The John Locke Foundation’s weekly Shaftesbury presentation welcomed Baylen Linnekin Monday to speak on bringing leaders across the aisle together to work toward food sustainability.
His book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, focuses on the ways that food policy holds back food producers and consumers from a more sustainable food system.
Sustainability, Linnekin said, is usually an issue supported by environmentalists on the left who think it requires more government regulation. “And there are people,” Linnekin said, “who are opposed to sustainability because they think that it requires more and more regulations.”
Linnekin wants to bring small-government advocates on the right into the sustainability conversation.
“I’d like to build a bridge between people who perhaps might not agree on many issues but who can agree that we can actually have a more sustainable food system, in many cases, with fewer rules,” Linnekin said. “And so I’m appealing to people on the left and on the right to work together and to promote sustainability.”
Linnekin defines sustainability as practices that minimize the negative impacts of the food system, maximize the benefits, and ensure that those involved in the system — farmers, producers, and others — can sustain themselves without looking for outside support.
Linnekin shared several anecdotes of sustainable food companies whose practices were stifled or completely shut down because of unnecessary regulations. He told the story of a small, family-owned business in Florida called Ocheesee Creamery who could no longer sell their skim milk because of a state “standard of identity” law that requires skim milk to have Vitamin A added to the recipe.
This may have made sense 75 years ago, Linnekin said, when people had Vitamin A deficiencies, but it doesn’t anymore. If Ocheesee wanted to sell their skim milk in grocery stores, the state told them they must call it “non-grade-A milk product, natural milk vitamins removed,” Linnekin said. They couldn’t mention that the milk contained no fat — which is its main selling point.
Ocheesee went to federal court, represented by the Institute for Justice, a D.C. libertarian nonprofit law firm, arguing that they should be able to call their product what it is under the First Amendment. Linnekin served as an expert in defense of the creamery. The federal court ruled that Ocheesee could call their product “imitation skim milk.”
“You would think that this story would have a happy ending, because it’s so absurd,” Linnekin said.
But one of the largest dairy lobbying organizations in the country came in to support the state and its mandatory Vitamin-A addition, Linnekin said. This is just one example of “big food” and “big government” working together to make it harder for smaller sustainable food producers to sell their products, Linnekin said.
He shared other stories: a sausage master going out of business because he wasn’t adding nitrates or nitrites to his meat but produced perfectly safe sausage without them. Cheese-makers outraged over an FDA ban on wooden boards used for ripening their cheeses. Farmers who can’t sell their produce in stores because of 150 different grading rules about how the fruit must look that often only exist for aesthetic reasons.
Carrots, for example, must be at least 3/4 of an inch in circumference and must be a specific orange color in order to be sold in the grocery store. Often, ugly fruits and vegetables are more tasty and healthy, Linnekin said. The bizarre rules promote food waste since those in the field picking and gathering the produce leave behind the ones they can’t sell.
“We’re part of the problem,” Linnekin said. “It’s not just that the rules exist to…create food waste. We have come to expect that all of our carrots will look uniform and all of our apples will have a nice amount of red on them. And so, essentially, grocery stores respond to that.”
Linnekin encouraged everyone to eat ugly produce and to communicate with grocers and lawmakers to fix the problem.
The regulations that make him the most upset, Linnekin said, are ones that hold average people back from practicing sustainable lifestyles. Many cities have zoning laws that don’t allow gardens in residents’ front yards. Some local laws prohibit people from sharing food with the homeless and the less-fortunate.
There are times when regulation helps. “I’m not a food anarchist,” Linnekin said. Food safety rules, required inspections, and regulations that protect the environment and animals are examples, he said, of needed laws.
But many of the bad laws need to be removed and all food policy must be reexamined under a microscope, he said.
Mitch Kokai, spokesman for the John Locke Foundation, said he found Linnekin’s presentation thought-provoking and thought that the audience members had differing levels of agreement with Linnekin’s approach and the ideal extent of government involvement in the nation’s food system.
“There’s sort of an interesting free-market, limited-government perspective on food that we thought kind of fit in with this audience,” Kokai said. “Probably not everyone from the audience agrees exactly with him about where to draw the line.”
Watch Linnekin’s full presentation below.