An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies

“Eat where the supplies are fresh, the suppliers are creative, and the demanders are informed" 

Mixed in with tributes to pit barbecue (the greatest American culinary innovation and the first real slow food), Tyler Cowen analyzes the human and environmental impact of various in vogue consumer behaviors such as buying locally and boycotting genetically modified food. 

He endorses the environmental benefits of modern agribusiness and genetically modified foods (lower pesticide use and less overall land use) as well as the humanitarian benefits, saying that "figuring out a way to feed all the hungry people in the world should be the number one concern for the everyday foodie.”

India, for example, has a slow growing agricultural sector relative to overall economic and population growth – you can see this reflected in their poverty figures where 50% of children suffer from malnutrition.  This is bad news for India, not to mention our shared global future, and is something that could be remedied should India adopt a few practices employed by modern agribusiness.

“Rich countries do not need GMOs, but poor countries do.”

Another place that could benefit from some combination of GMOs + industrial farming is Africa.  African farmers are the biggest losers from EU bans on GMOs.  70% percent of all Africans are farmers, but land efficient pest resistant crops do not get grown there and GM food aid is refused for fear of ‘contaminating’ crops for export, all to keep from losing the EU markets. This, Crowen argues, is the opposite of thoughtful consumerism.

In the end, “most people, even well-informed people, don’t have a good sense of how much an afternoon drive in a Mercedes contributes to the climate change problem relative to buying a batch of flown-in asparagus or subbing in a steak for a chicken breast."  Cowen ends his book by proposing a handful of policy changes, which would result in food prices that more accurately reflect the "real” social and environmental costs of production. Real food prices would relieve the consumer from having to understand complex systems in order to make decisions about what to buy.

Dwight Garner from The New York Times said, “Reading Mr. Cowen is like pushing a shopping cart through Whole Foods with Rush Limbaugh."  Michael Pollan was there too, peaking out at me, horrified, between chapters praising GMOs and condemning locavores. Nevertheless, "An Economist Gets Lunch” served as a reminder to revisit my assumptions often. To quote physicist Freeman Dyson, “The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.”