Mark Bittman on the food plan

by on October 18, 2012 at 6:44 am in Economics, Food and Drink, History | Permalink

He writes:

But there is no national food policy that says, for example, the United States will consume one billion pounds of almonds in the next year, so let’s grow 1.5 billion and there’s plenty for export. Let’s not plant 2.5 billion because that land could be used for tomatoes or something else. I mentioned it to my editor and we agreed that it sounds a bit Stalinist.

[Interviewer] Talk about politically toxic.

Right! But that aside, why would you not want to talk about what’s the best thing for the future of the United States? I would argue that the answer is not what amounts to an anarchic market of a million individuals deciding what they want to plant and then having this dogma that the market will decide. Growing a lot of almonds and exporting them to China is not the end of the world, but I do think that when you look at the Midwest, where the vast majority of land is used to raise corn or soybeans used for feeding industrially raised animals or producing corn syrup for junk food, really is. It is something that is not going to change until we say that land is too valuable to us to be used that way. We need more diverse and regional agriculture. What harm would there be in making a plan?

Mark Bittman has done some of the best writing about cooking which the human race has produced, ever, and he has done it repeatedly and on a large scale, toss in writing on food travel as well.  This discussion is…less good than that.

The link is here, and I thank Daniel for the pointer.

1 chris October 18, 2012 at 7:05 am

well, at least he acknowledges that it is stalinist 🙂

2 dearieme October 18, 2012 at 8:59 am

But without the drama of murdering the kulaks. So it wouldn’t make much of a movie.

3 derek October 18, 2012 at 10:10 am

Just give it time.

4 Nate October 19, 2012 at 7:22 am

Everything is just hydrogen and time:

5 Tomasz Wegrzanowski October 18, 2012 at 7:10 am

If government is going to run a massive system of direct and indirect agricultural subsidies anyway, it might as well have some sort of plan regarding outcomes it wants to achieve.

There’s no point pretending that lack of plan means current situation is in some way less distorted.

6 Paul Zrimsek October 18, 2012 at 7:30 am

If only Stalin knew!

7 Paul Zrimsek October 18, 2012 at 7:34 am

Seriously, how would changing to a politically-controlled system from our current, ummm, politically-controlled system change anything, given that it’s not going to involve granting Mark Bittman dictatorial powers?

What we’re doing now is the plan.

8 Dan October 18, 2012 at 9:59 am

I think that’s Tomasz point. Conditional on having a plan, we might as well have a good one. If we are going to have a politically-controlled system, then folks like Mark Bittman might as well try to use their political influence to move us to one that at least has better objectives. (Obviously I think Bittman’s goals are better than the goals of the current system, you might disagree).

Your point is, of course, also absolutely correct. We have a plan, and that is a large part of the problem. And given the political economy of the situation, it does seem likely that any politically controlled system will likely end up controlled by farm lobbies. Maybe Bittman can move us to a world where it is partially controlled by local, veggie growing organic farmers instead of solely controlled monoculture corn-for-animal-feed-and-ethanol farmers, but that would be a monumental political achievement and still only a slightly better world, even for someone with Bittman’s values.

Bittman wildly misdiagnoses the problem, and thus also the solution. It is disappointing that someone as smart as him and with the access to information that the has could characterize the current US agricultural system as “an anarchic market of a million individuals deciding what they want to plant and then having this dogma that the market will decide.”

9 Millian October 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm

But you don’t have a plan. You have, basically, Keynesianism. There’s a difference.

10 Marie October 18, 2012 at 7:46 am

Or you could just end the subsidies that encourages over-produced crops to be grown on valuable land.

11 Benny Lava October 18, 2012 at 8:53 am

This exactly!

12 awp October 18, 2012 at 3:47 pm


The best response to government failure is always more government.

13 joshua October 18, 2012 at 7:54 am

From my bias, the negative effects of current agricultural subsidies and mandates are evidence that 1) technocrats aren’t smart enough to intervene effectively, and 2) politicians aren’t pure enough to keep concentrated interests from making the interventions even less effective, and I think increased intervention increases both of those problems. From another bias, well, we just haven’t tried hard enough yet.

