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Fisher Investments Analyst Book Review: Food Politics

Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know — Robert Paarlberg

For my job at Fisher Investments, I’m out on the road quite a bit each year, speaking to investors from all over the country. One of the things that used to amaze to me when I started, but doesn’t anymore, is that people everywhere pretty much ask the same questions.

Oddly though (because at Fisher Investments, I deal in stock markets for the most part), I get asked about food a lot. Everything from the supply of it (farming), to the price of it (the balance between supply and demand along with myriad government distortions), to the demand of it (population growth, poverty and income, and nutrition and obesity). Of course, a good bit of it is relevant to investing—food makes a difference in inflation, economic growth, commodities prices, politics, and the earnings of many very large publicly traded corporations.

On that note, I recommend Robert Paarlberg’s Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know for a few reasons.

Paarlberg approaches the subject as a political issue. Which is right. It’s not that food has become “politicized,” so much as food itself has always been a natural political issue. What I mean is, how a nation or society views food, what we do with it, how we regulate it—is about as old as civilization itself. Semantics aside, viewing food as politics allows Paarlberg to approach the subject with as much objectivity as is likely possible—recognizing that activists, regulators, farmers and their interest groups, corporations, even consumers, all have ideological bents to this issue and their maneuvering among each other is what dictates what food is produced, and at what price. Said differently, understanding the economics of food is barely half the battle in understanding how its priced, who gets it, and why.

This also means that people involved in food politics will probably hate this book equally, which is to the acute advantage of the reader looking for pragmatism on these issues. The organic-sustainable types will feel undermined and short-shrifted; the farmers and corporations (from companies like ArcherDanielsMidland to McDonald’s) will also feel vaguely attacked.

Second, this book is short, and written in a style allowing you to skip around as you like. Much like Steve Forbes’ excellent How Capitalism Will Save Us from last year, Paarlberg’s book takes one topic a chapter (like obesity) and then asks a series of questions tied to that issue and answers them in pithy fashion. This is a good approach because most will only want to see the basics of these issues laid out without all the jargon that can go with them.

The “what everyone needs to know” part of the title is maybe a tad much. This book isn’t definitive in the informational or authoritative sense. (But then again, what is?)  But it’s as good an introduction into thinking about the real political undercurrents of food as I’ve encountered, and will at least set the table for better thinking on this issue outside of what you hear at farmer’s markets or McDonald’s drive thrus or nightly news bloviating.

 

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