Foresight on Food Politics

Foresight on Food Politics: The troubles with soda taxes

The trouble with soda taxes

"Soda taxes can work, according to a new study," the Huffington Post breathlessly proclaimed in June. "We've just been proposing the wrong type." Post contributor Kevin Short reported on a new study published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, in which North Carolina economist Chen Zhen compared the effect of taxing soda by volume vs. taxing soda by the calorie. Zhen's elaborate mathametical modeling showed that a per-calorie tax was more efficient at inclining people to buy lower-calorie drinks than taxes based on the fluid ounce. His modeling predicted that a nickel tax on a every 125 calories--or 6 cents for a 12-ounce Coke--would drive the average American consumer to drink 5,800 fewer calories over the course of a year.

There's only one problem with Huffington's glowing interpretation. According to work published in the very same journal by the very same author, which Farmer Goes to Market reported here, soda taxes may change consumption, but that doesn't mean they work. In the real world, taxing consumers on their soda purchases appears to simply drive them to consume more fat and sodium, potentially defeating the original aim of reducing obesity and improving their health.

That mistake in gauging long-term effect is only one of the problems with soda taxes, Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk writes in a short commentary for the February issue of the Canadian Journal of Diabetes.  A number of important questions, Lusk cautions, must be considered before legislators leap to consider taxes like the one proposed for Nebraska last year by Lincoln Senator Bill Avery, which was killed in legislative committee.

Taxes may change consumption, but does that equal less obesity? Lusk points out the same logical flaw Zhen identifies in his July 2013 study: Taxes don't just affect the consumption of soft drinks, but of the other foods and drinks around them. Because consumers are free to substitute one drink for another, the only taxes that are likely to significantly reduce obesity are across-the-board taxes on all food and drinks. That kind of one-size-hits-all taxing leads to the second problem Lusk identifies, which is...

Sin taxes are regressive. As regulators have learned from taxing tobacco, sin taxes aimed at changing people's behavior by discouraging poor eating tend to hit the poor harder than the wealthy. And in fact, Lusk writes, because the poor spend a relatively higher proportion of their income than the affluent on food, any tax on food should be considered a regressive tax.

The taxes tend to be hidden. "A tax will be effective only to the extent consumers see it reflected in the retail price," Lusk writes. When taxes get added at the register, as Avery's bill would have accomplished by removing the sales tax food exemption from soft drinks, their effect on consumption can be expected to be even lower than when they are simply added into the shelf price.

Skipped calories do not equate to lost pounds. Or, at least not to the extent that's often assumed by tax advocates. Even if you grant that taxes will force consumers to drink less sugar, the research shows the amount of weight loss that equals is highly unpredictable. Lusk points for example to a recent study showing the traditional assumption that every 3,500-calorie reduction will lead to a one-pound weight loss actually overestimates the actual weight loss by more than a fourth.

Those realities help explain the real-world paradox that the researchers' simulations clearly show soda taxes should affect weight even as real-world taxes seem to have no impact. But there's an even "more fundamental" problem with them, according to this author of The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate. Pronouncing someone else's consumption level of soft drinks as "too much," he writes, smacks of a parternalism that may be justifiable in the case of children and the mentally impaired, but offends when applied to the general population. Granted, excess soda drinking may lead to health problems, but "life is full of difficult tradeoffs," he writes. Some people care about tasty, satisfying food and drink in addition to health. If they don't understand the attendant risks of that tradeoff, he argues, the answer isn't more taxes. It's more information.

Foresight on Food Politics: Lessons students are learning about food

What students are learning about the politics of foodMore young men and women now attend degree-granting institutions than ever before, about 140,000 in Nebraska and 21 million across the United States. One in five of those students will wind up in a career within the U.S. food system as scientist, farmer, veterinarian, nutritionist, retailer or other. All will go on to accept their ever expanding role as food consumer.

