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FARE-talk is to provide an enduring conversation about contemporary topics relevant to food, agricultural, and resource economics.

The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate

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[0:05] Brady: Welcome to FARE Talk, where we set out to provide enduring discussions on contemporary topics relevant to our economy, with particular emphasis on food, agriculture and the environment. My name is Brady Deaton Jr. of the Department of Food, Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Guelph. I'll be your host.

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Brady: Today I'll be speaking to Dr. Jason Lusk about his recent book The Food Policy: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate. Jason serves as Regents Professor and Willard Sparks Endowed Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University and also serves as a Samuel Roberts Nobel Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs. Jason, welcome to FARE Talk.

Jason: Hi Brady. Thanks for having me on.

[0:53] Brady: Let's start off with just talking about who are the food police and what are they doing that concerns you?

Jason: [Laughs] Well, I kind of like to think about them as the back seat drivers when it comes to food. So it’s sort of group of people that think they know better about how you and I should be eating, how farmers should be farming and, you know, it's not a huge group of people, but they've been incredibly influential in affecting how our cultural, how our nation thinks about food and recently also having some impact on public policy or at least public attitudes about public policy. And I think the challenge is, both, from my perspective, is the mis-characterization that is fostered about production agriculture on the one hand, and then also the sort of lack of recognition of what the economic research, and not just economic research, but science in general says about some of the policies that are being advocated. And I think that the unfortunate reality is that many of the policies that are advocated are going to be more costly than they are beneficial and sometimes do more harm than good.

[2:05] Brady: That’s, before we get into some of these specific policies, which I do want to serve as the fulcrum, really, of our conversation, one of the things that I noticed at the start of your book is that their characterization, or who you termed the food police, a group of people that are commenting somewhat pejoratively about the current state of agriculture in North America, is very different from your own perception of contemporary agriculture. And I was wondering if you could draw that out a little bit.

Jason: Right, so you know, the sort of popular narrative that most people have about food is that, it's been fostered by these folks I'm calling the food police, is that, you know, sometime in the 50s or 60s something went wrong. And that thing that went wrong, often the finger is pointed at agribusiness, and various technologies that agribusinesses developed and that led to this process of farmers becoming bigger. They claim there's corporatization of farming; small farms are being run out of business. Farmers can't get a break; they're being manipulated by these big companies. And at the same time, the consumers are getting fat, we're not eating as healthily as we once were, and this is all a result of this out of control, sort of corporatization of agriculture and it’s also a result of the farm policies that we have, subsidizing these big corporate farms and agribusinesses. Now that's the story that's told, and that's sort of the characterization that many people have about our food sector. And part of what I'm doing is pushing back against that a little bit. Some of that is true of course, but I think a lot of it overlooks some really important facts and misses some really important benefits. So, just to take a step back, you know, they, to read these popular writings about food, everything is bad with food. We have all these terrible environmental consequences, these terrible social consequences from small farmers going out of business, and then also these terrible health problems. And so, part of what I'm doing is saying, "Well let's just look at what is actually going on out there," and I think when you look at a lot of the statistics about the state of food and agriculture in this country, and in Canada, what you see are really positive signs. And now I'm not claiming that there aren't any problems, or that there aren't things we need to think about, but what I am saying, is that we need a sort of accurate picture of the world that surrounds us before we start advocating all kinds of changes. So, just to give some examples, you know, one is that life expectancy is increasing, it's been dramatically increasing over the past 100 years, but even in the last 20 years alone, while there's been all of these supposed health problems, life expectancy has continues to rise. In addition to that, and I don't know the statistics on Canada, but in the US there are actually more farms today than there were 10 years ago, there are more small farms today. The farms that do exist are making more money than they once did. It used to be the case that being a farmer was an occupation of a popper, but today the median income of farmers far surpasses the median income of, you know, regular households. That's not to say anything about the assets that those farmers hold too. So, financially, farmers are doing well off, and small farmers are also doing relatively well off. I'm sure they wish they were doing better [laughs] but they're doing well. And I think whenever we look at even other things like food safety, it's also getting better. The, you know, for example, the number of confirmed cases of E. Coli, for example has gone done significantly over the past decade or so. People in the US are eating more fruits and vegetables than they were in the 70s. Women are spending much less time in the kitchen than they did in the 60s. I think there is some shocking number, like 80% less time in meal clean-up and preparation women spend today than they did in the 1960s. Now I know some people like Michael Pollan, in his recent book Cooked, he's trying to get everybody back to the kitchen. I think that's a fine thing to suggest, but I think if you actually looked at the lives many of our grandmothers led, you know, it was not all that romantic [laughs] and to feed that family, they had to spend a lot of time in that kitchen. They didn’t have microwaves, they didn't have easy to prepare meals, so it really did take the bulk of a day getting ready for a meal and cleaning it up. And I think that's, of course there are a lot of reasons for this, but one of the reasons many women today can now enjoy working outside the home is because a lot of the tasks you used to have occupy a lot of the time for women are now obsolete, and I think that's a great thing. So, you know, I could go on and on but I think the overall picture that I'm trying to paint here is that the state of food and agriculture in our society is great, it's never been better, and it's never been better in the history of humankind. I mean the biggest challenge for humans, historically, has been finding enough food to eat. And yea, we have some problems now about maybe eating too much, but in my opinion, that's the lesser of two evils. We might need to think about ways we can get better at that but in a lot of ways, I think we're really enjoying absolutely amazing abundance [laughs] of food both variety and quantity and quality that's never been witnessed in human history.

