Friday, April 29, 2016

Jayson Lusk's new book: Unnaturally Delicious

Noted agricultural economist Jayson Lusk's new book is Unnaturally Delicious (St. Martin's Press, 2016), a love letter to food and agricultural technology.

I can see the potential appeal of the object of Lusk's praise in his many examples of new technologies that help solve serious food system dilemmas -- for example, faster microbial detection to allow food manufacturers to respond to hazards, electronic sensors for precise crop nitrogen requirements to allow farmers to avoid over-application of fertilizer, and so forth.

In other cases, it feels like Lusk is singing the beauty of an airbrushed model on a magazine cover, when a more natural look would have sufficed. I do not see the point of personalized food from a 3-D printer ("the new killer app"), robots that can cook Mexican food (so we might not "even need a home kitchen in the future"), or meat grown directly from stem cells for boutique novelties ("If stem cells from cows can grow a hamburger, why not take stem cells from a rhino and create rhinoburger? Or mix a few stem cells from a giraffe or rabbit to create a truly unique delicacy?"). What appeal can the multi-colored confection on the book's cover possibly have, in a world that actually contains sweet natural pink grapefruit?

Much more than his previous book, Food Police, Lusk's new book pays attention to important environmental concerns. Still, in every case, the costs of environmental problems are portrayed as fully internalized. Sure, Lusk says, waste from manufacturing plants could be a problem in principle, but he gives us an image of 19th century processed meat baron Gustavus Swift inspecting the drainage pipe from his factory to prevent byproducts from pouring into the river, highly motivated to protect the value of any bits of economically valuable fat that might thereby be wasted. Sure, Lusk says, there is in principle the environmental problem of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico, "and some experts believe that agricultural runoff is largely to blame," but farmers are highly motivated to prevent over-application of fertilizer because of the internalized cost.

This gives us a fantasy world in which new technology spares us from the need for regulation or any type of shared response to environmental problems. As I read, I wondered if it would be too unkind to say that Lusk treats new technology and environmental sustainability as equivalent by definition. But, in the last words of Chapter 8, Lusk spared me the dilemma, by making the book's thesis explicit: "As I see it, sustainability and using agricultural technology are one and the same."

I love agricultural technology, and often argue that productivity gains and increased efficiency are not some capitalist scam, but are profoundly environmental virtues. But I would never say that sustainability and agricultural technology are one and the same. For my profession, food and agricultural economics, it is better to jointly address the environmental good and bad from new technology, and to jointly consider (a) market economics, (b) other new technologies, and (c) public policy as the remedies for environmental challenges.

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