What are those impressionable young students at the university learning about agriculture, agribusiness and the food chain? A new study summarizing some of the new realities on campus by the publication Truth in Food offers some sobering lessons about today's food and farming political realities:


Food is the medium for many messages

Food is the gateway to all issues. According to the editors of the Winter 2013 Transformations, an academic journal that explores how to teach issues of identity, power and social justice, the study of food “... supplies the ingredients for students to explore economic systems, to analyze cultures, to examine identities and traditions, to connect with communities, and to engage political, ethical, and scientific discourses.” Through its “Teaching Food” special issue, teachers learn how to teach students not just basic culinary arts and food-system structure, but questions such as the economics of food production, the relationship between local and global food systems, how food expresses culture, labor issues, and how to “move beyond the classroom and kitchen and become activists.”

Today's humanities departments have gravitated towards agriculture and food. There, professors of anthropology, sociology, minority studies, political science, and more have grown intensely interested in farm management, food production, food distribution, food consumption and their social, environmental and cultural impact. As the editors of Transformations attest, every major now feels compelled to enter into the discussion about modern farming and food production.

Food and farming ain't pretty. Many students arrive on the college campus holding distorted or preconceived notions about agriculture and modern food production. Others arrive naive, but lack a filter that questions the attack they encounter on the integrity of farming and food production, often relying upon questionable pop-culture sources used as academic support. Irregardless, the result is the same: Both seem unaware of the obvious benefits of a sound agricultural system, proven to strengthen the nation’s financial position, feed its citizens, build up the human person — physically via nutrition and spiritually via the dignity of work — and ensure stewardship of the land and of the animals.

The history of American agriculture and the modern food system, its role in the development of the world, its service to mankind and its lasting impact for the greater good have gone missing in the presentation of agriculture and agribusiness on our college campuses. When one does hear of the marvels of agriculture, it’s often only as a reluctant acknowledgement from an activist professor before he lists a litany of accusations or casts agriculture as “big business,” “big food” or “powerful lobbyists.” Agriculture as noble cause gets lost in the harangue. "Food studies," regardless of the course they are covered within, often begin from the assumptions expressed by a recent National Geographic feature written by Jonathan Foley, a professor at the University of Minnesota and director of the Institute on the Environment:

“Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined — largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.”

Food is the medium for many messagesIt's a food (Information) desert out there. Such activities of anti-agriculture professors on campus often “set off the internal warning buzzer” of those students who may disagree with such a grim assessment. However, once they take the initiative to respond, students do not know where to go for accurate, balanced information about agriculture and the modern food system. As a result, they default to self-directed Internet searches and self discovery. Although every agricultural entity has online resources and some have even been cloaked in innocuous sounding terms such as “Sustainable Table,” “Responsible Agriculture” or “Food Source,” virtually no awareness of these tools exists among college students. Lacking no consensus for a single, reliable resource to support an argument in favor of agriculture, feeling isolated and disconnected from other students on their campus or another school who might share their sentiment, today’s students feel a profound unmet need for not just resources, facts and figures to support their vocation, but also persuasive, well-reasoned arguments prepared to help them launch a meaningful counter-argument in support of the modern food system.

Click here for detailsFor more on the 10 lessons the modern food system can learn from college campuses, click here to download the entire report.

Foresight on Food Politics: How much do food prices really impact American hunger?

Food prices don't cause food insecurityWhile economics researchers actively study the question of how food prices in the developing world impacts hunger and food security, the question is almost nonexistent in this country. That lack is due in part to a lack of suitable food price data to study, says a pair of USDA Economic Research Service scientists. But it's also due to the assumption that in a country where the average consumer spends only about a dime out of every dollar's wages to feed himself, prices matter less.

Is it true?

The researchers, writing in the December issue of the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy, used data from the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and USDA's recently published Quarterly Food-At-Home Price Database to form localized food-price indices for different regions of the country and then mathametically model the likelihood that theoretical SNAP recipient households in those regions would suffer food insecurity based on food prices.

Their results confirmed what they suspected:

  • Food prices significantly affect food security for households participating in SNAP when those households' incomes are less than two times the federal poverty level, or about $47,000 annually for a family of four.
  • Their results suggest every $10 increase in the price of a market basket designed around USDA's Thrifty Food Plan--a food plan that enumerates the least expensive basket of foods consistent with the Agency's dietary guidelines--can be expected to increase the food insecurity of households receiving SNAP benefits by 5 percent, adults by 5.1 percent, children by 12.4 percent.
  • Their mathematical model predicts SNAP households in regions with the highest 75 percent of the nation's food prices are from 15 percent to 20 percent more likely to be food insecure than those living in regions with the lowest 25 percent food prices.

