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Winter 2014
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Books and Culture

Jerry Weinberger
Food Politics, Food Pleasures
To each his own, unless you’re an ideologue
25 June 2013

The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate, by Jayson Lusk (Crown Forum, 240 pp., $24)

Finger Lakes Feast: 110 Delicious Recipes from New York’s Hotspot for Wholesome Local Foods, by Kate Harvey and Karl Zinsmeister (McBooks Press, 208 pp., $22.95)

A recent front-page piece in the New York Times reported on an insect-borne bacterium decimating Florida’s orange groves. Producers are begging for research funds to fight the disease, and Coca-Cola, owner of Minute Maid, has ponied up a big pile of cash, as have growers big and small. The Times story examined various solutions, including ways to make the orange trees bug-resistant or to kill the bugs and bacterium directly—which would mean genetic engineering, new synthetic pesticides, or both. I couldn’t help thinking that Jayson Lusk, professor of agricultural economics and author of The Food Police, would wonder why the Times didn’t recommend sending in the Batman and Robin of the American food world—Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan. One imagines that they might propose a solution involving small local groves, legally set at sufficient distance from one another and fertilized by local outhouses.

The Times story served as a reminder that America’s food supply—the cheapest and most abundant in human history—faces dangers from which only science and technology can protect it. In his compact, lively, and well-argued new book, Lusk, a man who knows something about American agriculture—he actually worked on a farm—demolishes the economic ignorance and anti-capitalist, anti-science, anti-technological passion of our contemporary food police. This nagging elite is convinced that Big Agriculture, King Corn, the food scientists at Monsanto, and the Mad Men—we can call them Big Food for short—are engaged in a conspiracy to make food so cheap and so addictive, and so poisoned by additives and chemicals, that it fattens and then kills the American morons (that’s most of us) who eat it. Eventually, Big Food will kill the planet itself, which is sure to perish from “a holocaust of a different kind”: cow farts. The food police want to use public policy and taxes to eradicate genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and break up Big Food, replacing it so far as possible with Little Food—small local production, organic farming, natural pesticides, cage-free eggs, and mostly meatless diets. The byword for it all, of course, is Caring for the Planet.

To refute them, Lusk applies the simple lessons of Economics 101. Think fat and sugar taxes will help make us thinner? Think again. Food is so cheap in America that food purchases are relatively insensitive to price variations: a few cents more for a Coke won’t strain the consumer’s budget enough to force a change in consumption. For such a tax to work, it would have to be enormous. Even a 10 percent tax on fat, Lusk estimates, would reduce consumption by less than 1 percent; a tax of 20 percent on sugared beverages would result in a paltry two-pound weight loss, on average. Any truly effective tax would thus fall heavily and regressively on the poor, moreover, since higher taxes on generally cheap products will most affect the purchasing power of those with low incomes.

If obese people, in effect, force costs on others, then the only fair thing to do would be to tax fat people, not what makes them fat. The real issue here, argues Lusk, is where to place the blame: on the supposedly “toxic food environment” or on the free individuals who choose to eat too much of what they know will make them fat. And they do know; evidence shows that the relation between food-information labels and improved health outcomes is so weak that we should “wonder whether it’s worth making people feel bad about themselves” as they read the fast-food menu board. Lusk argues that if American agriculture were to go organic and local all the way, we would soon return to the relatively food-deprived nineteenth century—“relatively” because it was, even then, the most abundant food supply in the world—when people spent most of their money on food, and most people worked on farms.

Lusk’s thesis rings true with my own experience. Last summer, I bought an enormous, purple, and ugly heirloom tomato from a local farmer at the Eastern Market in Washington, D.C. The thing weighed just a bit over three pounds and was the best tomato my wife and I had ever eaten—a pleasure that lasted for two days. But it cost over $15; that’s almost three and a half times more per pound than I would have paid for the standard supermarket tomato. The farmer was driving a beat-up truck, which didn’t look to me like a fuel-efficient hybrid. About half of the tomatoes he had for sale were already sporting mold and not long for this world. I don’t buy supermarket tomatoes because, being a foodie myself, I don’t like them. But I pay through the nose for my preference, and the fellow who supplied that preference left a much bigger carbon footprint than the trains and semis that bring the stuff I don’t like—but most people do—to the supermarket. It’s more environmentally friendly to ship lamb from New Zealand than it is to get it from the farmer 15 miles out of town.

