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The Food System as 'Largest Quasi-Public Utility in the World'

Apropos of the recent debate on Gristmill sparked by James Galbraith's polemic on free markets, I got to thinking about something I recently read in Paul Roberts' book The End of Food (which I reviewed here):

[D]uring the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Congress created a vast system of of support for food production: a department of agriculture, whose mission was the provision of affordable food; a system of publicly funded farm programs, meant to maximize output while protecting farmers from market failures to market crashes; a construction campaign of dams, irrigation canals, and other reclamation projects to bring agriculture to desert or semi-desert regions; and a massive railroad network to transport this great bounty from the new areas of production -- the Midwestern Corn Belt, the California "Salad Bowl," the great western-state ranches, and the stockyards of Chicago -- to the big urban areas and export facilities. So integral was government in the buildup of the modern food economy that years later, Harvard economist Ray Goldberg described the food system as "the largest quasi-public utility in the world."

This leads me to two points regarding the free-market debate:

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