High food prices increase food insecurity

Their suggestions? They believe indexing SNAP benefits to local food prices could improve the ability of the program to reduce food insecurity and economic hardship in areas with high food prices. Since SNAP has become such a large part of income assistance for low-income families, any change in how benefits are calculated will likely have effects beyond ability to purchase food. USDA currently indexes SNAP benefits for recipients in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Foresight on Food Politics: Will incentivizing SNAP produce purchases work?

Incentivizing SNAP produce purchases

This year's Farm Bill reauthorized funding for a program carried over from the 2008 Farm Bill providing $20 million to test whether subsidizing produce purchases at farmers markets would lead SNAP recipients to healthier eating. USDA's "Healthy Incentives Pilot," otherwise known as HIP, credited SNAP households with a 30 percent rebate on purchases of targeted fruits and vegetables--those same fruits and vegetables eligible for WIC cash vouchers. Although the formal details of the rulemaking process is not completed on this year's reauthorization, the renewed HIP will likely now be extended to supermarkets, offering an expected $35 million dollars of incentive funds for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

An important question the pilots are supposed to discover is this: What, if any, impact do those incentives make on healthy eating? Several anecdotal reports from around the nation report suspiciously glowing increases in produce sales and better health when markets offer the incentives. But the question has largely gone unanswered in black and white.

Now, a Tufts study scheduled for publication in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics has set out to actually measure the impact. Using HIP data from Hampden County, Mass., a mix of 27 urban, suburban and rural cities and towns and approximately 50,000 SNAP households, the Tufts University researchers looked at consumption patterns during a test period of 14 months during 2011 and 2012. A randomly selected sample of SNAP recipients were given a 30-cent credit on every SNAP dollar they spent on targeted fruits and vegetables, which they could then spend on any food or beverage eligible for SNAP. Incentives were capped at $60 monthly per household.

The study found for consumers over 16 years old, intake of the targeted produce was slightly more than one-fifth of a cup higher among HIP participants than non-participants, an increase of not quite 25 percent. The intake of fruits and vegetables from mixed foods did not significantly differ between HIP participants and nonparticipants, suggesting HIP worked as intended: It increased the intake of targeted fruits and vegetables alone, without encouraging consumption of added sugars, fats, oils or other ingredients that would be found in mixed foods. In addition, the HIP participants’ consumption of total fruits and vegetables--that is, those beyond the list of targeted fruits and vegatables--was about one-third cup higher than nonparticipants.

Although the 25 percent increase related to incentivization is nothing to dismiss, it is important to put the figures in context, the researchers caution. The federal government’s Healthy People 2020 objectives recommend a total daily fruit and vegetable intake of 3.68 cups--still roughtly one cup higher than even the subsidized group consumed in this study. "If the goal is to bring fruit and vegetable intake up to recommended levels," they wrote, "... though not sufficient on its own, a HIP-like program is a promising strategy for moderately increasing fruit and vegetable intake."

And one more bit of context: Under this new authorization, USDA will likely allocate $35 million per year to HIP. SNAP now serves 47 million participants. If every SNAP beneficiary were eventually covered by HIP incentives, that $35 million works out to only about 75 cents per consumer for a whole year. If every SNAP household were allocated the $60 monthly incentive cap this study showed was necessary to achieve a one-fifth cup increase in fruit and vegetable consumption, the program cost would skyrocket from $35 million per year to more than $16 billion.

Foresight on Food Politics: Backlash grows against EPA's definition of 'streams'

When is a stream not a stream?

The Nebraska Cattlemen, Nebraska Corn Growers, Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Pork Producers, Nebraska State Dairy Association and Nebraska Soybean Association joined together early this month to demand the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency withdraw its “Waters of the U.S.” interpretive rule. The proposal would widely expand the agency's oversight of business and farms by changing the definition of waterways subject to regulation. The agency last year announced it was using the process of a draft guidance document to more clearly define which water bodies should be protected from pollution under the Clean Water Act. EPA argued then that "important waters now lack clear protection under the law, and businesses and regulators face uncertainty and delay." In effect, this new draft guidance would clarify whether EPA can regulate all waters in the county or only those which can be navigated by boat.