Going local means violating a lot of Econ 101 laws. Lusk examines Michael Pollan’s call for legislation requiring that a percentage of school-lunch funds be spent within 100 miles of each school. Pollan suggests that this would bolster local agriculture and provide a shot in the arm to local economies. Well, local farmers might prosper, says Lusk, but at whose expense? Imagine two communities, Northville and Southville. Northville’s food police legislate that all schools and hospitals buy only local food. When the Southville foodies do the same, Northville loses a market. Such a policy would be a foodie-enforced version of economic isolationism, resulting in misallocation of labor while violating the principle of comparative advantage—that Northville might grow some things, even most things, better and cheaper than Southville, or vice versa. Growing local also violates the principle of economies of scale. In every respect, then, local is inefficient. That tomato I bought cost me an arm and a leg.

Lusk is particularly hard on the food-police critique of federal food policy. Their dogma has it that subsidies of corn, soybeans, rice, and wheat cause these foods to be “dishonestly priced,” because the resulting cheapness results in costs imposed on society: namely, obesity and environmental damage. What we have here, says Lusk, “is a bunch of journalists, chefs, and cookbook authors playing armchair economist without having apparently mastered Econ 101.” While no fan of subsidies and other farm policies, Lusk argues that most of what the food police say about them cannot stand up to scrutiny. The federal Conservation Reserve Program keeps roughly 30 million acres of farmland out of production, while subsidies for ethanol increase corn prices, rather than depress them. Tariffs on beet and cane sugar raise those prices 15 percent over what they otherwise would be. A case could be made (and J. C. Beghin and H. H. Jensen made it in 2008’s Food Policy) that “current government policies make calories from all types of sugar (corn, cane, and beet) more expensive, not less.” Government food-assistance programs, which account for about 70 percent of the Farm Bill, drive food prices up, not down. Lusk doesn’t deny that some farm policies, such as funds for research, lower food prices. But “there is such a dizzying mix of farm programs and supports that for the food police to say conclusively that farm policies unilaterally lower food prices and make them ‘too cheap’ is misleading at best and outright dishonest at worst.” The evidence shows, Lusk says, that eliminating farm-commodity programs would have little or no effect on crop prices and production; it might even increase production of beef and pork.

The food ideologues’ bête noire, Monsanto, makes out like a bandit from federal food policy—not because of the subsidies they decry, but because of the regulations they support. Monsanto and other big firms can absorb the regulatory costs that cripple smaller competitors. Would that Pollan had looked at research on the supposed flow of farm-subsidy cash to the likes of Cargill and ADM. Intro Ag Econ teaches that commodity payments go primarily to owners of fixed assets, such as landowners. For every dollar spent on farm subsidies, 50 cents go to farmers and 25 to landlords; 20 go to domestic and foreign consumers, and five get wasted. That’s nada for anybody else.

Among farmers who feed at the public trough, the little ones get more than the big ones: as a proportion of agricultural output, small farms get five times more than big ones do. Overall, government spending on farm policy amounted to about 13 percent of all USDA spending in 2010, or just 4 percent of the value of all farm output. Lusk would rather the government get out of the business of choosing agricultural winners and losers and let the market work its will, but the food-police argument about the causes of “unfair prices” isn’t remotely convincing. (One point Lusk might have made, and didn’t, is that Americans were big-time sugar eaters by the 1750s and fast-eating gluttons by the mid-nineteenth century—all without the help of a nefarious Big Food.)

But what if subsidies really did make food too cheap? We still wouldn’t know if the subsidies cause us to be fat. Why is it that obesity rates in Australia have risen at about the same rate as those in the U.S., when Australia has no farm subsidies? Statistical research finds no relationship between changes in farm subsidies over time and across countries and changes in obesity rates. And if it did? If we followed the advice of the food police and transferred those subsidies to veggies, we’d stoke a massive increase in per-acre use of water, fertilizers, insecticides, and herbicides. Lettuce and strawberry farmers, for instance, use 100 times the pesticides per acre that wheat and soybean farmers do. The citrus growers top that by a mountain: 2,500 times more. Well, we’d go organic and small, right? But organic often uses natural pesticides just as toxic as the synthetic ones. You’re far likelier to be exposed to E. coli in organic food than in conventional fruits and vegetables. Apart from that, since the market in food is global, the cost of shrinking some American behinds could be measured in African lives. If you’re poor in Africa or elsewhere, you need cheap food. And since we don’t know that subsidies make us fat, we might better work out an equation that tells us how many poor lives it would cost for one unit of good feeling in the heart of a food ideologue.

