No Farms, No Food… No Clue

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Posted: Sep 24, 2019 12:04 PM
No Farms, No Food… No Clue

Source: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

The popularity of the bumper sticker No Farms, No Food indicates that many people do not understand why our economy is so successful in meeting our needs and desires. The sticker’s ominous warning is intended to inspire the two thing that can mess up an economy: government intervention and disregard for market values.

I have never seen a bumper sticker reading “No Sex, No Babies” even though some argue that fertility rates are dangerously low. Perhaps this is because people naturally understand procreation much better than they understand economics. My wife claims that the opposite is true for me – presumably due to her high regard for me as a financial economist.

What bothers me about No Farms, No Food bumper stickers is the implication that our food supply depends on political activism rather than natural economic forces.

I sleep well at night knowing that it is the self-interest of farmers and their natural rights that keep me from starving. On the other hand, I am concerned when activists impose their preferences on our society through the power of government.

Perhaps No Farms No Food is popular because there is money to be made with those bumper stickers. No Farms No Food is trademarked and distributed by the American Farmland Trust (AFT). In its 2018 annual report[1] the AFT reported over $18 million in revenue while it grew its assets from $26 million to $33 million. The organization claims that their message is clear: American farms are rapidly disappearing. But they add that “even more is at stake than our food supply” - the need to “restore our planet”[2].

Economic freedom is powerful. Since 1940 corn production per acre in the US has risen five-fold[3] while our population has grown about three-fold. But apparently the AFT knows that human innovation and creativity will be limited in the future: “Some people hold out great hope for technology… [that] productivity of remaining field crops will soar. At AFT, we don’t believe technology alone will solve the problem… we don’t expect productivity to increase faster than demand.”[4] Meanwhile, American farmers lament that their abundant crops will go to waste unless they can be exported to China and elsewhere.

I suspect the people who run the AFT have good intentions. But some of their methods (and in particular their bumper sticker) are misdirected. The problem is their call for government to violate natural rights and distort natural economic forces.

One example is when activists lobby government to impose zoning laws – restricting the ability of owners to put resources to their most valuable use. Activists also lobby to use more and more taxpayer money to purchase land and restrict its future use to agriculture. They push for reduced taxation of land in exchange for commitments not to develop the land – placing higher and higher shares of the tax burden on those who determine land use based on market forces. These programs distort market forces. In doing so, the activist are using the government’s power to push their priorities into being more important than the priorities of others as expressed through market-based incentives and land-owner preferences.

Societies that respect natural economic rights have no problem obtaining enough food. They can grow it themselves (as America does) or they can purchase it from others (as city-states like Hong Kong do). In the US obesity is a huge problem and farmers out-produce domestic consumption - so is there really a need for a activism to support farming?

Societies throughout history have suffered from government management of their economy. These societies oppose market forces and natural rights and, in doing so, end up starving. The FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) provides extensive data on food consumption. Their list of countries with the least ability to feed themselves are the countries with the poorest records for defending natural rights[5]. The list includes many African nations and countries such as North Korea, Haiti, Yemen, Cambodia, and Pakistan.

Here’s the point: the “No Farms, No Food” approach to guiding public policies chips away at the very institutions that enable a nation to be successful in growing food, especially private property rights. Unwittingly, the “No Farms, No Food” campaign feeds into the public policy approaches that – if implemented – will place America on the path to the totalitarianism that marks those countries unable to feed themselves. Well-intentioned people who do not understand the miracle of a self-organizing economy are playing right into the hand of the left.  

[2] see https://farmland.org/no-farms-no-food/ accessed September 2019.

[4] see https://farmland.org/about/whats-at-stake/ accessed September 2019.