14 c becker November 9, 2012 at 1:12 am

The correct answer is to revoke the original stupidity (get government out of agricultural subsidies) than to pile a new stupidity upon the old. Unless you are a fan of tall piles of stupidity.

15 joshua October 18, 2012 at 7:15 am

“What harm would there be in making a plan?”

Ah, the innocent unanswered questions of overconfident technocrats… It’s cute and extremely terrifying all at the same time.

16 anon October 18, 2012 at 9:17 am

cute and extremely terrifying

Is there a word for that? (Probably in Japanese….)

17 Duracomm October 18, 2012 at 9:40 am


18 Adrian Ratnapala October 18, 2012 at 9:43 am


19 Miles October 18, 2012 at 3:21 pm

No, but really – what’s the harm in making a plan. That doesn’t mean you’re setting guidelines by which the government must enact policies to achieve. At the most basic level, its just setting a goal, maybe with some vague description of whether the goal is feasible and a few possible ways to get there. Getting the various political entities to agree on a few milestones they’d like to reach say 20 years down the line isn’t a bad thing.

It is a bad thing when said politicians (or their successors) try to implement said goals without a good understanding of big picture reasons those goals were selected in the first place, consequences be damned. I think that this piecemeal implementation of a handfull of well-intentioned goals without regard to costs/externalities is the situation we have now, and there’s plenty of low-hanging fruit in the food sector by which we can improve the situation.

The downside of damaging food-growing capability is huge (whether in the US or elsewhere), and there certainly is a risk of that (soil salinization, depletion of water/nutrient resources, etc.). Its just not worth ignoring this until it becomes a problem.

Furthermore, the upside to producing more food in a sustainable way (I’m using sustainable in it’s original definition, not Portland-ese) and being able to distribute it to those who gain the most from it is huge for the worldwide economy. How many people in the world are unable to be productive because they lack sufficient food? My back of the envelope guess would be 10%-20%. Big downside, big upside. Seems like having a conversation and recording the results (aka making a plan) is a no brainer.

20 Andrew' October 18, 2012 at 7:46 am

I like how something is bad because it’s “politically toxic” as in it’s not some natural law that makes it bad, it’s the clinging to guns and religion crowd being uptight.

21 Urso October 18, 2012 at 9:50 am

It sounds like the interviewer was thinking “Is this guy actually serious? Crap, he’s serious. This is insane and he doesn’t even realize it. How can I put this gently?”

22 Slocum October 18, 2012 at 8:01 am

… I do think that when you look at the Midwest, where the vast majority of land is used to raise corn or soybeans used for feeding industrially raised animals or producing corn syrup for junk food, really is. It is something that is not going to change until we say that land is too valuable to us to be used that way

He left out (strategically, I suspect) the single largest and least defensible use of the U.S. corn crop — namely ethanol production:

And, of course, ‘the market’ didn’t produce this idiocy, and no government planning is needed to end it…except, of course, for the government to stop actively promoting corn-to-ethanol with huge subsidies and fuel-blending mandates.

23 sherparick1 October 18, 2012 at 8:24 am

I am afraid Mr. Bittman has sailed on a sea on which he is not familiar. Being Rawlsian, and not libertarian, I won’t get to upset with his Romantic, neo-Transcendtalism, hippie faux-socialism. But he just misses the point. The reason the Midwest is covered in large farms raising corn, wheat, and soybeans is that we have huge crony capitalist programs established to produce such crops. In some ways it is a result of a plan, but a corporate plan, that repealed the “New Deal” programs as being somehow obsolete in the new globalized world of “Big Agriculture.” See

The problem with Libertarians, and Tyler and Alec, is that they just don’t want to acknowledge the fact of “power” in a society, and, how as Madison notes in the Federalist, those with economic and political power will use that “power” to promote outcomes they desire, and cushion themselves from their mistakes so as to make someone else (who probably does not have have much power) pay for them. For an example of this see this entry by Atrios about how sad Mayor Bloomberg is that taxpayer subsidize parking monopoly around Yankee Stadium is going bust and how he wants to help them).