[7:24] Brady: In a previous podcast that we did with David Schweikhardt, we looked at the history of farm bills in the United States. And this history starts in the 1930s and contemporary, what we call the contemporary food system as you know, has built a lot of government policies, some which we might be more critical of than others. But in its initial, in its starting point, Dave Schweikhardt mentions in the podcast that really the main goal was to raise farmers income, that is was decidedly less than others and it was perceived as a social goal. And that sort of motivated many of these initial government policies, and that was the starting point. When I read the book, and I looked at a lot of the policies that you were critical of, it seems, perhaps unlike where we were in 1930s, that you just aren't buying the starting point of what the appropriate role for government should be. In other words, in the 1930s when these farm bills started, the objective of supporting farmer income might have been something that was generally perceived as an appropriate role of government. But that's something different from the set of policies like local bands on certain food groups, and fat taxes. You seem to be saying this isn't an appropriate role for government. Is that a fair characterization of the difference between, you know, the role of government historically in supporting agriculture and the set of policies that you tackle?

Jason: Yea, I mean I think I would be critical even if some of those policies with the goal of supporting farm income back in the 30s. So, you know, in general some of those are sort of philosophical issues about what is the appropriate role of government. You know, should the government be involved in, sort of, redistributing wealth to those people who sort of, you know, out of economic favour with the times. And you know, some of those things are sort of philosophical issues that are a little hard to argue with but I think one of the things that I try to point out in this book is that once you kind of go down that road as it happened with farmers, it’s hard to get out of it. And indeed, I think that's what we've seen is we have these policies and they might have addressed a, you know, a need of the time in the 30s, but what you find is they actually had all kinds of unintended consequences even at that time. You know, one of the ways they tried to prop up prices back then was by destroying commodities, restricting the supply, and this was at a time, in the Great Depression, where there were big soup lines. So it was, you know, ironic sort of convoluted set of policies that persist today and in fact a lot of the arguments of the, sort of modern day foodies, the food police that I call them, are actually, you know, their problem is with those same policies and they blame them on a lot of the problems that we have now. I think, I'm not a fan of the farm policies, but I think they're ascribing all the problems that the, sort of, food police see to those policies is also misplaced. The research doesn’t seem to support that. But I think there is one distinction that is important, and a lot of the policies that I sort of take up in this book that I find, you know, problematic, things like fat taxes, subsidization of local foods, you know, Pollan’s new book Cooked, he's advocating for subsidies for people to get back to the kitchen, and these kind of things, is that I think at a fundamental level, these policies are being driven by the desires of a particular set of people who have a particular view about food. And this is a characterization, it's not true of all of them, but they tend to be middle-class, upper-middle-class people that have a particular aesthetic preference about food and how food should be produced. And my concern, is what they're doing is imposing those sets of preferences of everybody else in the country who don't have the same incomes that they do, the same desires that they do. It's all great to say that you want local, you know, heirloom tomatoes. That's fantastic if you can afford to do it. But to say that that's how everybody should be eating and that we should be spending our tax dollars to make those outcomes happen, I think is really mistaking the challenge that a lot of people are actually dealing with. And one of the things I try to remind readers of this book is that even though, yes, we have done a great job providing more food than we ever have using fewer inputs than we ever have, it's still remains the case that at least in the US, 15% of US households are food insecure. In the United States there's a record number of people on food stamps. And globally, which is of course where the bigger problem is, there's just under a billion people that the United Nations today says is starving. So, you know, being able to produce enough food inexpensively is, remains a big challenge and it will continue to be a challenge that population, we're supposed to add another billion people, most projections say, in the 25 to 50 years. And so being able to supply enough food in a cost effective and high quality manner is a different objective than the one of, you know, providing niche high quality food to those people that can afford it and that's sort of, I think the crux of thinking [laughs] or at least my critique of a lot of the modern, sort of fashionable food policies.

[12:57] Brady: Alright, let's hop in to one. There's one that's very local, if you will. Currently in Ontario, Bill 36 which is being considered to promote local food establishes a local food week and it allows the minister to set goals to which public organizations should strive to in terms of their provision of local food, and also allows them to audit their material. Now, you're somewhat critical of these kinds of bills. You start of one of the things, and you kind of address some of the tenants that are often behind these bills, and suggest that they don't really stand up as much as advocates might suggest. And I thought could just go over some of those tenants. So one is that local foods are good for the environment.

