The Q & A Series: Jayson Lusk

Welcome to the Q&A series, a project aimed at examining food politics and the “food debate” through the eyes and minds of people involved in making and thinking about food. My questions are in bold; the interviewee’s responses are in plain text.

I’m pleased to launch the series with Jayson Lusk. 

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Jayson Lusk is the Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University. He has a B.S. in Food Technology (Texas Tech) and a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics (Kansas State). His research focuses on predicting and understanding consumer behavior as it relates to food.

He’s published more than a hundred scholarly articles, and authored, co-authored, or co-edited five books. Among those is COMPASSION, BY THE POUND, co-written with F. Bailey Norwood, which looks at the economics of “industrial” livestock production. In April 2013, Jayson published THE FOOD POLICE: A WELL-FED MANIFESTO ABOUT THE POLITICS OF YOUR PLATE. His personal website is jaysonlusk.com.

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Courtesy of Jason Lusk/Karen Lemley

Q.: When you’re at a backyard meet-and-greet and people learn that you’re an agricultural economist, my guess is that their eyes glaze over (happens to me all the time). So, Jayson, tell us: What does an ag economist do? (Plain English, please!)

You’re right. Eyes often glaze over. Well, either that or I get an earful.  After all, everyone has an opinion about food!

Ag economists are a diverse lot, but ultimately, I think we are all trying to understand or predict the choices of farmers, consumers, agribusinesses, or governments, given the fact that we all face constraints related to factors like income and natural resources.  Stated differently: How do we make the best choice possible when our wallets won’t let us have everything we want?

A few examples of the diverse topics ag economists work on might help: projecting the profitability of new crop or farming practices; trying to determine why there are so few beef packers and whether they have enough control to depress cattle prices; figuring how much corn US farmers will plant next year if the government changes ethanol polices or if Brazil experiences a drought; projecting how government-mandated country of origin labels on meat will affect meat prices, trade, and the financial well-being of farmers and consumers; estimating the impacts of climate change on the profitability of farmers; and predicting the success or failure of new or emerging foods like organic eggs, sliced peanut butter, or laboratory-grown meat.

Q.: I’ve got to say (and here’s hoping I don’t sound too much like a groupie): For an economist, your work is surprisingly accessible. As part of my research, I’ve spent an absurd amount of reading the work of academic economists and I’m here to tell ya: They rarely speak English, if you know what I mean. So huge thanks for thinking about your readers. 

But that raises a (to me) obvious question: Was the decision to write in a way that non-experts could understand a choice you made early on? Or was it forced on you? You found yourself in front of non-academic audiences and so you wised up?

A.: Thanks for the compliment!  At the onset, it must be said that academic jargon and mathematics can serve the purpose of facilitation communication between members of “the group.”  Unfortunately, these tools are often used as puffery, to intimidate, and sometimes to obfuscate. It is unfortunately the way to get papers into the “top” economics journals. Over the years, I’ve learned that to explain something well, you have to understand it well.  Thus, confusing writing is often covering up confusing thinking.

I had a number of formative lessons that shaped how I think about writing.  First, my graduate-school advisors would hand back my work dripping in red ink, and as painful as it was at the time, it really helped me to think about how to communicate clearly.  I can recall several instances early in my career where I worked through the math and jargon to figure out what an author was saying, only to ultimately realize that it wasn’t that complicated, and I vowed to try to avoid such nonsense.

I can also recall how much I learned from clear, well written papers that I read and re-read to wring out every last word of wisdom. That made me aspire to write the kind of papers that might someday wind up coffee-stained and dog-eared on some future graduate student’s desk.

After writing many academic papers, I began to realize that if I wanted “real people” to actually read the stuff I wrote, I needed to communicate differently and in different venues.  Part of that process required writing a bit more polemically and provocatively, but ultimately, I’ve found that I’ve been most successful when I write in the same way I’d talk to the person I’m trying to teach or persuade.

Q.: Here’s what I find most interesting about your work in general: 

On Monday, Wednesday, Friday, you’re a brainy economist who’s making good arguments about how people make important decisions about important things (or, as an economist might put it: you study human agency and its role in how capitalism works). 

And on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, you’re a blunt, no-holds-barred pitbull, attacking lefties, the food elites, food fascists, nanny staters, and the like. 

