Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Food Police by Jayson Lusk

For fifteen years, Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk sought to study food regulation issues in a balanced way.  As he recounts:
I tried to approach the study of food regulation from an objective standpoint by comparing the costs and benefits of the policies in question -- seeing which actions and policies made the best use of our scarce resources given all our competing desires.  I labored under the assumption that this was the key issue in determining the merits of a regulation.  I was naive.
The Food Police (Crown Forum, 2013) is the new book Lusk wrote after he outgrew this foolish impartiality.

In the Food Police, every government initiative to address any environmental or social problem within the food system represents misguided overreach.  There may be an exception, but I couldn't find one.

In the Food Police, the conventional food system is fine as it is.
  • Food is highly affordable.  There is no need to spend much ink on commodity price spikes, the growing world population, or environmental constraints on food production.
  • Organic agriculture is foolish, conventional pesticides are safe, and farmers in recent years have replaced dangerous pesticides with safe ones.  (How the farmers found any dangerous pesticides to replace is a mystery to me).  
  • Americans live longer because of our "abundant, diverse, and nutritious food supply."  Moderate overweight is fine; it probably extends our lives.  The connection between obesity and diabetes is doubtful, and diabetes may be genetic, so don't worry about diabetes either.
  • It would be unhealthy to reduce salt consumption.
  • Crop yields increased from 1900 to 2010. There is no need to mention that yield growth has slowed in recent years or that agricultural economists are greatly distressed about declining public investment in agricultural research.
Very briefly, at sporadic intervals, Lusk vaguely refers to imperfections in the food system. On page 20, he says, "I'm not saying all food trends are heading in the right direction."  On p. 35, he says, "None of this is to say there aren't problems associated with our modern food system."  But, in each case, the reader never gets to hear any details about these problems.  Lusk quickly moves on to decrying how the Food Police exaggerate whatever problems there might be.

A long-standing principle of the U.S. Food Policy blog is that reasonable people ought to be able to agree on the toughest food policy controversies of the day.  When possible, we should avoid letting food policy debates get caught up in the broader divisions that have made American politics so dysfunctional in recent years: Democrat and Republican, heartland and coastal states, religious and secular, black and white.

At every turn, Lusk chooses instead to tie his food policy arguments to seemingly unrelated flame wars.  He writes, "The progressives' plan for slow, natural and organic food production has been tried.  It's called Africa."  The food police ignore personal liberties, even though these are "many of the same people who scream, 'It's a woman's body,' any time the subject of abortion comes up."  Lusk calls the food police "fascists."  Lusk accuses the San Francisco board of supervisors of astounding hypocrisy for regulating toys for kids in restaurant meals, because the same city values other liberties highly: "'In the City by the Bay, if you want to roller skate naked down Castro Street wearing a phallic -symbol hat and snorting an eight-ball off a transgender hooker's chest while underage kids run behind you handing out free heroin needles, condoms and coupons ... that's your right as a free citizen of the United States.'"

Jayson Lusk is a leading agricultural economist.  He co-edited a book from Oxford University Press, to which I contributed a chapter on food security in developed countries.  Yet, the new book reminded me of right-wing bloggers, such as Michelle Malkin.  I was going to bite my tongue and avoid mentioning this similarity, but then I noticed in footnote 3 of chapter 1 that the casually and irrelevantly homophobic San Francisco anecdote was a direct quote from the blogger Michelle Malkin herself.

The footnote provides reassurance that I may offer my frank summary of this book without giving offense.  Jayson Lusk's Food Police is like a Michelle Malkin blog post, but it's 190 pages long and about food policy.

3 comments:

farmfoodguy said...

Lusk neglects to see how food corporations "police" our food far more and have far more influence in the media, without scientific foundation. That's much bigger but invisible to him. He naively (or slickly) claims he's only giving "facts."

James said...

Let's not forget how our government just gave Monsanto a free pass to poison us and get away with it.

Shu Wen Ng said...

Thanks Parke for sharing your impressions. I started this book a few weeks ago, but really struggled to make significant progress -- it simply took too much out of me with his selective use of examples, anecdotes and arguments. I've read many of Lusk's research articles and he is no doubt a solid ag-economist. However, as a popular/mass-market author, it's pretty clear which corner of the market he is aiming for. I guess I should stick to reading his academic work!