Jason: Right. So if you don't mind I might take one step back and just say [Brady: Yea] I don't have any problem with people buying local foods. In fact, I do it myself. I buy things from my local farmers market here in Stillwater, Oklahoma. My former students run stands at the farmers markets, so I think those are all nice things and there's nothing inherently problematic with it. But what I am taking issue with are these kind of policies like the one you’re talking about in Ontario that, you know, are going to restrict or subsidize activities or are going to require, there's been some proposals here in the States to require schools or hospitals to purchase a certain percentage of their foods locally. Those are the kinds of issues that I take issue with. And the reason I do gets back to the question you asked, Brady that you asked about, what is the appropriate role for government? You know, normally as an economist we have, you know, a set of quote unquote market failures that would sort of justify government intervention and I think the list that you're sort of about to lead us through here are all the sort of normal things people would say is this a reason for government intervention? And when I look at the actual evidence and the research on these topics, I just don't see them adding up. So the first question you asked me was, okay, surely we should subsidize local foods because they're good for the environment, right? That's a very common argument, and I think people think this, because what they think is well, if we're buying local foods those foods have travelled fewer miles, and so therefore there must be fewer environmental problems, less carbon emission, less energy use to get the product produced to market. And of course, that's partially true, but what that perspective is missing is that the transportation phase of the food delivery or the food production process is a relatively minor part of the overall energy picture in food production. In some, the research seems to suggest that about 80% of all the environmental consequences that occur, at least in terms of like greenhouse gas emissions, occur during the production phase, where the food is grown. And so what that says to me is that what you what to do are find places where you can grow the food most efficiently and then ship that food to market, because that shipping phase it consumers relatively smaller amounts of energy. I think one striking example of this is a study that was done several years ago and they compared the amount of energy that would be used if people that lived in London bought lamb that was grown in, around London, or if they bought lamb that was from New Zealand. And they actually found that the New Zealand lamb, those Londoners would be better off at least in terms of energy expenditures, buying that lamb that came from New Zealand. How is that possible to have lamb travel 10,000 miles and use fewer, you know, less energy? And the reason is because New Zealand is naturally endowed with all those things that make rearing sheep especially easy. Lots of grass, lots of sunshine and moreover, you put that lamb on a boat and shipping by boat is incredibly energy efficient. You’ve got to remember we had ships sailing the ocean before we ever had fossil fuels, and so you can get on the currents are really be able to transport food very efficiently that way. And so the argument that buying locally will save energy, I think it just doesn't stand up to the facts, and moreover, it could actually be worse because if you think about a lot of small farms, farmers driving small pickups to a market, actually will often generate more energy, will use of more energy or create more environmental pollutants than will one large semi-truck backing into a grocery store, for example. We're over [laughs], if you look at the amount of energy expend, that you and I expend to get ourselves to the supermarket, that is often a bigger energy cost than all, to get that food to the market in the first place. And that's just one argument, there are a lot of other agreements that surround there, but I think when you look at the whole picture, the one that emerges is we really want to think about growing foods where they can be most effectively grown and in that, if you're worried about environmental issues, is the way you want to think about it.

[18:14] Brady: Another argument that is commonly set forward is while we want food security, or we want to make the agriculture sector more robust locally. You're somewhat critical of that suggestion as well.

Jason: Yea, I think it's a little short sighted, to think in those terms. Now, you know, there’s one argument that farms should maybe be more diversified. Okay, that's fine and good but that doesn't necessarily mean it has to be local. But, you know, one of the problems with this sort of food security argument is, you know, the nature of production agriculture is that when something, you know, it's cyclical, it comes in seasons. And so what happens is all the produce in an area is likely to come to market at about the same time, so you have these series of times in the year when there's a glut of food, whether its corn or potatoes or tomatoes or whatever it might happen to be, and so, yea, you've got a lot of abundance at one time of year, but you don't at another time of year. Not only is that wasteful, cause what ends up happening, and if you look at the data this is what happens in a lot of farmers' markets, they throw out large amounts of produce, so it's not particularly good for the environment. But if you go to bigger production regions where you have big processing plants for example, packing plants located next to the fields, than that kind of waste is not nearly as likely to happen there. But the challenge with this sort of food security argument is, you know, what happens if a drought occurs, or a hail storm occurs and destroys the crops in a region? Then you might say, “Oh we can rely on our neighbours.” But if you set up the system where everyone is looking only at themselves and only planning to supply for themselves, then you can't count on your neighbours anymore. They weren't planning on you needing anything from them. And I also think this sort of gets a little bit to maybe one of the arguments that might come up in a minute, but the sort of, you know, economics of it are that you know, it sounds great, let's just buy from those people that are close to us, and that'll be good, it'll make them healthier. But what happens when you're, when the people, you know, a hundred miles from you decide their going to do the same thing, and now they're no longer buying from you? That then hurts your farmers and hurts their economic potential. And so it’s not really all that clear to me that this argument, if we just supply the food ourselves, would be somehow more economically secure, and I think that's just a way of, a really long winded way of saying trade is good and I think we all know that. If we only were able to consumer what we could make ourselves, we'd be terribly poor, and not only would we be poor, we wouldn't be particularly secure either. What makes us wealthy is our ability to do something well and trade that with others for what they do well. And this is the stuff of course we teach economics 101.

[21:14] Brady: Yea, along those lines, I thought one of the interesting things that I think would surprise many is that you make an argument that local foods are not necessarily healthier.

Jason: Right. That's exactly right. So you can have healthy foreign food, you can have unhealthy local food. In my opinion, I don't really know what local has to do with it. I suppose the argument is people say, “Well if you ate more local food, you'd eat more fruits and vegetables.” Well, maybe, that's an argument for eating more fruits and vegetables. It doesn't matter whether they're local or not. Yea, there is some argument that if you eat fruits and vegetables that are picked ripe that there is more nutrient content in those fruits and vegetables, but that's ignoring the fact that in big areas of production, say California or Florida or something like that, when they pick these vegetables what they'll often do is quickly freeze them and that locks in a lot of those nutrients. And indeed, if you look at the research of these topics, that the, you know, the nutrient content of a frozen fruit or vegetable that you could find in produce aisle, or I guess in the frozen food aisle at the grocery store, often has more nutrients in it than a vegetable or fruit that was picked and's been sitting on the shelf for a day or two. And so, the absolute recommendation that it has to be fresh, I think is ignoring the fact that frozen and also canned vegetables have a lot of nutrients. Actually, even the can does pretty well if you look at the nutrient profile relative to fresh stuff that's been sitting out for three or four days. And I think that again that kind of gets back to one of my points about the fact that when you have a lot of fruits and vegetables come to market at the same time, and I know a lot of people like to participate in these CSA's, community supported agriculture. They might buy shares in like, a co-op, where they're delivered a certain amount of food. And what I read on people’s blogs, you know, one of the big things you read about is people say, “What do I do with all this kale?” [Laughs] You know, they get all this stuff delivered to their house, and not only does it sit on their shelf for a while, all the while the nutrients are degrading, but often a lot of it just gets thrown away which is not terribly, you know, beneficial when you think about sort of environment and waste and those sort of things. But the other issue too with regard to health, is that there is one metric that many nutritionists use to measure the quality of someone’s diet, and that metric is the diversity of foods that people eat. And I think the absolutely amazing thing to me is if I go in our grocery store here in Stillwater, Oklahoma, any time of year the availability of different kinds of produce is absolutely astounding. I mean it doesn't matter what time of year it is, I can find a jalapeno, I can find a lime, I can find..