As a scholar (of sorts) myself, I’m fascinated by that balancing act. How do you pull that off? As a scholar, you’re bound to the facts of your subject (and in this context, “scholar” can be used more or less interchangeably with “scientist”), whether you personally agree with those results. But as Jayson Lusk sitting around the proverbial political kitchen table, you’re opinionated as hell and those opinions permeate your every fiber — and they’re sometimes at odds with scholarship. 

A.: So I’m schizophrenic?

I’m can imagine how it might seem that way, but here is how I see it.  In a lot of my writing for public audiences, I am defending the state of knowledge as established by the scientific literature.  When I write about organics, local food, biotechnology, or the effects of farm policy or fat taxes, I’m not just spouting an opinion; rather I’m conveying what the best science (at least my interpretation of it) has to say on these subjects.

Sometimes I do that in a provocative style that will garner attention, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that there is no substance.  I stand by the arguments I make and I back them up with research.

That being said, there are two parts to science.  There is the positive – the “what is.”  And, there is the normative – “what does this mean?”; “given these results, what should be done?”

These two are not nearly as distinct as many non-academics presume.  In many fields of science — public health research immediately comes to mind — it is common for the normative to be woven in with the positive, either in the topics the authors choose to study or in the way the analysis is conducted or results interpreted.

This state of affairs can sometimes lead to trouble, as witnessed by controversy surrounding the response of a prominent nutritionist to a research study showing that over-weight and slightly obese people live longer than normal weight (see here for the details).

So, I spend a lot of my time on positive issues: “nothing but the facts ma’am”. Sometimes I wish the world were different than the facts reveal, but my job as a scientist is to report them.

I think the key to being a good scholar and scientist is to be open minded and be willing to change your opinion when presented with sufficient evidence and facts regardless of one’s initial position.  Otherwise, one winds up being an ideologue.

But that doesn’t mean scientists can’t draw normative judgments or exercise their right as citizens to engage in civil society.  Most of my writings for popular audiences tend to be normative in nature (and thus open to dispute and subject to which values one finds important), but they are intimately informed by scientific evidence.

Q.: Let’s talk food and meat. Economists are like historians: you collect facts about specific experiences, but the analysis of those facts forces you to take a broad, long view. 

So when you’re thinking about, say, the economics of feeding an urban society, you’re aware that that activity isn’t a one-shot deal. You have to embrace a broad, long-view perspective. 

With that in mind, let’s look at a specific controversy: confinement (aka CAFOs).

Back in the 1950s, many American farmers adopted confinement-based livestock production as a way to cope with labor shortages and rising land prices. They moved livestock off pasture and indoors or onto paved feedlots. 

These days, however, many food activists argue that confinement is bad for the environment, for livestock, and for meat quality. They want livestock back on pasture. 

If farmers abandon confinement in favor of pasture, classic economic theory says meat prices will go up. That’s because pasture-based livestock production requires more land and more labor. Land and ag labor are both scarce goods, and their prices high (for the sake of simplicity, let’s leave the whole immigration/immigrant-labor factor out of this hypothetical). 

As a result, livestock producers, whether “family farmers” or “corporate farmers,” will be forced to spend more dollars feeding feed cattle or hogs. Higher production costs will translate into grocery store sticker shock. Consumers will flee (and get really pissed off). Demand for meat will drop. (And presumably “equilibrium” between demand and supply will gyrate back and forth.)

Yes? No? Maybe? 

A.: The story you outline is generally right; however, I will quibble with a few details.

Given consumer demand for a fixed quantity meat, it isn’t necessarily true that supplying that meat on “grass only” is more environmentally friendly, mainly because it requires more land and other resources to supply a given quantity of meat.

Also, it should be noted that the research shows most (but not all) Americans prefer the taste of grain-fed to grass-fed beef, so “food activists” may have a harder time pushing for a major switch to grass-fed beef than it initially appears. (Note: almost all cows are fed on hay, grass, and other forage for the majority of their lives – it is only in the last 150 days or so that feedlot cattle are fed a diet of grains – mainly corn).

The question of whether a transition from “feedlots” to “grassland” would benefit farmers and consumers depends on the cause of the transition.

If the change comes, for example, from a tax on feedlots, it is almost certain to harm both producers and consumers (assuming no “externalities” – o.k., I had to throw in a bit of jargon!).

If, instead, the change comes from a shift in consumer demand for grass-fed beef (i.e., consumers begin willing to pay more for grass-fed beef due to advertisement, social pressure, education, etc.), then we could wind up with higher prices and more meat – good for both producers and consumers (again, assuming no externalities).

