Henry I. Miller reviews The Food Police, a new book by agricultural economist Jayson Lusk.
(…) he exposes the sophistry of current food movements that seek a return to a romantic but imaginary view of “nature.” He observes that certain journalists, columnists, celebrity chefs, and cookbook authors have conspired to create a distorted, dystopian picture of modern agriculture, promoting the view that “the prescription for our ailments is local, organic, slow, natural, and unprocessed food, along with a healthy dose of new food taxes, subsidies, and regulation.” (Just writing that makes me gag.)
Lusk confronts many of the sacred cows of food activism. One is the silliness of compulsory locavorism – specifically, forcing municipal hospitals, schools and other institutions to source an arbitrary percentage of their food locally. He is especially critical of government subsidies for locally sourced foods: Along with a few other cities, New York doubles the value of food stamps when used at farmer’s markets, which translates to a 100% supplement in the subsidy.
Why, Lusk asks, does locavorism need public subsidies? If local foods are, in fact, tastier (and they may be if you live in the right place at the right time of year), few of us would need to be coerced into eating them. Economics 101 teaches us about the importance of the economies of scale. Because of the efficiency of large, expensive pieces of equipment, the larger a farm grows, the more efficient it tends to become and the lower its per-unit costs of production. Lusk cites data: “One study of Illinois farms showed, for example, that average total costs were 82% lower on soybean farms and 38% lower on corn farms that were larger than nine hundred acres as compared to those that were smaller than three hundred acres. Another study showed that average incremental costs were 85% lower on dairies with herd sizes greater than 2,000 head as compared with dairies with fewer than 30 cows.”
The locavores seem to have missed other important lessons of elementary economics – namely, the benefits of specialization and comparative advantage. Lusk reminds us that “by letting people specialize in those things they are relatively good at making and then trading with others, we’re all richer,” better fed and better off than if we all tried to be self-sufficient. It’s no coincidence that the cultivation of crops such as corn, wheat, citrus and grapes is clustered in certain parts of the country best suited to them.
It may not be intuitively obvious, but buying local isn’t environmentally friendly. Although local foods do travel shorter distances, there is much more to calculating environmental impact than food miles. The vast majority of greenhouse-gas emissions are released near where the commodity is grown. Therefore, it is logical to find the most efficient spots to grow our fruits and vegetables and ship them to other regions. The reality is that on a pound-for-pound basis, collectively we are likely to consume more energy getting ourselves to the supermarket than it takes to deliver a trailer-truckload of Georgia-grown Vidalia onions or Florida oranges to Wisconsin.
Lusk heaps well-deserved ridicule on food elitists like Berkeley restaurateur, activist and elitist Alice Waters, who believes the “idea that we have been indoctrinated to believe, that food should be fast, cheap and easy…is destroying the world.” She believes that for everyone, obtaining and preparing food should be as slow, expensive and hard as it is for the poorest of the poor.
Lusk has an excellent chapter on the baseless, mindless, relentless antagonism of the food police toward genetically engineered plants. He describes the venerable and very long history of the genetic improvement of crop plants. “Ten thousand years ago, wild rice was little more than a stalk of grass,” and it was “only by interfering with Mother Nature did we reach the point where rice can now account for one fifth of the world’s total caloric intake.” He cites the many proven advantages of genetic engineering – the need for far less spraying of chemical pesticides, more efficient and effective control of weeds, higher yields, and environmental benefits.
Lusk reminds us of something that is revealing yet consistently eludes the food police, who have tirelessly opposed genetic engineering: Farmers have embraced genetically engineered crops at a pace that makes them the most rapidly adopted agricultural technology in history because these varieties increase the growers’ financial and food security. The “repeat index” – the percentage of farmers who plant genetically engineered crops again after trying them once – approaches 100%.
Lusk treats us to a delectable irony: The strict (and largely gratuitous) regulation of genetic engineering demanded by the food police actually benefits their worst nemesis, the Great Satan itself – Monsanto. How can that be? As Lusk observes, “Who benefits from stricter regulations that make it harder for new biotech seeds to enter the market? It certainly isn’t the small start-up firms trying to break down entry barriers to get their new invention on the market. Rather, it’s the established behemoths who have teams of lawyer and lobbyists and who can absorb the regulatory costs that keep out their smaller competitors.”