24 Andrew' October 18, 2012 at 9:10 am

1. Power acknowledged.
2. Do you have a citation where a government official isn’t intrinsic to the bad power?

25 Off the top of my head October 18, 2012 at 12:09 pm

The Mob?

26 Paul Zrimsek October 18, 2012 at 9:53 am

The Wikipedia article gives, as an example of the New Deal programs abolished by Earl Butz, the one that paid farmers not to plant. “Somehow obsolete” strikes me as a pretty charitable description of that program. (Not that the ones Butz replaced it with were any bargain either.)

Acknowledging the fact of power is fine as far as it goes– libertarians should certainly recognize that they’re not going to be able to wave a magic wand and get a free market in food, any more than Bittman’s going to be able to wave a magic wand and get the Workers’ and Peasants’ Sustainable Agriculture Soviet. But it’s not clear what’s supposed to follow from that; the hint seems to be lurking that libertarians should not only not expect a free market in food but that they shouldn’t want one either. Why not?

27 Ricardo October 18, 2012 at 10:04 am

I think most libertarians are acutely aware of “the fact of ‘power’ in a society.” I think the general libertarian reaction to this fact is that when person A attempts to usurp power from person B, the action should, in general, be criticized rather than praised. Libertarians are somewhat distinctive in that they continue to hold this position even when such usurpation actually increases B’s utility.

28 maguro October 18, 2012 at 10:27 am

“The reason the Midwest is covered in large farms raising corn, wheat, and soybeans is that we have huge crony capitalist programs established to produce such crops.”

Eh, even without subsidies, corn, wheat and soybeans are about the only crops that can be grown profitably in most of the midwest. The climate is too harsh and the soil is too poor to grow much of anything else on a commercial scale.

29 Agreed October 18, 2012 at 12:15 pm

They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum.

30 maguro October 18, 2012 at 10:41 am

In fact, without subsidies, what you’d probably have is corn and soybeans, but with bigger farms than today. Now, in central Illinois, you need about 500 acres of corn/soybeans just to break even. Without subsidies, that number would probably go up snd force some of the smaller farmers to sell off to larger landowners.

31 Urso October 18, 2012 at 11:20 am

Or it might just go fallow.

32 Careless October 18, 2012 at 11:36 am

In central Illinois? If that went fallow, there wouldn’t be much land in the country left planting.

33 Duracomm October 18, 2012 at 11:22 am


You neglect that absent subsidies grazing livestock would be more economically competitive with crop production and there would likely be more pasture and less crops if subsidies were removed

You could not be more wrong on the impact of subsidies on small farmers. Subsidies drive up land prices and make it harder for smaller operations to compete. Other programs (CRP) remove vast amounts of land from the market, drive up prices, and make it even more difficult for small farmers to get land to farm.

34 wrparks October 19, 2012 at 8:43 am

Grazing cattle grow too slowly to compete with feedlots even if corn prices went up. Corn prices have gone up several fold the last 5-10 years and feed lots still dominate.

Then consider the fact that the beef consumers generally don’t care for pure grass fed beef flavor anymore (generally too lean, with occasional gamey flavor) and it is pretty clear that grazing isn’t all that great a land use for Iowans to make money. It is tougher to get a good marbled carcass from a grass fed cow that walks around all day. Much easier to confine them and stuff them with corn to fatten them up.

I agree with maguro, people overestimate the effects of agricultural subsidies on crop selections (except maybe sugar beets vs cane imports, but that is a fairly special case). Without subsidies, Iowa is still corn and soybeans, they just make less per bushel produced.

35 Duracomm October 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

Iowa is a unique state for crop production. Extrapolating from it to the rest of the US is going to give wrong results.

Consumers prefer grain fed beef but there are many paths to the gran fed beef they prefer. If there was more pasture and higher priced grains the economics would likely favor sending cattle to the feedlot at a heavier weight off grass. The market will still produce the grain finished beef that consumers prefer but with more weight added on grass instead of corn. Small change in grain consumption number over a lot of cattle = substantial change in corn use.