Brady: [distorted speech] Fruits that I don't know if I've never seen before, picking them up in the grocery store aisle, I'm always amazed at the diversity of things they come up with.

Jason: Yea, it’s amazing. And the way we get that diversity is by trade. By trading with people that don’t live near us where they have a different climate than we do. And yea, maybe we get to send them some stuff when it's, you know, the opposite time of year for them. But yea, I think if you're limiting yourself to those things that can be grown only locally, I think you're really limiting the variety in your diet.

[24:44] Brady: Now I want to come back to a point before we move to say one of the next policies. But to just refine our discussion a little bit, I hear, it's not so much that you're critical of eating local food, it's that you're critical of the reasons given for government intervention. [Jason: You’re actually...]Maybe not, government intervention's the wrong one, but for a certain set of government policies.

Jason: Yea, you're exactly right. In fact the way I like to say it is, I'm not against local foods, I'm against bad arguments for local foods [laughs]. And so that's what really I'm taking issue with, and really it's not that big of deal. You know, so what, a few people go into farmers market? But when you start talking about these policies like the one you have in Ontario, now all of sudden you're spending my tax dollars, your tax dollars to implement these policies, and I think that's really when you want to step in and say "wait a minute, does this make much sense?" And there also is this culture too, at least among some subset, that despite the policy issues there is this feeling that you should be buying local food, that it is the morally righteous thing to do. And I'm also, that sort of grates on me a little bit too, for the same reasons that a lot of the arguments that are presented are not as compelling as they might at first seem.

[26:05] Brady: So what is there, is there certain government policies with respect to food that you're supported of? So, forms of labelling that allow people to identify the proportion of a certain food parts, or different nutrients in say, processed food. Are there..?

Jason: Yea, so, you know when I think about sort of the appropriate role for government, one way I think about it, and I know there will be others that think differently about this, but I like to think about the government as sort of being a referee. You know, I don’t think the government should be in the laugh [laughs] picking winners and losers for example, because if they can pick you to be a winner today, they can pick you to be a loser tomorrow. And so what I think about, as being an appropriate role for government is providing a fair playing field, even playing field once those rules are established, enforcing the rules, and then also making sure that people have the information to know what the rules of the game are. So, with regard to food labelling, I think, you know, that is a role for government potentially, that I don't necessarily like all forms of labelling, but especially when there's a demonstrable safety risk, for example, or a demonstrable health impact, that seems like a relatively benign role for government. And again, what I see that doing, is sort of stepping in as a referee. They're not saying you should buy this or you shouldn't, but they're saying "here's the information, now you decide whether you think this is an appropriate thing to do or not." So, for example, putting a label that says this product contains, you know, X % trans fats for example. You know, trans fats is something that is a legitimate health concern and it seem imminently reasonable that people might want that information and that seems an appropriate role for government. Similarly, I think, you know, providing information on research, what we actually know to be sort of the state-of-the-art in terms of knowledge, seems a reasonable goal. So I mentioned the trans-fat. You know, when sufficient evidence comes about that something like that might be dangerous, at least if consumed in too high of quantities, then making that known, educating the public, seems like a reasonable thing to do. Now I think turning around and vilifying people that still make that choice is perhaps a bit mis-headed. But at least, you know, letting people know what the risks are seems reasonable. And then I think there’s, you know, a whole other set of issues, you know, personally, you know, I think, you know, investing in research in food and agriculture is an enterprise that has paid off very well for consumers. And the investments that have been made in agricultural production and technology have made food much less expensive than it would have been otherwise. And it's not necessarily all that clear that its research that would have been done by the private sector. So I think there are lots of things, I agree, there are some areas and important roles for government to play. I think one of the main things they can also do is provide a, you know, the court system that we have, and a lot of the harms that people point to with regard to food and things, you know, if you're being harmed by a big agribusiness and you can prove it, then they should be liable for that. And if you can prove your case in a court of law that you were damaged in some way by some activity of a food company, than I think that's a perfectly legitimate thing for someone to do, and I think providing that court system and the legal role's that surround it is an important role for the government.

[29:50] Brady: Alright, let's now let's again focus on some of these particular policies that you're worried about in your book Food Police. Let's talk about fat taxes [Jason: [Laughs]]. So, I mean maybe you want to make is specific to a particular case, but in general you're critical of a number of sort of [distorted speech] consequences that may result from the fat taxes. And in a sense, you discuss that it maybe not even achieve its main objective. Let's discuss that a little bit.

