Interview with Jayson Lusk, Author of “The Food Police”

Readers, I have a huge treat for you today: an interview with Jayson Lusk, author of The Food Police!

The Food Police has made several appearances lately here at CK: I read it during my 30 Day Voracious Reading Trial, I discussed the failure of Fat Taxes using ideas from it, and we even did an "intellectual honesty" book giveaway of The Food Police, pairing it with its ideological opposite: Michele Simon’s book Appetite for Profit.

There’s a reason The Food Police keeps showing up around here: because it’s a useful book and a very good read. Likewise, for those readers curious to learn more, his website offers more of his logical, common-sense and reliably well-argued perspective on the food industry. Today, Professor Lusk himself is here at Casual Kitchen to discuss his ideas.

[Reader note: this interview is in two parts: today we'll have a question-and-answer session, and tomorrow we'll let Dr. Lusk personally recommend a useful list of books, online resources--and even people to follow on Twitter--for readers interested in learning more. Stay tuned!]

Let’s hear what Dr. Lusk has to say:

Casual Kitchen: Share a little of your background with Casual Kitchen readers. Philosophically, how did you arrive at your views against heavy-handed government involvement in the food industry? What drove you to write The Food Police and to become an "anti-elitist" voice in the debate over food policy?

Jayson Lusk: I grew up in a rural area of West Texas (there were 12 people in my graduating high school class). Although my family didn’t farm for a living, I spent my summers working on neighbors’ farms and we raised animals for 4-H and FFA projects; I also worked in a large food processing plant during college. Those experiences, coupled with an undergraduate degree in Food Technology and a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, provided a deep appreciation for why we grow and manufacture food the way we do. Thus, a big motive in writing The Food Police was to try to set the record straight in terms of the popular narratives about the state of food in America.

Popular journalistic exposés about food are beautifully written, but they are sensationalized and rarely provide proper context or the full picture, and the unfortunate reality is that many people were being persuaded by anecdotal evidence rather than science. The "anti-elitist" comes in because of the belief by a handful of writers (and now influential policy makers) who presume to know how to properly run a farm when they have no experience doing so. Moreover, many of the modern food movements are an attempt to force one group’s (typically upper-middle class) tastes and preferences on another group of people who have much different incomes and desires. The problems of hunger and food security have been forgotten in favor of issues like local and organic.

CK: There’s a fascinating discussion in your book on the negative unintended consequences of things like fat taxes, ethanol subsidies, soda bans and other well-meaning food policies. Why is it so easy--for all of us--to be blind to unintended consequences? Why do you think unintended consequences keep springing up in the world of food advocacy?

JL: It is easier to focus on the effects we can see rather than the effects we don't see or which lay outside our immediate attention. Unfortunately, all those unseen effects can dwarf all the seen effects. I think this is one of the things that drew me to the field of economics: a recognition that life has no easy answers – only tradeoffs – and that one should always be cognizant of the unseen effects.

There are two other tendencies which lead to unintended consequences. The first is the urge to "do something" in light of an announced food problem. Trying to pass a law or advocating for a specific change gives the satisfaction of feeling like something is being accomplished and that can blind us to the total effects the changes will ultimately have. This phenomenon also tends to overlook the many millions of choices by consumers and farmers who are indeed "doing something" in response to the incentives they face. We should be more cautious of the single top-down "doing something" and more appreciative of the many millions of bottom up "doing somethings."

Secondly, there is a natural human urge to take those things that are important to us and presume they should be important to everyone else. Many foodies care passionately about the quality of food and they presume others should too (in spite of their incomes or their particular tastes). This can cause us to focus on the effects that interest us and ignore the effects that are less important to us but that are important to many other people.

CK: Do you ever find yourself agreeing with any of the views of "pro-government involvement" food advocates like Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan or Michele Simon? Your right-to-know position on GMO labeling comes to mind as one surprising example. Are there others?

