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In an engaging discussion at AEI on Thursday, leading scholars in agricultural economics discussed the effectiveness of U.S. food and nutrition policy and its interaction with agricultural policy.
Presenting his own work in addition to that of his colleague Julian M. Alston, Daniel Sumner of the University of California, Davis, suggested that food programs originally designed to alleviate hunger must now address spiking obesity rates among their target populations. Sumner emphasized the difficulty of determining appropriate measures and objectives for such programs, given the complexity of balancing two seemingly opposing objectives. At the same time, Sumner suggested that attaching social safety net programs to agricultural policy is nonsensical.
Laurian Unnevehr of the International Food Policy Research Institute expressed her agreement with many of Sumner's comments but focused more heavily on the effectiveness of the existing food and nutrition policies. She posited that although the presence of social safety net programs in the 2012 Farm Bill may not be entirely intuitive, such programs have been successful in carrying out their goals and adjusting to changing circumstances.
Pointing to the Great Recession as an example, Unnevehr observed that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) outlays increased dramatically as transfers from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program ran out. In serving the poorest of the poor, she said, SNAP has demonstrated success. Yet Unnevehr, like Sumner, disagreed strongly with policies that favor more localized food systems in an effort to address obesity, arguing that "any call for layering distortions into markets is not going to be a move in the right direction."
-- Brad Wassink
A total of 15 different U.S. food and nutrition programs (FANPs) serve about one in four Americans at a current annual cost of almost $100 billion. Can the government actually improve our personal eating habits? Are these billions of dollars well-spent?
These questions are not easy to answer because of the modern paradox facing these programs: poor people struggling with low food security and high obesity. Agricultural economists Daniel Sumner and Laurian Unnevehr will discuss the effectiveness of current food policy and proposed reforms such as taxing foods according to fat or sugar content.
DANIEL SUMNER, University of California, Davis
LAURIAN UNNEVEHR, International Food Policy Research Institute
BARRY GOODWIN, North Carolina State University
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Barry Goodwin is the William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and the Department of Economics at North Carolina State University. His award-winning research deals with many important issues in public policy analysis, trade, economic history, and crop insurance.
Daniel Sumner is the Frank H. Buck Jr. Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California, Davis, an adjunct scholar at AEI and the director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center. He formerly served as the assistant secretary for economics at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. His research is primarily concerned with the economic and agricultural consequences of farm and trade policy.
Laurian Unnevehr is a senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute, and leads research on enhancing nutrition and food safety in value chains. During a 30-year career as an agricultural economist, Unnevehr has held positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, on the faculty of the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois (where she is now a professor emeritus) and at the International Rice Research Institute. She is recognized for original contributions in measuring the consumer benefits from agricultural research, the changing structure of U.S. food demand and the economic trade-offs in food health regulation. In 2009, Unnevehr was made a fellow of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association.