'An Economist Gets Lunch': Food for thought from Tyler Cowen

This month, just for fun, I’m going to devote most of my writing to food and sustainability. My plan is to write about organic vs. conventional yields, a controversy around Fair Trade, the giant candy company Mars, clean cooking fuels in Mozambique and the goings-on at a pair of upcoming events where I’ll be moderating: the 2012 National Policy Conference of CropLife America, about “The Politics of Food and the 2012 Farm Bill,” and the always-fabulous Cooking for Solutions extravaganza at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Today, though, I want to tell you about a quirky, provocative and enjoyable book called "An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies" (Dutton, $26.95), by Tyler Cowen.

A free-market economist who teaches at George Mason University, Cowen writes for a broad audience. His blog, MarginalRevolution, is extremely popular. He contributes to The New York Times' Sunday business section. His interests are wide ranging (see this Grantland column on the end of football) and he seems to read every nonfiction book that matters.

His short e-book, "The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better," is very smart, and a bargain at $3.99: It argues that what ails the U.S. economy is not merely the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis or the distortions caused by the collapse of the dot-com bubble, but a more fundamental slowdown in innovation that dates back for 40 years.

In "An Economist Gets Lunch," Cowen muses about loosely connected topics, ranging from how American food got bad (it’s not what you think) to the mysterious differences between Mexican food in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, its neighbor across the border (U.S. regulators comes into to play) to what happened when he spent a month shopping at an Asian supermarket called Great Wall in Merrifield, Va. (he ate healthier, fresher, cheaper foods).

If, like me, you’re interested in the social and environmental impact of the food, you’ll want to read Cowen’s defense of agribusiness, technology and global supply chains. He rejects the argument -- summed up by the title of the movie Food Inc. -- that American food is bad for us and bad for the planet because of the commercialization of food. While Cowen is no fan of donuts or McDonald’s, he notes that by the end of the 20th century “more people ate well than ever before” and “the American poor are more likely to be obese than starving.” He writes:

 “Cheap, quick food -- including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations --is the single most important advance in human history. It is the foundation of modern civilization, and the reason why most of us are alive.”

The reasons why American food isn’t very good, he says, have less to do with business than with us, i.e., our government and culture. Prohibition all but killed fine dining because restaurants make more money from liquor than from food. Anti-immigration policies “kept American food away from its best and most fruitful innovators for decades.” Because “Americans spoil and cater to their children,” he argues, we grow up eating food that is “blander, simpler and sweeter” than food elsewhere:

“A lot of American food is, quite simply, food for children in a literal sense. It’s just that we all happen to eat it.”

Interesting, no? 

Efficiency and technology, by contrast, have benefited the environment and the poor as well as the Cargills and ADMs of the world.  Since 1950, “global affluence increased by a factor of 6.99 while global cropland increased by a factor of only 1.32.”  In the US, agriculture feeds many more people today on no more land than was harvested at the beginning of the 20th century. Land is expensive, so farmers will try to use as little of it as possible.