JL: I think these folks get a lot things right. For example, I enjoy reading Pollan's books and I think he's right to praise the taste of local food, to celebrate cooking, and encourage people to slow down and enjoy eating. Where I think he goes astray is advocating policies that would mandate or subsidize these activities. And while he is right to point out some of the downsides of modern production agriculture, he selectively chooses which stories to tell, and as a result, fails to point out the immense benefits of the use of technology in food and agriculture, particularly for the least fortunate among us. His stories of cause-and-effect are often poorly rooted in history or economic science.

There are two short-cut ways of thinking about the politics of food and if I had to crudely boil down the impression one gets when they read Nestle-Pollan-Simon it is: "agribusiness and food companies bad, government good." It is true that sometimes food corporations do bad things and the government has some beneficial duties, but in The Food Police, I remind people of the good from entrepreneurship, technology, and convenience that food companies provide in response to our demands – and the damage that bad food policies can do. Where I believe the aforementioned kind of thinking goes astray is the failure to recognize the benefits of competition in providing us foods we want at a price we are willing to pay: companies face competition, the government doesn't.

By the way, I do not have a "right-to-know" position on GMO labeling; I have recently encouraged companies to voluntarily provide such information. Here is my most recent, more nuanced, discussion on the issue, but I still firmly believe the arguments I've made against MANDATORY GMO labeling.

CK: You've been falsely criticized for being somehow "bought and paid for" by the food industry, simply because there have been instances where you’ve sided with industry in food policy debates (readers, see Jayson’s post "Do I Work For Monsanto" for more context here). How do you usually respond to unfair ad hominem attacks like this? Is there a response?

JL: First, I point out the truth: no one pays me to write the things I do. I also point out that I've never consulted or received income from Monsanto, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, etc. If one looks in the footnotes of The Food Police, you'll find references and citations to the best science on the subject, and the arguments I make are firmly rooted in the best scientific evidence. As such, these sorts of ad hominem attacks don’t really bother me that much because they are the weakest form of argument.

When someone levels this charge it is typically because they cannot rebut the substance of my argument. There is an important point to clarify. I am not a defender of "big ag" or "big food." I perceive myself as a defender of the food consumer. However much we say we want more local or more healthy food, the reality is that food price typically trumps when we are in the grocery store. Those who advocate for policies that would increase food prices, make foods less convenient, or (sometimes) less safe are advocating for policies that, based on most consumer's shopping behavior, would cause them economic harm. I'm defending consumers' preferences as reflected in the choices they make.

CK: Why is it that many food policy advocates strongly dislike the phrase "personal responsibility"? Michele Simon, for example, makes a semantic argument that the mere use of the phrase is a distraction tactic: that food companies rationalize selling unhealthy food by saying consumers need "personal responsibility" to eat it in moderation. What’s your perspective on the semantic debate here? Does the food industry share in personal responsibility for the food we consumers willingly buy?

JL: I have a good friend who once remarked that it is impossible to have a reasonable discussion about the concept of free will. That probably extends, on some level, to the concept of personal responsibility. Clearly, our choices are shaped by the environment in which we live and by the offerings of food companies. But, we have to realize that our food environment is also shaped by our cumulative choices. To stay in business, food companies must respond to our desires. [Readers: see CK's post "Survivor Bias" for more on this subject.]

I’m not sure where it leaves us to argue we have no volition or personal responsibility. If I'm not responsible for my choices then who is? I believe I have a much keener interest in the outcomes of my food choices (and my children's food choices) than does some third party in California or Washington, D.C. I see it as one of my most important goals to teach my children to take responsibility for the choices they make and to act with character and honor. What is to be said for the argument that would absolve people of responsibility?

Finally, I'm not sure how useful it is to use the word "responsibility" in regard to food companies. Food companies face legal liability if they mislead or damage consumers; they can also suffer reputation losses if they have a food safety recall or otherwise act in negligent ways. They have a huge financial stake in making clean, safe, affordable food. Food companies can only stay in business by making and selling us things we will buy. It puts farmers and food companies in a pickle to mandate that they sell foods we won't buy: it is a recipe for unprofitability and bankruptcy. Food companies respond to consumer demands. Consumers are the ones with the ultimate choice of how to spend their money.

Readers, you can find Part 2 of this interview here!

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