Another possible economic path is more pasture = bigger cattle numbers = cattle can leave feedlot at lower weight and same amount of beef produced. Or more cattle leaving feedlot at current weights = more beef on market = lower beef prices = bigger demand = overall improved economics for the beef producers.

Those are a couple of possibilities. There is no doubt that ag production would change in interesting and positive ways if subsidies were stopped.

The problem with folks like Bittman and Pollan is that they spend an enormous amount of time on issues that would likely be substantially improved if the government would just stop subsidizing ag production.

36 ad*m October 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm

maguro, you could not be more wrong. The Midwest US is one of the most fertile regions in the world. The green color in this map is mollisol, the most fertile type of soil. Look for yourself.

That is also why farmland prices are one of the highest there.

37 Slocum October 18, 2012 at 10:45 am

The problem with Libertarians, and Tyler and Alec, is that they just don’t want to acknowledge the fact of “power” in a society

You’ve got that backwards. Libertarians are acutely aware of and opposed to cronyism. Public Choice is a libertarian theory. The thing that progressives miss over and over ad nauseum is that they suppose bigger government is the solution to cronyism whereas, actually, the bigger and more influential government becomes, the greater the motivation and potential rewards for politically connected private interests.

38 IVV October 18, 2012 at 11:08 am

Decentralization of power is key to maintaining a vibrant, competitive, innovative society. However, simple decentralization isn’t enough, because when someone gathers some greater power than another, then there is a greater ability of that first person to gain further power, through simple competition.

Although the average libertarian is against cronyism, it is usually only so far as the libertarian does not get to be one of the cronies himself. Some libertarian will become a potential crony, and it is easy from there to reposition oneself into a monopoly position and say that no one should have the right to interfere with his rise. Thus, the full libertarian ideal only works if each individual abhors power and prestige over others. Who’s willing to do that? And if you say, “I am,” is that actually because you’re hoping to receive extra prestige from your enlightened position? How do you combat that natural desire for more?

39 Brian Donohue October 18, 2012 at 3:28 pm

um…more government?

40 IVV October 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm

That would just return the centralization of power to one source, so no.

41 Brian Donohue October 18, 2012 at 3:28 pm

+1. very well put.

42 Duracomm October 18, 2012 at 11:49 am

sherparick1 said,

“The problem with Libertarians … is that they just don’t want to acknowledge the fact of “power” in a society”

That argument could not be more wrong. Libertarians absolutely recognize government power and how the politically powerful use government to profit at the expense of the rest of society. That is why they want limited government.

Generally what happens is this.

Government abuses power that libertarians do not want government to have in the first place.

In response to the government abuse of power and in spite of the fact that libertarians did not want government to have that power liberals and other supporters of big government then argue that the problem with big government and big government abuse of power is libertarians who did not government to have that power in the first place.

43 IVV October 18, 2012 at 11:56 am

It’s not a question of government power, it’s a question of any power, non-government included. How do you prevent abuse of power that does not stem from government?

44 Duracomm October 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm


First understand the magnitude of the problems and fix the big ones first. Walmart can’t force a landowner to sell to them.

Walmart can get the government to use government power to take the land from the landowner and give it to government preferred client walmart.

Most corporate power people complain about derive from use of government power. Take the power away from the government and you take away the power from the corporate.

45 Daniel Dostal October 19, 2012 at 7:07 pm

If Walmart pressures the government into creating laws that then allow Walmart to successful sue you for your land, is it not Walmart that has too much power?

46 Matt October 18, 2012 at 8:40 am

His “improved food label” from the TImes a few weeks back – giving everything zero to five stars on three subjective aspects of Bittman-approved-ness – was similarly insane. There’s a lot of room for incrementalism in improving Americans’ food habits but Bittman is not helping himself with this.