It could also be the case that farmers and ranchers learn to produce grass-fed beef more efficiently due to technological change or improvements in plant/animal genetics, in which case grass-fed meat prices would fall, quantity will rise, consumers will definitely benefit, and producers probably would too.  Of course, it is possible to concoct other scenarios, but the point remains that the ultimate benefits/costs of a switch to grassland depend on the impetus for the change.

Q.: A related matter: Here’s one thing I learned from the seven years I spent researching my book about meat: When meat prices soar, consumers howl. They demand that “someone” do something about it. Put another way: a significant change in the way livestock is raised will create a ripple of social and political change. Yes? No? Maybe? How should policymakers and “society” deal with the conflict?

A.: This reminds me of consumer response to changes in gasoline prices. When prices rise, evil Exxon is ripping us off and the public clamors for an “excess profits” tax, but ironically when prices fall no one claims Exxon is benevolent or that they should be subsidized.  [Maureen’s note: I used this same example in the Introduction to In Meat We Trust.]

On your broader point, I agree that it seems (often to my dismay) that there is a natural urge to turn to the political process to seek redress when we find conditions unfavorable.

I know this isn’t popular to say or psychologically satisfying, but policymakers and “society” need not deal with every conflict.  Rather, you deal with high prices and I deal with high prices – there is no “we” per se.

As a consumer, rising prices for meat are a signal to cut back on burgers and to seek out cheaper alternatives; as a producer, rising prices for meat are a signal to try to find ways to supply more cattle.  I wouldn’t tend to advocate for government intervention in the face of rising prices unless there were serious evidence of a “market failure” (e.g., market power, externalities, information asymmetries, etc.) and that there was a realistic chance politicians could act in a way that actual solves the problem without undue corruption, unintended consequences, or abridgment of individual freedoms.

Q.: The idea of rebuilding our food production system strikes me as extraordinarily impractical. Indeed, my greatest frustration with the “food movement” is that its advocates resolutely ignore a fundamental issue: City people don’t make their own food. They rely on farmers. And for the past two centuries, Americans have demonstrated their preference for city rather than farm. (Urbanization made it possible for Steve Jobs, for example, had time to think about computing/invention because he didn’t have to spend his days pulling weeds and canning food.) 

As a result, our American mode of food production (from seed to table) is designed to support an urban society; it’s designed so that a tiny minority can make food for an urban majority. 

The food reformers, however, argue that we should abandon “industrial” agriculture and food production in favor of smaller, local, more artisanal-like modes of production. 

Is it possible to feed American cities with what amounts to a retrogressive system of food production? For example, bare minimum, in order to return livestock to pasture, we’d have to raze thousands of urban structures — malls, shops, housing developments — and return that land to farming. And then we’d have to persuade people to move to farms. (N.B.: I’m NOT volunteering. I grew up pulling weeds.) Your thoughts? 

A.: I completely agree, and the sentiments expressed here represent an undercurrent swirling behind many of the arguments in my book, The Food Police. Here’s what I had to say about it there:

[The food movement has] taken boutique food made for the rich and fancifully imagined a world where the poor can afford it too.  It is a beautiful vision, but one at odds with reality.  However much they wish it were different, organic, local, slow food is typically lower yielding food.  Even if we didn’t have the distorting effects of farm policies and all the negative and positive externalities were fully internalized (in both organic and non-organic production systems), it would probably remain the case that the fashionable food would cost more.

What I’m at least willing to admit – and the food police seem to deny – is that there is a tradeoff between an abundant food supply that can feed a growing population and a higher-quality boutique food supply that can suit the fancy of foodies.  It doesn’t in the least bother me that there are niche markets catering to the whims of a few, but when the food police act as if national policies promoting fancy food is a net plus, it is a triumph of ideology over reason.

Q.: Let’s face it: “food activists” have the upper hand. For better or for worse, they control the message, the media, and thus the agenda. They’ve persuaded many Americans that the factory system of making meat is evil and must be eliminated. Whether the livestock and meat industries like it or not (and all their alleged lobbying power notwithstanding), they’re gonna have change forced on them.

I’ve come up with some ideas that might make both sides happy. 

1. Zoning laws that set aside land specifically for livestock production and meatpacking (acres located in sparsely populated areas). Some landowners would be forced to sell their farms and move, but surely that’s preferable to the alternatives outlined in the previous question. 

2. A special minimum wage for agricultural and meatpacking workers. Let’s pay those people, say, twice the regular minimum-wage rate — and let’s require packing plant owners and farmers to pass those costs to consumers (aka city folks). 