Jason: Yea, so, you know I think one of my problems with these sort of policies, the fat taxes for example, is somewhat philosophical, and the version that is now quite popular is the soda tax [Brady: right, right]. And indeed, I think in the US at least 33 states have some form of taxes on sodas, but they're being proposed at even higher levels in more locations as we speak. So on a philosophical level, there's you know, one problem that is that a tax is somewhat akin to reducing someone’s income. It's like taking money away from you. And generally, not generally, I think it’s safe to say most of us like more income to less. So under what scenario is someone better off by taking money away from them? If that person thought they would be better off by consuming fewer sodas, they could make that choice now, and then use that extra money they were spending on sodas on something else. But the fact that consumers are not currently making those choices says that they like to drink soda. That it's something they prefer to do given the cost and even the potential health consequences that result. So, on a philosophical level it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. Moreover, I think anytime we talk about food taxes, taxes on foods, these are policies that tend to be quite regressive, meaning that they taxes are borne primarily by those people that who can least afford to pay it. So the poor spend a larger proportion of their income on food, so as a consequence, when you tax something like food, you're taking that money from some of the least fortunate among us in society, and I think that's problematic on another level. But as you pointed out, you know, even if you disagree with me on those two things, you might wanna just take a step back and say "well are these things even gonna work?" And I think what you'll see is, if you look at the economic research on the topic, that all the taxes that people have proposed will have, according to these studies, very small impact on weight. And yet, they'll pull a lot of money out of the backs of people's pockets, so they'll be pretty effective at raising revenue, but they're really not gonna change what people weight very much, unless you really, really, you know, impose, you know, exorbitant taxes on food, which I think is, you know, both bad for the regressive reasons that I mentioned earlier, but also it would be politically infeasible. Not only does the research tend to suggest they're not very effective, the ones by the way, I should say, the studies that do show them to be effective, often are a little misguided, they're based on simulations and don't really take into account how your body responds to changes in calories as it should. But there are some studies that suggest that not only will it not change weight by very much, it actually could increase weight. So for example, with a tax on sodas, one study out of Cornell showed that such a policy might actually increase consumption of alcoholic beverages, at least among adults, or fruit juices, which naturally some of them have more sugar than say, a Coca-Cola or a Pepsi or something along those lines. So, you know, my own take is that it is, you know, a soda tax would probably reduce weight but just not by very much. And I suppose the lingo that we economists would use it to say "it's going to create really large deadweight losses" because, you know, it will cause this change but it's gonna extract a lot of money out of people's pockets. And so, I just don't find them to be terribly, you know, effective policies either philosophically or also just even empirically in terms of the, what the studies show to be their effects.

[34:04] Brady: What about, you know, you might hear in this regard someone say, "Well, you know, we've taxed, we've heavily taxed [distorted speech]" and then they try to equate that with, for example, some of these really sugar intensive foods.

Jason: Right. And so, you know, and that argument gets carried even to another level, which you see a lot now, which is to sort of equate sugar and tobacco on an even deeper level by saying "well sugar is also addictive." Now, in fact I did a debate with Michael Moss who wrote the book Salt, Sugar, Fat recently, and I really pushed him on this issue about the addictive nature of sugar. And in my reading of the research, you know, calling sugar addictive is really stretching the science to fit an agenda. You know, I even, just speaking for me anecdotally and personally, you know, I used to drink 4 or 5 cans of Dr. Pepper a day, full sugar. And, you know, I decided when my weight got to a level that I didn't like anymore, I gave them up, and I personally did not experience any shivers or withdrawal systems. And that of course just an anecdote, but I think what you see when you look at the research evidence is that this argument that these foods are addictive in the same way, that for example a tobacco or something like that is is really not very well supported. And in fact the reason I mentioned Moss is he said "well I wasn't really pushing that argument very far" and I pointed out to him though, on the cover of his book is a little sticker that says, you know, "hooked." And so he, how the food companies hooked us, or something like that. And so I think that's, you know, a further step down this road of trying to justify sugar, soda taxes, by making an analogy to cigarettes. But I think the analogy is a very weak one and a not very compelling one, because as admission in my assessment, sugar doesn't have the same kind of addictive properties. Of course we like to eat it, and sometimes when you, you know, you need kind of a food, we build up desires for those things, but I don't think it's addictive in the same way that tobacco is. But, I think the other issue too is, unlike for example, tobacco, the case, the argument that consumption of these products is imposing a cost on others, is also more tenuous. So with smoking, there were issues associated with second hand smoke and these sorts of things, and, at least with regard to sugar and sodas, I don't think that same argument is there.

[36:38] Brady: So this externality basis for government getting [distorted speech] is just not something that you think is important enough. And with respect to the sugar intensive goods to motivate or justify government action, is that right?

Jason: Right, yea, that's basically my argument, that and, you know, there are costs of course, associated with being obese, but what I argue in the book is that most of those costs are personally borne by the individual themselves that, there are health consequences associated with obesity, those are costs that you personally bear, it's a problem for you. And there's a lot of other evidence with regard to being overweight for example, at least among some groups of people, being at least morbidly obese can reduce your wages, it’s going to increase your chances of dying. You know, all those things sound to me like, not to mention the sort of just social stigma of being overweight, all those things to me sound like these are ample private incentives for you to worry about your own weight and for you to consider the trade-offs of, you know, am I willing to run a few higher health risks for the extra tastiness of the soda? You know, that's the kind of trade off I think, that I don't want to be making for people, that I think that they should be able to make for themselves. You know, and I don't think its necessarily and issue that we want to go into here, cause it's a pretty nuanced and long discussion, but you know, the counter argument I suppose is that, well when people are overweight and there's a public health insurance, or public health care like there is in Canada, with the state run, you know, public health care system, then there, you know, some people make this argument that now you being overweight imposes cost on me because it increase all of our taxes. And that argument is not one that is also very compelling for a number of reasons, but you know, we can go there if you want.