"EPA’s proposed Clean Water Act rule will significantly affect our family farm. The proposed rule will expand the scope of “navigable waters” subject to Clean Water Act jurisdiction by regulating ditches, small and remote “waters” and ephemeral drains where water moves only when it rains," writes Missouri hog farmer Chris Chinn. "Most of these areas look more like land than like “waters” and they are dry most of the year. This proposed rule means any ditch on your land will be regulated by the EPA, even if it only holds water one day a year."

Bringing such dry waters under EPA's control will make impossible many common and important practices like weed control, fertilization and manure spreading near them, Chinn argues, because going through the expensive and time-consuming process of getting a government permit will be economically impractical. Even routine tasks like building fences will require permits if they will be built in or near a ditch. Many farming practices are time-sensitive and farmers cannot afford to wait on a government agency to process a permit, she says, and the regulation would leave EPA with too much flexibility in defining exactly what is and is not a "pollutant" subject to regulation.

The proposal "will cripple the ability of farmers and ranchers to continue to produce food," she writes.

In May, Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith joined 230 other House members in a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking the agency to halt the proposal. Smith says the expanding power of EPA over farm land and waters is a "top priority" with his constituents, and it also represents a troublesome general widening of EPA's powers that should concern everyone.

"What EPA seems to be doing lately," Smith told WNAX Radio in Yanktown, S.D., "is constantly looking for ways in which they can go further.... The President has very clearly stated that he wants to go around Congress if we won't do what he is telling us to do. In terms of Waters of the U.S., I think it's pretty clear what Congressional intent was: Having the navigable waters as the designation and not the various water gutters on every street across America."

He says that’s why he and 230 other House members have written EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy asking the agency halt the Waters of the U.S. proposal. - See more at: file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Mike/My%20Documents/Food%20Chain%20Communications/Farmer-to-market/Topics/Politics/Nebraska-specific/Nebraska%20Congressman%20Has%20Problems%20With%20EPA%20Rules%20_%20Radio%20570%20WNAX.htm#sthash.v0IFyTlK.dpuf

Although the issue is most important to farmers who may find themselves with fewer options for managing excessively wet and dry lands without blessing from the federal agency, the issue is not limited to farms, the American Farm Bureau has suggested in its fight against the EPA proposal. Small businesses, like grocery retailers, have a similar stake in reining in EPA’s growing tendency to legislate by regulatory interpretation. Indeed, grocery retailers have had their own experience with the regulatory guidance document in years past, including FDA guidance on directives to force retailers to excessive measures to ensure minors don’t buy tobacco, to OSHA hazard communication paperwork impositions.

Anyone involved with a stake in the health of the economy should be concerned by this increasing “flood of regulation,” Missouri representative and chair of the House Small Business Committee Sam Graves said last year. “We bring in farmers and small business owners every week to testify,” Graves said, “And we always ask them, what is it you’re looking to do in the future? What are you looking at in terms of expansion and additional job creation? They say, ‘Look, we’re just going to kind of wait and see what happens because we don’t know what the regulatory environment is going to look like. We continue to get hammered…mainly by the EPA….”

“So small businesses—and the general economy—aren’t moving forward….” Graves said. Not only EPA, but also the Department of Labor, OSHA, and other regulators need to be slowed, made more accountable and held to legislative controls that ensure all businesses can make meaningfully reliable predictions about the regulatory climate in which they’re making expansion decisions.


Supported by the Nebraska Corn Board

The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

Supported by the Nebraska Farm Bureau

The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

In patnership with the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association

The Nebraska Grocery Industry Association was formed in 1903 by a group of Omaha grocery store owners, wholesalers and vendors to allow them to promote independent food merchants and members of the food industry, and to promote education and cooperation among its membership. NGIA continues to represent grocery store owners and operators, along with wholesalers and vendors located throughout Nebraska, by promoting their success through proactive government relations, innovative solutions and quality services. NGIA offers efficient and economical programs. NGIA also lobbies on both a state and national level, ensuring that the voice of the food industry in Nebraska is heard by our representatives.