47 ladderff October 18, 2012 at 8:58 am

People like Bittman just need to be called bad people. I used to watch his little food videos too until he wandered into the other sections. He couldn’t have contented himself with a fame, prestige, and a highly remunerative job he loves, could he? He just couldn’t. So don’t read his cookbooks or his recipes or watch his homely videos. He deserves to fail. If we don’t figure out a way to punish hubris like this, it will (continue to) punish us.

48 So much in common October 18, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Woah, everyone I disagree with is a bad person, too!

49 Eric S. October 18, 2012 at 9:02 am

Mark Bittman is just Andrew Sullivan on the food beat.

50 Claudia October 18, 2012 at 9:04 am

Fine. Bittman’s economics are more frightening than most econo-trolls, but what can we learn from him? Economists are good at seeing markets and sometimes institutions, but not so much real people. Bittman hits an emotional nerve (rhetoric I see in other arenas too, did ya’ like the economics in the debate?). I figure you need to find some common ground with people you disagree with as opposed to attacking them. And yet, I am struggling to see it here. Sure not forwarding this one to my younger brother (Midwestern crop and hog farmer).

BTW economists should never hint that others should stick to what they’re good at. We rarely follow that advice…to good effect.

51 RPLong October 18, 2012 at 9:20 am

People my generation and younger have no idea what communism actually was and why it was a nightmare. Bittman is old enough to be my father and should certainly know better.

52 Claudia October 18, 2012 at 9:32 am

The tug of war between individualism and collectivism has a long history and goes well beyond any particular political ideology or ideologue. Bittman should have know better to casually drop a Stalin reference.

53 Ray Lopez October 18, 2012 at 9:57 am

Stalin lives! Boycott these anti-child labour western firms!
After some international clothing firms such as H&M, Adidas and Marks and Spencer boycotted cotton from Uzbekistan in protest at the use of child labour, this year most Uzbek children are able to get on with their schoolwork. But office workers, nurses and even surgeons are being forced into the fields instead.

54 Duracomm October 18, 2012 at 9:58 am

Bittman blends economic and agricultural ignorance, with personal arrogance and hubris and produces highly refined policy idiocy.

He likely could not tell the difference between a set of sweeps and a stripper header yet he is blithely confident he knows enough to set set up a troika to manage ag production.

Almost every “problem” he writes about is driven by government policy (hello ethanol mandates). His idiot solution to government caused problems is to apply more government.

The mind boggles

55 ThomasH October 18, 2012 at 11:15 am

Why should one pay attention to the economic policy views of a cookpook writer. He’s no more likely to be informed than a Fox News pundit.

56 emerson October 18, 2012 at 12:05 pm

This quote seems apropos: “The Reformer is always right about what’s wrong. However, he’s often wrong about what is right.” -GK Chesterton

57 yo October 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm

They should all be put in jail. It’s a good thing you and I stay in the basement away from their mind control waves, or we’d be Stalinists like the rest of those damn city folk.

58 Tomas October 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm

The best policy to encourage all these good things like high-value-added food that is locally grown with organic fertilizer, is to tax resource extraction, such as fossil fuel and land use to the full extent of their externalities.

59 chuck martel October 18, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Assuming that you’re serious, who gets to determine what’s “good” and “high-value-added”? How about me?

60 Tomas October 19, 2012 at 2:41 pm

I am. And the market is going to determine that.

If the taxes on oil reflect the cost of a Navy needed by a nation that deeply cares whether the Strait of Hormuz is open, and if the Midwest farmers are to pay for their nitrogen effluent causing a dead zone destroying the productivity of the proximal Gulf of Mexico, let alone the intangible value of the habitats, then relatively speaking, the cost of growing organically and sourcing locally will be much lower and consumers will choose those kinds of foods more. It does mean more expensive food. It means more expensive everything, because it is the right way to tax consumption, at a point where it hurts.

61 j r October 18, 2012 at 2:10 pm

“Mark Bittman has done some of the best writing about cooking which the human race has produced, ever…. This discussion is…less good than that.”

I submit that these two facts are intimately related.

62 Floccina October 18, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Democrats like him are not liberal at all but rather a control freaks! Pro choice is not even what they are on abortion, they are pro abortion Malthusians.