[38:34] Brady: But the last issue that I do want to address because it's really interesting I think to our field, agriculture economics, and I think it will be interesting to a lot of people is this area and your concern about the research area of behavioural economics and its suggestion to use nudge approaches, which we'll try to break down. And I thought that was a really interesting part of your book, and so, you know, if you wouldn't mind just stepping back and maybe first just talking about what behavioural economics is and what is meant by a nudge, and then maybe we can get into some particular policies that seem to fall under this approach.

Jason: Sure, yea. So I though this, you know, I really enjoyed actually writing that chapter, and I felt like, you know, this is maybe a topic that a lot of people don't know about. And so, you know, I looked at it as a good opportunity to sort of, maybe, you know, shed some light for the public on a topic that's become quite a big deal I think not just in agricultural economics, but economics in general. So, on one level, what behavioural economics is, is sort of a merger of the fields of psychology and economics. It's trying to take the insights that psychologists have and the insights that economists have, and try to bring them together to better explain how people make choices. So that sounds pretty benign, and kind of interesting, and it is. And, the sort of next layer to this sort of area of research is it's also sort of an area of research that tends to point out how people make mistakes. And it, a body of research did a number of studies that show that we, consumers, are sometimes not perfect and we, for example, are influenced by things that shouldn't influence us, for example, the lighting in the room, or the ambience, or the temperature, or sometimes even the labels that people put on food will influence how we taste it, even though they're the same. So it's sort of this idea that people are making decisions that are somehow not optimal, or not best and that we're sometimes too impatient relative to the way we wished we'd behave, or we don't save enough sometimes, or that we're too prone to paying attention to really low probability risks. Or that we value something too much just because we happen to own it. So it's a body of research that shows that we, humans, make mistakes. And on that level, I think also it seems somewhat uncontroversial [laughs] that we're not perfect. I think where that challenge comes in, and where I sort of, and I should take a little bit of a step back and say that you know, so far so good. This is just what science does. We know we're trying to explain the way the world works and the way people make decisions, and so I've written papers where I've done studies where we find yea, consumers do some kind of silly things, or the way we frame the question really changes how people answer, even though objectively it shouldn't. And so that's all fine and good but I think the trouble comes, and where I sort of start criticizing, is the implications that people draw from this research. I shouldn't say everyone, but at least a very influential set of people have drawn from this set of research. And the implication is this: if you as a consumer do not make decisions that ultimately make you better off in the long run, that are somehow mistakes, than there is a role for some third party to, you can call them a paternalist or regulator, for that third party to come in and either make the decision for you, or to frame the choices in a way that gets you to make a difference choice, so that, ideally, you will actually be better off in the long run. So it's this idea that a paternalist, a government, a third party, can alter your decision making in a way, either making the decisions for you, or nudging you in a direction of a certain choice to help make you better off. And it's that particular issue that I take issue with. And I think with regard to a nut that we're nudged, that comes from a book that was written by a couple of professors at the University of Chicago, Thaler and Sunstein. And just I think as a way of saying how important the topic this is, Sunstein has worked in Obama's administration. He was, I can't remember his exact title, but he was the so-called regulatory zaar. So here's a guy wrote a book called nudge whose working in the White House, there are several countries that, I believe the UK for example, has a whole new government agency that's sort of set up to try to, I think they call it behavioural insights team, or something of that sort, to use these findings from behavioural economics about how people make mistakes to try to design better policies. But the word nudge comes from the idea that, at least in Sunstein and Thaler proposal, they advocate something called libertarian paternalism which sounds like a paradox, or a sort of oxymoron, but their proposal is, you know, we don't want to government telling you what to choose. We're going to make it libertarian so we're not gonna remove choice options from you, so we're not gonna ban those sodas, but what we're gonna try to do is create the choice environment in a way that nudges you towards what we think is gonna be best for you. So maybe we will make the sodas a little harder to reach. Or sometimes, what they advocate often is just changing the defaults. So, at least in the US for example, if you want to be an organ donor you have to choose to be one. So the default is I'm not going to donate my organs I die. And they say "Well, you know, one thing you could easily do is just change the default, make everyone automatically an organ donor, and if you want to opt out, you can, the choices are still the same." So they argue, it's freedom preserving, and yet by using the government's role of picking defaults or picking the way things are framed, you can nudge people in the right direction. And I will admit, their version of paternalism is the lease objectionable of them, but theirs is on one end of the spectrum and there are people on the other end which have no qualms at all with restricting people's choices. So banning sodas, based on the argument that people are not capable of making good decision, they're not able to make good decisions. So the more coercive type paternalism is certainly something that's still be one the table, and this is really a change for the way economists have thought about the world, because the sort or paradigm that economists have been working in for the last, you know, probably half century at least, is that, you know, the choices consumers make reflect their best attempts to make them better off. And so, unless there's some external effects, like an externality or something like that, there's really not a lot that can be done by some third party. These behavioural economic insights, you know, have now opened up this door to say, "Oh, well people really aren't making the decisions that make them better off." So there's a role for us to step in and so something to ultimately increase their long term well-being. So, that's sort of the backdrop of, you know, sort of, what I attempted to critique.

