A market solution to food problems

For more propaganda about the government's efforts to protect us from bad foods, check out: www.fda.gov.

Quality of food seems to be a cause that everyone can get behind, and there has recently been a grassroots movement to take better consumer control over how food is produced and sold. There is a national trend among food activists against the production of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are the domain of mass food-production companies such as Monsanto. At the very least, many activists are fighting for the labeling of GMOs as a way to increase consumer consciousness about food products. Even in Nevada, there were two “March Against Monsanto” events—one in Reno and one in Las Vegas—on Saturday, May 25, during which activists rallied for GMO labeling through speeches and picketing.

The primary reason for resistance against GMOs is the question of safety. Not much is known about the long-term effects of consuming food that contains GMOs, but there are other concerns to take into consideration such as the reduction of genetic diversity—which makes plants more susceptible to outside forces such as invasive species, drought and insects—and the over-use of pesticides and herbicides. With our current government subsidy system that incentivizes the production of a limited range of crops, GMOs could be putting the entire food supply of the U.S. at risk.

From a libertarian perspective, there is intriguing research available on how political ideologies affect the control of food. Most Americans, regardless of their views on government, favor food regulation, according to Jayson L. Lusk’s economic article in the academic journal Food Policy. After a survey of 700 Americans, he found that, “people’s ideologies with regard to food were multidimensional, falling along lines related to food health and quality, food safety, and farm subsidies. Respondents were most in favor of additional government action related to food safety.”

The question, then, is why does food get its own unique treatment, and why do even the most conservative people want its regulation? Is there an alternative to big government when it comes to food?

The economics of food is a touchy subject because it affects us all. We believe that without big government regulation, there is a higher risk of negative consequences when it comes to our food consumption not only for ourselves but also for our children. But bigger government needn’t be the solution to the regulation of GMOs and other food labels. If we look to the privatization of other regulatory agencies such as voluntary certification for sustainable timber harvesting, the MPAA movie rating system and the ESRB video game rating system, then it’s clear that effective regulation isn’t limited to the domain of the government. In fact, it could be argued that more successful regulation would occur without government intervention.

If we look to the voluntary certification and rating systems, then we can see the favorable business relationships and market interactions that occur as a result of their institution. For example, Home Depot gives preferential treatment (i.e. purchasing power) to wood products that have been sustainably harvested. Walmart, Game Stop and other major retailers won’t supply video games that have an AO (aged 18+) rating from the ESRB, which de-incentivizes the production of electronic entertainment that contains strong sexual content and strong violence.

Similarly, if a private rating system for food were to exist that evaluated the standards of GMO products and labels such as “organic,” “free-range” or “cage free,” then the politics of food would be taken out of the equation because food companies could volunteer for their own labels of certification, and power would be put back in the hands of consumers and private food retailers instead of government.

Independent food regulation is not impossible or even improbable, and if we want to find the solution to our food problem, then perhaps it’s time that we abandoned the belief that more government control is the answer.