63 CPH October 18, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Isn’t the law of comparative demand pretty uncontroversial?

64 larry October 18, 2012 at 5:09 pm

For some reason I wanted to see if the usual cadre of lefty commenters would show up to call for five-year plans. I was not disappointed.

65 CPV October 18, 2012 at 6:31 pm

Many who are sophisticated consumers do not understand how the goods they consume actually get to them. This is fine as long as they don’t then try to optimize (or have the power to optimize) the apparatus that sustains all of us for their own narrow interest. This insight completely escapes the NY Times set. I know many of them personally.

66 Fellow Traveler October 18, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Get the government out of agriculture immediately.

End all government “planning” for our farms, and end all subsidies and regulations.

End the patenting of genetically modified foods, which is used by Monsanto to attack farmers with civil litigation, pushing them into bankruptcy and allowing big business to monopolize all the agriculture.

Stop jailing people who catch their own water, or who choose to drink unpasteurized milk, or any other choices that people make about the food they eat.

All the problems in agriculture today are a direct result of government interference. Give us a free market and let the individuals decide, and let the resource allocation be handled by natural pricing mechanisms in the market.

Finally, get the Fed out of their monopoly role in money, since inaccurate measures in money result in perverse market incentives and misallocations, which greatly impact food.

67 Jayson Lusk October 18, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Bittman’s writing in the New York Times Magazine also revealed a real lack of appreciation for economic vs. state planning

68 mulp October 19, 2012 at 4:00 am

I just checked Tyler’s food blog again, and not one mention of how great the GMO food was or how great the beef or chicken coated with a variety of commodity corn refinery products, eg chicken tenders at every high volume food chain.

Instead, Tyler looks for the places who specialize in food made from the products of small farms.

McDs and KFCs need the output of the mega farms and food chemical factories, just the kind of agriculture Tyler extols, yet they don’t get written up in his food blog.

69 Duracomm October 19, 2012 at 11:49 am


Have you thought about what it would take scale up and produce enough to replace the McDs and KFCs you hate with foods like kidney soup and goat biryani Tyler talks about on his food blog?

Have you thought about how many people would actually buy the kidney soup and goat biryani?

Even if people decided en masse that they wanted kidney soup and goat biryani I am pretty sure that it would require mega farms to supply the demand. Most of it would be served by a nationwide chain of Mcbiryani restaurants not locally owned shops in nondescript strip malls.

70 Brian Donohue October 19, 2012 at 12:38 pm

Yeah, what a fraud. I, for example, am an aficionado of great literature. Naturally, the only logical position for me is to do everything in my power to stop or impede the flow of comic books- warning labels, outright bans, whatever it takes. For the good of humanity.

71 Jack October 19, 2012 at 8:04 am

I can’t believe that he doesn’t seem to realize you can’t plant almond trees how and harvest almonds next year.

72 bw October 20, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Forget the food sociology and politics stuff. You can’t get around the fact that you can’t grow most vegetables on a consistent year to year basis in the Midwest during the summer growing season due to sudden late (Spring) or early (Fall) frost risk. This obtains as far south as even Austin TX (all time record cold of -7 degrees). Also, and more obviously, you can’t grow vege in the Fall, Winter, and Spring seasons in the Midwest. Sorry Mark and whoever else, the Midwest is a nonstarter regarding vegetables. I realize upper Midwest (Minnesota/North Dakota) grows a variety of processing purposed (junk veges for the produce section) vegetables during the summer season. So, thusly, you can’t beat Calif for vege ag, and so, it is problematic when it’s all almonds over vegetables.

73 bw October 20, 2012 at 1:38 pm

junk veges for the produce section: veges for some green monster and some sort of red juice.

74 bw October 20, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Maybe there’s hope for any Midwest vege growing endeavor, due to global warming (at least providing for an adequate, and consistent, growing season.). But then again, where are you going to get the water. At least Cali, though extraordinarily dry on a localized basis, has watersheds. In a warming sceario, the Midwest won’t even have a watershed to draw upon.

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