[46:03] Brady: I think there was two issues that I wanted to explore with you. One is that it's based on, it's based on research that may or not hold up over time. So here I was thinking if you retrospectively thought about nudging people to the old food pyramid for example, when I guess grains were much more favoured then they are currently, those would have been, maybe not policies that we would look back on proudly. And I'm wondering if that's, if it's just that you don't feel that the government should be involved, or is it, you don’t, I guess I wouldn't mind just discussing this a little bit. We're always being nudged, but is it the role of government that you're concerned about, or is it just the idea of anybody interfering in anyone's right to nudge? So businesses are nudging us all the time.

Jason: Yea, you're exactly right. You're right, companies advertise to us all the time. I go to church and I get preached at, you know, there. So, you know, people are always trying to influence what we do. And what I think is a challenge for government is that unlike that grocery store, and unlike that church, the government has a monopoly on a number of settings. And whereas I can choose to go to a different grocery store, for example, I've got two young kids too, and if I take them to the store, they're being nudged to pick up the candy bars when I'm checking out. You know, there are other grocery stores I can go to, and some of them don't offer those options right there. And so, you know, I think one of the key distinctions between, you know, business nudging and government nudging is competition. And whereas I can easily, you know, give up going to a business, maybe not easily, I might incur some costs, but there will be other businesses that might come along that would offer me a different set of services, a different variety of options, if indeed the ones that I currently have too obtrusive or that I don't like. You just don't have those same kinds of abilities to escape the government nudges, and as a consequence what happens is, like when companies are trying to nudge you, they are also, you know, have an economic incentive to nudge you to those things you're actually going to want to do and buy, and those same kinds of incentives aren't necessarily there with the government too. So, that's part of my thinking there too, is the difference and the ability of competition to affect and offer choices to you that's different with business nudging versus government nudging. But the other issue is one you kind of alluded to, and that is, so there's two, this really multi-faceted issue but, one of them is that, you know, the behavioural economists who see these mistakes we make, they can design a policy on paper that sounds fantastic, maybe even on paper it sounds like it’s going to work and help solve this, say, decision making problem that we have. But the challenge is that they're real life politicians that have to implement these things. And when that policy actually gets implemented, there are all the sort of public choice issues that come about, and my worry also is that when it gets into the political arena, and all of a sudden you have the government that's empowered to nudge people towards certain directions, you can bet that, you know, the fast-food chains, other lobbyists are going to be at the table and trying to have some say in how that policy actually gets implemented, and it's not all that clear that nudge is going to work out in as effective a way as the advocates really desired. But, that's also presuming even that we have perfect knowledge, and I don't think we do. Again, I think a lot of the policies people advocate come from simple little experiments that we do as students. I would bet, I would wager a bet that at least 80% of all the studies in behavioural economics were done with college students. , and often done in a little classroom or laboratory setting. And I think that's one of the challenges when you look at the research is that, yes sometimes the findings that people, that are generated in these lab settings do also appear in the real world, but not always the case. And what I think the more careful studies, the more nuanced studies, what they find is that, at least when decisions are really consequential, they're important decisions, that often in the real life we find out, we find ways of avoiding mistakes. Sometimes even the markets themselves come up with mechanisms and institutions for helping us avoid decision making biases. And if you look around us, you know, we have all kinds of things to help us make good decisions. There are consumer reports, for example that tell us about, you know, the quality and about the ups and downs of the different products. And the nice thing about those is we can choose to ignore those particular pieces of advice if we choose to, but I think this idea that somehow there is this third party that is better informed and in a better position to know what choices you would be better off making, to me strikes me as somewhat elitist and also strikes me as arrogant, to presume that there's a third party that's living in, I don't know, Washington, D.C. or in Toronto or where have you, that has better information about your particular setting and your particular, you know, constraints facing you in your life to know what would be better off for you, you know, I guess just strikes me the wrong way. I think's it’s also, I think at an even deeper level, I think the problem with a lot of this paternalism, whether it's the nudge variety or something even more coercive, is it's really a bit of a philosophical problem, I think. And that is, that the argument again is that if people are making mistakes then there's a chance for this third party to come in and either nudge or get rid of choice options to make them better off, to make their long term self better off. And the challenge is, I think that, you know, once you've foregone the idea that the choices that people are making are being made with the pretense of that person making themselves better off, then you've basically admitted that that person doesn't know what makes them better off. And so for you to say that "I'm stepping in as a paternalist and making them better off with my decisions," I think all you're doing is substituting your judgement for theirs. The paternalist is deciding what he thinks you would be better off with, what would make him happy as a paternalist, not what you actually, would make you happy. And I think that the challenge is people, and this is exactly the evidence that, for example Sunstein and Thaler present in their book, is they go out and they interview people, or they do a survey and they ask people on the verge of retirement, for example, "Do you wish you would have saved more for retirement?" And what do you think most people say? They say "Oh, yes. I wish I would have saved more." Or they go to people that are overweight and they say "Do you wish you would have gone on a diet a couple years ago, or that you weighed less?" And most people of course say "Yea, I wish I weighed a little less." And so they say "Ah! There you see, people wish, you know, they don't have enough self-control. If we'd only stepped in five, ten years ago, made them save more, forced them to save." And actually, our governments do that. Or in the case of health, if we would have forced them to go on a diet or changed their food choice five years ago they would only be better off now. But I think that's totally a mistake to use that kind of evidence, that sort of survey responses, as evidence of some decision making bias, because if I ask you today, if you wish you would have saved more ten years ago, and you say yes, well of course you're going to say yes. You're now in the position to be reaping all the benefits of all that saving that you would have done, without incurring any of the costs. So, it's presenting a false choice to people and so often, what a lot of these paternalistic policies, what they're doing, is they're privileging your future self, your hypothetical future self, over your current acting self. But to me, that's just an arbitrary choice. They're saying the choices you're making today are wrong, and the only, you know, real logical reason I can give for that is I, you know, that, you know, my preferences for what your future self will look like are really the only things that can guide me in terms of justifying restricting your choices today. So, you know, I think, you know, a lot of this is really just sort of skimming the surface of what's in the book, and probably not nearly as logically present [laughs] as what's in the book. But I think there's both some empirical issues with the paternalistic policies, as I've mentioned. You know, they're coming from lab studies that sometimes don't hold up in the real world. But it's also somewhat philosophical, this idea that there is a third party that both knows more and knows what your future well-being, how it will be affected. And I think both of those, from a philosophical and an empirical issue are somewhat problematic.

