing vs. externalizing costs. Its partly about home first. why can't we all benefit worldwide (with America taking the lead). The problem is America has been on a losing streak. What have we been producing lately. That's been my problem in a way- home (family first) so things take a bit longer than would prefer. American companies have not seen the light of what we (here in America) have to offer. Instead, we have become dependent upon cheap labor of others- how abusive/destructive. If the Chinese were forced to care about how they produce their toys i.e., child and environmentally safe and are paid real fair wage, maybe the they would charge more. We would too. But the global market place would adjust- The arabs might have to find something else to do besides the oil business, if corn was our main oil staple and wind became a feasible energy resource. Perhaps preserving their historic treasures and culture would be a start.



To Paul & Malcolm,

I am pleased you were able to find each other in this forum as the only experts in the discussion of Daniel Sumner’s article.

Your dismissal of the views of others such as myself was simply breathtaking in its belittlement. A sign of the times, I guess: just make personal attacks when your armory is really quite deficient.

Your defensiveness was just a tad too transparent so let's cut to the chase: I have four decades working in the intensive animal production sector living on four continents involved with animal production and veterinary immunology. I have spent my entire career dealing with animal and zoonotic disease on a day-to-day basis.

My days are now spent working with previously unheard of immunosuppressive diseases and continuing outbreaks of salmonella, campylobacter, and avian influenza that were never of significance or previously of concern.

As an applied scientist working in such a microbial pressure system one realizes that science (nor economists) have the all answers to resolving the tension between pathogens and animals. We are forced to cope with emerging animal and zoonotic diseases and are expecting science will deliver the ‘magic bullet’ so we can ratchet up the tension of intensive animal production even further. What we have never wanted to admit is that our science, as progressive as it is, cannot keep up with the evolution of pathogens. It is the proverbial treadmill where we are always behind.

As a Colorado farm boy, it becomes increasing evident to me that the loss of husbandry skills becomes highly evident when attempting to resolve emerging diseases issues. Such basic principles of husbandry, biosecurity and the stewardship of animals as I knew are minimized in ‘bottomline’ farming that ignores the external costs that intensive farming may cause.

Despite the physical scientists who believed science was 'value free', this belief does not hold true in the life sciences. Agriculture is replete with value systems that are not only economic but also what society decides is an important value to them (with or without peer-reviewed science).

In this regard, the Precautionary Principle asks us to consider the cascade of effects of our science and whether or not this serves society’s long-term needs or simply serves short-term financial needs.

I fully admit that some of those measures defy ‘economic measures’ or ‘peer-reveiwed’ science. Since the ag economist and Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, implored agriculture to ‘get big or get out’, agriculture has been seduced into thinking ‘big was good.’ We now have what we have: a poultry industry dependent on illegal immigrants, mega-pork and mega-dairies putting rural America out of business, using up the Ogalla aquifer, and polluting to our heart’s content if we can get away with it. And bugger the consequences.

My point, as an agriculturist and scientist, is to raise the issues to agriculture that are emerging.

If you are crossing the road in front of a speeding bus and you choose to dismiss someone telling you to watch out, then there is nothing more I can do.

You ignore the warnings at your own peril. Society is the speeding bus. If you believe you can shoot the messenger and still cross the road, it is your decision. Society is getting pissed off with agriculture.

Wake up. I have.



Oh, just one more simple thought for you scholars to ponder: Did you ever think about how you keep the bugs, and by that I mean the insects that consume grain while it's in storage out without pesticides? The United States will produce over 10 BILLION bushels of corn alone during this crop year.

When the writer and the guy with all the answers can tell all the readers the solution then I guess he could be considered a real agricultural genius.

In the mean time maybe we can start importing food from all those poor African nations these "evil" subsidies are hurting.

I will never understand how someone supposedly so smart can be so utterly naive.


I really enjoy the articles written by the "experts" who have not spent a week let alone a year on a real large scale farm in their lives.

I could write for hours about the value of the opinion of this writer. He makes it sound so simple. It is not. Subsidies to American farmers have been recognized by both parties for years and years as a absolute neccessity.

Many of the readers simply do not look at the big picture. I can assure you most of the readers and writers of these articles are unaware of the percentages of farm subsidies that actually reach the farmer. I think most of you would be suprised to know that less than 5% of the Dept. of Agriculture budget goes to Ag. subsidies in all forms.

Do any of the readers know that prior to the 08 wheat harvest there was only enough wheat left in America's domestic supplies to provide 1/2 of a loaf of bread to each man, woman, and child in the United States?

America is the only industrialized nation in the world to never know mass hunger and starvation on a national scale. Think about that for a minute.

Can we run out of energy? Of course we can. You would have to stay at home with the windows open or a blanket depending on the season. If the food supply would be shut off to the city of New York do you think the richest citizen of the city would not be walking through those tunnels heading east to look for food? It is very hard to get a grasp on the volume of raw food it takes to put 2 or 3 meals a day, 365 days a year on the plate for 300 million people. Especially the type of food Americans have come to take for granted.

Did you ever stop to think about why the 5 items most heavily subsidiized are : wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, and dairy? Bread, livestock, protien, clothes, and milk.

No government will survive if the general population goes hungry. The United States enjoys the safest, that is till Bush wrecked the USDA, best, and cheapest as a percentage of a families gross income, of ANY nation on the planet.

It really messes with the egos of our nations so called scholars that with all their wisdom that in reality they are just as vulnerable as the family dog when it comes to their food supply.

Eat, be happy that it's there for you.

Probably the smartest post of all touched on the soil as being the real concern for the American people. Did this guy ever hit the nail on the head! I don't suppose the so called scholar who wrote this article knew that the Agricultural Dept. in the United States was begun to combat the absolute devastion wrecked on the midwest by the dust bowl. The NYT own writer has written a must read novel for all of you city people: The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan.

CRP, EQUIP, and the list goes on and on with some of the quote "subsidies" American farmers receive.

As readers many of you read about your food and the land by the so called experts. I live for the land, for its capability to produce, and for my ability to protect the soil while fighting natures elements that the writer of this article only sees from his living room window.

If you want a fairy tale ask the writer of this editorial. If you want the real world find a large scale farming operation in the midwest and spend some time there. I can assure you your opinion will make a dramatic change.



Can someone provide a link to any of the articles described in the passage below? Thanks.

If wealthy consumers demand more local production they will get it. Rich folks in New York or San Francisco can hire personal gardeners to grow things for them in the backyard or on the roof tops as noted in recent NYT articles.

Charles Anderson

Also, he doesn't go into subsidies given to agro businesses going outside the country. Either way, large agro business gets plenty of protection, small farms can't compete forcing urbanization, or in third worlds forcing farmers to grow cash crops that fuel narco trafficking.

The subsidies go to the people who really need it, large agro business.

Read the Wall Street Journal or the London Financial Times, they're be pretty brazen and more honest about their motives than corporate media. Probably not as worried about their audience getting upset.


Oh look, the ag economist who thinks ag subsidies serve no useful purpose works for AEI, what a surprise.


Bartender, I'll have one of whatever science-minded is drinking....


Interesting questions and answers, where they lead and show the impacts of the American subsidies policies and their consequences worlwide.

Robert Thomas

Regarding eggs and cheap chicken meat due to the efficiency of large farms, did you figure in the pollution costs? Chicken manure is one of the biggest polluters of the Chesapeake Bay, for example, and has ruined its fishing, crabbing, oyster industries, once very valuable.