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

The Gunther Report

'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.

“The net result is an environmental boon,” Cowen writes. “A lot of America has been reforested and this footprint of agribusiness is shrinking rather than rising.”

Because malnutrition remains a bigger problem than obesity, we should welcome innovations that improve agricultural productivity, which has slowed in recent years. Cowen is a fan of GMOs (though he dislikes the name), writing: “It is nature that is cruel and harsh, not commercial engineers and gene splicers and Monsanto.” About that I’m skeptical; there’s scant evidence, so far (Hawaiian papaya aside), that GMOs have helped feed the world, though the potential is there.

On the question of how we can eat our way to a greener planet, Cowen the economist trumps the free-marketer. Rather than worry about what constitutes a Low Carbon Diet, we should adopt a carbon tax so that the prices of food reflect the full cost of growing, shipping and producing it, including the environmental externalities. He writes:

“Relying on prices means taxing fossil fuels and it also means higher taxes on meat, which through methane emissions (e.g. cow farts) contribute to climate change…Prices are far more powerful than lists of instructions to green-minded consumers.”

Carbon pricing could also help us sort through the debate over localism. When it comes to protecting the environment, buying local isn’t necessarily better and it may be worse if you live in a place where lots of water, energy and land are required to grow food. Cowen writes:

“The environment is better off if the residents of Albuquerque import most of their food from far away. It feels greener to buy from the local farmer than to patronize a large, multinational banana company, but perhaps with a dubious political history at that. But there’s nothing especially virtuous about the local farmer, even if it feels good to affiliate him.”

As Matt Ridley once said, we’ve tried eating local before. That was called the Middle Ages.

Image of family on vacation by oliveromg via Shutterstock.