Feasible? Impossible? I should stick to history and stay out of policy making?

A.: Generally, I’m not in favor of one person getting to dictate how another uses their property.  However, there is some economic logic underpinning your idea in 1) in the sense that when there are externalities (i.e., putting a hog farm on my property might impost costs to you via smell, runoff, etc. that are not reflected in the price of meat).  If a producer ignores the costs they impose on others, then they will tend to produce “too much,” and the key is to try to get the level of production to reflect those extra costs, either through negotiation, threat of litigation, or taxes.

Zoning is another way to deal with some of these externality issues, although I’m not sure how efficient a lever it is relative to some of those other alternatives.  Implicit in your zoning idea is that in rural areas, there are fewer people, and as such, the externalities are lessened or nonexistent (there are no people around to experience the external costs).

It should be noted that something akin to zoning laws are already happening.  States that have more regulations and stricter zoning laws (e.g., California) are losing large dairies, feedlots, and hog operations to states with less strenuous laws (e.g., Texas, North Carolina).  When I was a child in the 1980s, living in the rural Texas panhandle, there no dairies of any size; now there numerous 1000+ head dairies.  Many of the dairy owners now in Texas arrived from the more populated, more litigious areas on east and west coasts.

On your second idea: I am not a big fan of minimum wage laws in general.  Although they can raise the wages of people who are lucky enough to keep their jobs, what about the people who don’t get hired because lawmakers have “artificially” raised their wage above what employers are willing to pay?  The only person who has enough information and incentive to decide whether they are willing to accept a given wage is the worker evaluating the offer – not some third party setting a minimum wage.

All this is a way of saying that a minimum wage can cause higher unemployment.  This is particularly true in sectors like agriculture and food processing where capital can be readily substituted for labor if labor becomes too costly.

I will admit that the empirical literature in economics tends to show the unemployment effect caused by minimum wages is small (at least at current levels of minimum wage), but there is no reason to expect this same kind of result to hold when a minimum wage is applied to only one sector of the economy; artificially making labor in meat production more expensive is almost certain to cause a rapid shift toward mechanization, imports from countries with lower labor costs, and fewer employment opportunities for some of the least fortunate among us.

Q.: As you know, the food movement uses science to suit its own needs (well, okay, everyone does that). Food activists think nothing of reporting bad science as fact in order to support their point of view.

But I think that’s in part a symptom of something more fundamental: The ongoing  fragmentation of “science.” When science is in the eye of the beholder, there is no “scientific authority.” But the loss of scientific “authority” has troubling implications: Who should we believe? Anyone? No one? And if we lack a solid set of “facts,” how do we navigate the messy, complicated terrain that is our planet and our lives? If science loses all authority, we humans will have no choice but to rely on “moral codes” as the basis of decision-making, but — that’s an even swampier morass than science. How can a society with no shared factual culture hope to shape public policy, for example? Any ideas? 

A.: In my experience, there is much less disagreement among scientists than the media and the various “food fights” would seem to suggest.

For example, I would venture to guess that if you asked most agricultural scientists or scientists studying biology or biotechnology, you would find near unanimity that eating currently approved GMOs is perfectly safe. There is a proliferation of academic journals, and some mix science with advocacy for a particular cause, whether it is organic foods, public health intervention, or Marxist economics.  However, most scientists know there is a reasonably clear hierarchy of peer-reviewed journals, and research appearing in the “top” journals carries much more weight. A study on organics or biotechnology appearing in Nature or Science matters much, much more than one appearing in Journal of Organic Systems.

So, “yes” various studies can be “used” to promote a cause, and maybe issues become muddled for the public, but I suppose I’m just naïve enough to believe that high-quality science published in high-quality outlets has “authority”, at least for those who really want to know the truth, and that it can win the day in public policy deliberations if not in the court of public opinion.

Q: Look ten years down the road. Antibiotics in livestock production: legal or not? GMOs: Legal or not? CAFOs: Legal or not?

A.: Antibiotics: probably illegal to use as a blanket, generic growth promotant for market cattle/hogs but legal for treatment of illness.

GMOs: almost certainly legal, but I say it is a 50/50 chance as to whether a mandatory label is required in the US.

CAFOs: I’m 98.3% sure they’ll still be around in 2023.

Q.: As a scholar, a citizen, and a consumer, what changes would you like to see in the contemporary food system?

