Agriculture policy affects all Americans. From policies that drive up food prices to government control of your dietary decisions, it warrants significant attention.

Unfortunately, central planning has been entrenched in agriculture policy for more than 80 years. The 2014 farm bill didn’t change that reality. When it comes to agriculture, many legislators ignore any free-market principles they have, as if there’s something about farming and ranching that requires them to believe in and enact federal control of our food production.

There needs to be new thinking about agriculture policy. The same free-market solutions that have allowed this nation to flourish are just as applicable to agriculture as they are to other sectors of the economy. The following are 10 guiding principles for agriculture policy.

1. Markets, Not Government Incentives and Controls, Should Inform Farming Decisions.

Farmers make decisions based on the restrictions imposed upon them through central-planning policies and the subsidies that distort their choices through misguided incentives. There’s an assumption in agriculture that the federal government can use central planning to best allocate resources. Nobody has the knowledge to plan economies. By responding to markets, farmers would be free to produce what they deem fit to meet consumer demand.

2. Free Markets Promote Food Affordability.

Consumers often are ignored by existing policies that drive up food prices, such as the sugar program and the Renewable Fuel Standard. Higher food prices hurt low-income individuals the most because a greater share of their incomes go to food costs compared to individuals with higher incomes.

3. Subsidies Are Not Necessary for Farmers to Succeed.

Government should not intervene in the market to help ensure that farmers are profitable, such as through the “shallow loss” program that protects farmers from even minor losses.  Like any businesspeople, farmers should succeed or fail on their own merits and assume the risks and reap the rewards of doing business.

Photo: Andy Arthur

Photo: Andy Arthur

4. Property Rights Are the Cornerstone of American Agriculture.

Farmers and ranchers are the best stewards of their property. Property ownership creates powerful incentives to maintain property. Too often, farmers and ranchers have to bear an excessive cost for government regulations that place restrictions on how they use their property.

5. Problematic Regulations Affecting Agriculture Should Be Fixed or Eliminated.

New regulations are often adopted to address problems caused by existing regulations. The solution should be to fix or eliminate the existing regulation, not to use failed policies as justification for more government intervention.

6. The Regulatory Burden on the Agriculture Sector Should Be Minimized and Sound Regulatory Approaches Used.

Regulations can hinder farmers and other businesses throughout the food supply system. Farm-specific regulations generally should be limited to covering health and safety. When agencies promulgate regulations, they should have clear statutory authority and use sound regulatory and scientific analysis, including adopting the least costly alternative to achieve its objective. Unnecessary, duplicative, or outdated regulations should be repealed.

7. Obstacles to Agriculture Research and Innovation Should Be Removed.

There are groundbreaking innovations in fields such as agricultural biotechnology that will help the agriculture sector feed Americans and the world. These innovations can yield many benefits including greater productivity, reduced food costs and improved nutrition.Misinformation campaigns instead of sound science are creating obstacles that are undermining critical innovations.

8. Free Trade in Agriculture Benefits Farmers and Consumers.

Free trade in agriculture should be aggressively pursued. This means, for example, eliminating domestic trade barriers, which would promote competition by giving consumers access to foreign agricultural products and aggressively seeking the removal of barriers that block American products from entering foreign markets.

Photo: Joseph Thornton

Photo: Joseph Thornton

9. Individual Dietary Decisions Should Be Respected.

From mandatory menu labeling requirements to the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed de facto ban on trans fat in processed food, the federal government presumes the public is incapable of making informed dietary choices. These are personal choices that should be made by individuals, not government officials.

10. Agriculture Policy Should Not Promote Special Interests.

Everyone is affected by agriculture policy because everyone eats. When agriculture policy debates occur, farming interests and other “stakeholder” interests usually are at the table, but consumer and taxpayer interests are not. Lawmakers should develop agriculture policy with a view that agriculture exists to meet the needs of consumers and the government is spending taxpayer money, not its own, on agriculture programs.

Moving Forward

A free-market vision for agriculture starts with having principles that recognize the flaws of government intervention while embracing freedom and individual rights. These broad-based principles, if applied, can help change agriculture policy from an area of excessive government control to an area of individual freedom.

This column is adapted from 10 Guiding Principles for Agriculture Policy: A Free-Market Vision