[55:02] Brady: I think one of the really challenging points that you raise in your book that's worth thinking about is, okay, people might have an opportunity to nudge, the question then really is on what basis does government force an institution to, for example, to nudge? So nudging is probably going on in supermarkets, in the private sector, in universities. They're all making lots of decisions where there's nudging going on, it's almost unavoidable. But one of the things you do, and each one of these examples throughout the book, is raise the question of on what evidence, how strong is the evidence to suggest and to support a government policy to sort of, in a sense, force a particular nudge? And I think that'll be a real challenge for policy makers and students who go on to read your book, and policy makers who listen to this podcast and then go on to, perhaps, read the book, I think that's kind of the challenge that you lay out. Now, in that, and I'm kind of winding up a little bit here, but in that regard, what's the feedback been? Do people find that challenging frustrating? Are you getting hate mail or [Jason: laughs] support? I'm just curious.

Jason: It's been, you know, kind of all over, all over the board. You know, some of it is, you know, somewhat expected from both quarters. You know, you on the one hand, I suppose most of the interviews and things I've done are with people that happen to support my particular, you know, political persuasions, so you know, the sort of conservative or more libertarian journalists or radio hosts. You know, a lot of that is more rah-rah sort of stuff [laughs]. "Yea, of course you're right, yea, right on." That kind of stuff. You know, interestingly I think too, I sort of anticipated this, but probably not to the extent I probably should have, and that is, you know, really the reaction within the agricultural community has been really supportive and really interested in the things I've been writing. And I think partly that's a reflection of the fact that, you know, I've come to discover, you know, a lot of the large kind of agricultural, and I shouldn't say large, but just people involved in production agriculture often feel beleaguered that, you know, the things they're doing, whether they're using bio-tech varieties, or they're not planting organic, or whatever, you know, I think they just feel under constant source of criticism and sort of social shaming in a way that, you know, you're not farming in the way that you should. And so I think that there's, that was one group I thought would be somewhat supportive of some of the ideas in the book, but I don't think I realized really to quite the extent to which there was sort of that feeling in the agricultural community. Almost a sense of relief that, yea, somebody finally is sort of sticking up for us a little bit, and that's not really the way I viewed what I was doing. I don't see myself as being a defender of, you know, modern agricultural production per se, or of agribusinesses per se. I think about myself as trying to defend consumers and good policy decisions, and that happens to coincide I think with a lot of the choices that farmers are making. So, that's been one, you know, pleasant surprise. You know, and the push back on the other end, yea there's been some of it, as I anticipated, and there's been quite a lot of hate mail too, you know, a lot of it, if I had to be frank, is not particularly well reasoned, sometimes, you know, more of a gut reaction. And I think some of the most interesting feedback I've been getting is, you know, occasionally I'll go give talks on university campuses, and especially when I travel to campuses that are not, that do not have an agricultural college, the particular food issues that we've been discussing are really prominent there. You know, the push for local food, for organic food, this idea that really modern farming has gone astray, is really ingrained in a lot of today's college students, and a lot of courses on college campuses. In fact, even at my university here which is an ag college, you know, we have, you know, courses throughout our university that talk about things like food and culture, and food and history and the kinds of things they watch in those courses are Food Inc., and these kinds of documentaries and read food books that are very critical of our food production system and so, you know, those audiences are fun to engage with because these are bright young people, they're smart young people, they don't know much about food and agriculture. What they do know has come mainly through these sort of muck raking sort of journalist accounts, and so, you know, they're often very hostile to the kinds of things I have to say, and yet they often don't have much information beyond these, you know, handful of fix or six books or documentaries that they've seen. So, you know, I don't know that I'm terribly successful in persuading people that disagree with me, but I sure like the opportunity and have enjoyed the opportunity to try and present a different perspective and sort of challenge some of the notions that people have come to believe about food.

[60:21] Brady: Well, as someone who teaches in their class, students to really just try to begin a kind of entry point to examining most policies is thinking about benefits and thinking about costs, and trying to compare them, I found your book to be helpful in that regard, particularly from helping us think about some of the unanticipated sort of costs that might be associated with policies. So Jason, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today and good luck.

Jason: Yea, thanks Brady. I appreciate you having me on. It was fun.

[60:55] [Closing music begins.]

[61:05] Brady: Thanks for joining us at FARE Talk. We hope you will continue to check our website for updates and the latest podcast.

[61:18] [Music fades out, ends.]

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