There is lots of talk today about food insecurity. This is the new term, coined by the USDA, for what we used to call “hunger.” While used interchangeably with hunger, it actually has a subtle but different meaning. It refers not only to the state of being hungry or having no food, but also includes a person’s fear of becoming hungry or not knowing where their next meal will come from. As a result, many people who are food insecure are not actually hungry. While there are many people in the US who are food insecure, it cannot be said that our nation is food insecure. In fact, there has never been a time when our nation has been food insecure. Even during the Great Depression, while store shelves in the city were empty, farmers in the country were pouring milk on the ground and using grain for fuel. So, does this mean it could not happen here?
Most Americans take our food supply for granted. When they walk into their local grocery store, the shelves have always been full and the expectation by consumers is that they will always be that way. Food insecurity in the US is not caused by a lack of food but by the inability to pay for it. However, current political and public opinion trends could threaten food availability in the US. Skeptics will scoff and say it could never happen here, but you don’t have to look very far to see what is happening to some of our neighbors.
The Wall Street Journal recently outlined the food crisis in Venezuela which is causing a massive political shake up. “Why is this oil rich nation of nearly 29 million having trouble feeding itself?” the article begins. “While the existing government was busy blaming the well-to-do as hoarders, the real culprit is clearly identified as years of government policies that have shackled the individual farmers and the agricultural enterprise generally with vastly reduced yields being the result.” From 2004 to 2012, corn production fell by 25 percent, rice by 34 percent and cattle by 27 percent because the government limited fertilizer use, controlled prices, and imposed burdensome regulations on agriculture. Sound familiar? According to the Journal, “Venezuela relies on its oil dollars to buy 70 percent of its food from abroad, generating worry among economists and agriculture experts that if oil prices fall, the country will face a severe food shortage.”
Meanwhile back in Washington, there are discussions on regulating how eggs are produced, what drugs can be given to livestock, what fertilizers and herbicides can be used on crops, what school kids can eat for lunch, and so on. Unlike Venezuela, the US is not an oil exporting nation. So what do we have in surplus that we export to bring in money? Food. Agriculture is the only sector of the US economy that has a positive balance of trade; that is, we sell more than we import.
In the US, we have policies built around private property rights that encourage our farmers to invest in the land that they will pass down. We also encourage the use of technology and inputs that have allowed our farmers to be the most productive in the world. According to Farm Policy Facts, “Food security does not happen by accident. It is a blessing that is fostered by smart policy.” But, it is a blessing that must be protected. There are forces at work today that, if left unchecked, would regulate our agricultural sector out of existence. Then we would know what real food insecurity would be like.
Let me end, however, on a positive note regarding food security. A joint venture of private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. bought five bakeries and the majority of Hostess-brand snacks for $410 million. The reformulated Hostess Brands, LLC has said it expected the products to be back on shelves this summer. That is, unless someone in Washington decides Twinkies need to be regulated.
By Gary Truitt