It’s not even clear that being overweight or fat is all that dangerous to one’s health. Recent research published in 2005 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, with confirmatory studies published since, found that people between 25 and 59 were less likely to die if they were slightly overweight (17 percent over normal). People at the first grade of obesity were no more likely to die than normal-weight people. The people at genuine risk are the underweight and those afflicted by grades II and III obesity. But while those in these seriously obese categories grew to 15 percent of the population by 2000, their death rates did not increase. Since 1990, American life expectancy has risen by 2.5 years. One could argue that better medical care, not subsidies and sugar, causes people to conclude that they can eat more and get fatter.

While Lusk makes it clear that we’re “in the middle of a food fight,” he’s not recommending that we round up all the food cops, foodies, locavores, organic zealots, and greens. That makes this writer happy, since I’d be paying a penalty (or is it a tax?) for buying my $15 tomato. In fact, Lusk tells us, he drives a hybrid SUV, loves his local farmers’ market, and shops at Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca. (It’s clear that he’s never had a box of Kellogg’s Froot Loops in his house, because he refers to them twice as “Fruit Loops.”) But he also shops at Walmart, where those who can’t afford the fine stuff can buy nourishing and safe food at rock-bottom prices. In life, he tells us, there are always trade-offs: if you want to eat fine, you’ve got to pay fine. The problem with the food police is that they can pay fine—and they want everyone else to do the same.

That conservatives can care about fine local food is borne out by the charming and well-photographed cookbook Finger Lakes Feast, by Karl Zinsmeister, vice president for publications at the Philanthropy Roundtable. Zinsmeister’s son, Noah, a libertarian undergraduate at Columbia, did the photography and his daughter, the musician and blogger Kate Harvey, did most of the work in the kitchen. You can bet your socks that the food police see people like these as Tea Party bigots to be avoided at all costs. But the sentiment isn’t returned: the Zinsmeisters-Harvey cookbook team had no problem collaborating with the countercultural Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, still run by “a collective,” and with Stony Brook Whole Hearted Foods, producers of cooking oils from the seeds of local squash and dedicated to “regional sustainability” and “zero waste process.”

The book celebrates the local and natural foods and wines of New York’s Finger Lakes region, but it has no moral or political axe to grind. We’re reminded that nearly all nutrients are chemicals, that many naturally occurring compounds, such as molds and aflatoxins, are dangerous, and that while the book was being written in 2011, “more people were killed by bean sprouts from an organic farm in Germany (42 deaths after an E. coli outbreak) than by any man-made food additives or fertilizers.” Manure can be hazardous, and natural or organic foods are about eight times more likely to be recalled than conventionally produced foods. The authors bite the cost bullet straight-on: local, natural, and organic foods can be prohibitively expensive. It’s good to eat local and natural, but we shouldn’t make doing so into a “substitute religion.” Amen, brother.

Finger Lakes Feast is also a book about a family at the table. Many of the recipes are adaptations of dishes from Finger Lakes restaurants, but others are just old family favorites, and the book is ordered roughly around the meal: first breakfast and then dinner (we’re on our own for lunch). Dinner starts with soups and appetizers, moves to mains, looks askance to salads and sides, and ends with sweets. Along the way, we learn about local products such as buckwheat, various fruit and nut butters, killer bee honey (yes, killer bee honey), the many wines of the region and where to find them, and charming lessons about the culinary legacy of the Chautauqua movement: “Chautauqua Graham Bread,” for instance, based on the principles of Sylvester Graham, one of America’s first diet-food cranks. And we get some advice about how to raise chickens on our own (no roosters, please), even in the city. This may sound silly and over the top, but take it seriously: I’ve eaten eggs just an hour out of the hen, and I can attest that there’s nothing like them to be found in any store—even the most local and most organic.

The recipes are mostly wonderful: fresh, simple, and not overly difficult. My favorites are Butternut Squash & Chevre Pudding, a rich concoction that tastes like a vegetable foie gras, and Halibut in Pea Sauce, which speaks for itself. Cooking your way through this wonderful book will be a daily delight. A few quibbles: some recipes call for canned legumes, a timesaver to be sure, but better to make your own (quick and easy with a pressure cooker). The canned ones are good, but they make it hard to control the salt in a dish, so if you do use them, it’s essential to rinse off the salty goo that often accompanies them. For all the focus on local artisanal products, the authors make no mention of craft beer. The Finger Lakes have a thriving craft-beer culture (as I write this, the Ithaca Beer Company is holding a tasting event at the Ithaca Wegman’s). Finally, I wonder how many readers will recognize the vegetable pictured but not identified on the section page for Salads & Side Dishes? I pass the test: they’re garlic scapes.

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