A.: As someone who grew up in a rural community and with grandparents that, at least for formative portions of their lives, depended on agriculture for a living, it is my hope to convey the incredible benefits that have been brought about by our modern American food production system.  Farming seems quaint and romantic, that is, unless you’ve been there and done that.  Farming with 1950’s technology was no joy ride, and we should recoil at any attempt to return to that way of life.

How should the food system change?  In the long run, we will be better off if we are more accepting of food technologies and are willing to invest in fundamental research in food and agricultural science. This is a totally different mindset that the prevailing “return to nature” thinking that pervades popular writings on food, and much of my popular writings are trying to convey how much we stand to lose if we make a “return to nature” and how much we stand to gain if we’ll think about technology in food in the same way we think about technology for phones.

4 thoughts on “The Q & A Series: Jayson Lusk

  1. Great and informative interview!

    I do think y’all sound kind of silly fretting about the big, mean “food movement” and the threat it poses to the giants of agribusiness. (‘Round here in rural NC, the threat to CAFOs seems to come much more from folks worried about the pollution of streams and soil with excess nitrogen.) But, if it helps to have a bogeyman, you go for it.

    Here’s the problem I have. I live in North Carolina. I gather we’re a distant second to Iowa in hog production. We’re home to Smithfield, which seems to be the source of all the pork available in local grocery stores. Smithfield injects (or soaks) its pork chops in a saline solution (says so right on the package). This makes it nearly impossible to brown the meat properly. Plus, it’s generally tasteless.

    I bought a couple of pork chops from a local farmer at the state-sponsored farmers market. Browned up great. Tasted rich. Comparing it to the Smithfield, grocery-store chops, it was kind of like comparing the eggs my backyard chickens produce to grocery store eggs.

    Now, I’m quite sure that the protein content of that Smithfield chop (if we subtract out the water weight) is the same as the locally-grown pork chop. But, if I was just looking for tasteless protein, I could have a soy shake.

    So, how do we keep the wonderful modern miracle producer of cheap protein that y’all are justifiably so proud of — and produce a pork chop that cooks, and tastes, like a real pork chop?

    Thoughts?

    Thanks again for a great interview. I think this Q&A format is a great idea. I look forward to the next installment!

    Greg

  2. Did you read the same interview I did? I’m really scratching my head here.

    So. Hmmm. Not even sure where to begin. I was trying to get at the economics of conventional v. alternative food in an urban society. But perhaps I failed completely.

    There’s no doubt that CAFOs are environmentally bad. BUT: if we follow the reformers’ plan of moving livestock back to pasture, well, I ask the same question I’ve asked before: Where will the land come from? Ours is an urban nation, and farmers, like everyone else, compete for scarce land. Urbanites are the overwhelming majority, and so most land goes to urban functions and needs. CAFOs were originally used to cope with rising land shortages (as well as shortages of labor).

    So if we switch to pasture, well: Where will the land/labor come from?

    As for that tasty pork chop. I bet it was good! Now. Can that local farmer produce enough pork to feed everyone within, say, a 500-mile radius? (At least.)

    And for the record, I eat local meat. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but when I do, I buy local meat. But I’m not everyone. And if everyone wants that local meat, well —- lay out a plan for providing it. Please!

  3. I’m all for using science to continue to feed our growing urban population. I’m also all for proof that GMOs are not harmful and to provide farmers with the best, most cost effective ways to stay in business and produce the meat needed. However, I do also think we can’t look at this problem only in the same way we look at technology for phones (and perhaps he wasn’t saying that, but I know of people who do.) We are also raising living beings, and there’s no doubt that some modern agri-business practices probably leave a less than stellar quality of life for the animals being raised. There’s definitely a moral question involved as well, and I would like to see that addressed more in this Q&A sessions. I, myself, am a vegitarian for very many reasons, but I am not against meat as a food source. Furthermore, I may not produce animals for food, but I have worked with domestic livestock and exotic animals for more than 15 years, so have some intimacy with the subject. Thanks!

  4. I made an executive decision (me being the boss!) to omit discussion of animal ethics. Don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly aware of the discussion about animal ethics and animal rights. But I can’t cover EVERYTHING — so I decided to focus the series on other issues. There are plenty of other places to find discussions of welfare, ethics, etc.

    This is a current refrain here at my website and even in my books: I simply can’t cover every. single. topic. It’s impossible. So I make deliberate decisions about where to focus. Some stuff gets left out.

    In any case, THANKS so much for taking time to read. Assuming all my interviewees come through, I’ll be running another more Q&A entries .

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