Apr/May 2012

Cheap Eats

Toting up the costs and benefits of the global food system

Kate Christensen


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Along with global warming and the environment, food has become one of the foremost political issues in America, especially among educated, well-heeled liberals. The emerging sensitive-foodie ethos hinges on a heightened awareness of those “starving children in Africa” whom our mothers invoked in order to make us eat our brussels sprouts—but adherents of the rawer, purer locavore gospel have lately built out the critique to include the obese, diabetic kids right here at home.

During previous decades, food was unhealthy or not, fattening or not. Now it carries the additional potential indictment of being politically and ecologically incorrect. And consequently, instead of savoring the rarest caviar or truffle, kumquats flown in from New Zealand, or deep-sea bluefin-tuna steak, food aficionados are expected to buy locally, eat green, and stay away from endangered species and toxins, while pointedly shunning the irradiated, genetically modified food that has to travel thousands of miles to reach us. Now it’s all about wild game or meat raised the old-fashioned way; “clean,” nonendangered, humble-pie fish such as sardines and mackerel; artisanal cheese, stone-ground non-GMO polenta, and organic potatoes—whole food, real food, simple plain honest food. To take just one complicating factor here, it’s now become fearsomely difficult for the conscientious foodie to order takeout: all those cartons and plastic containers. Meanwhile, labels in higher-end grocery outlets such as Whole Foods typically trumpet what’s lacking: Trans-fat free! Gluten free! No preservatives! No fat! Sumptuousness and gluttony are out; ethics and eco-sensitivity are in. There’s just one rub: You have to be rich these days to eat like a peasant.

Or do you? In his latest book, An Economist Gets Lunch, economist Tyler Cowen attempts to turn the “pessimistic,” “paternalistic,” anti-innovative assumptions of the practiced locavore on their head. As a food blogger, he writes about meals he’s had in various countries, most of them cheap and not where one might expect to find them. As an economist, he patiently constructs an interpretation of the current thinking on what and how to eat—arguing with some of his own assumptions along the way. And as a writer, he holds forth in the style and manner of that garrulous, crackpotty, but genuinely enthusiastic guy who sits next to you on an airplane.

Because of this last trait, An Economist Gets Lunch suffers from a good deal of sloppy diction and a casual, haphazard, all-over-the-map structural strategy. Meanwhile, Cowen’s pedigree as an economist can make for an unfortunate tendency to present either obvious or loony ideas as new insights. Still, it’s hard to write off entirely someone who states flatly on page 3, “Let’s be clear: Every meal really matters to me.” Cowen loves food. He loves to eat, and he loves to write about eating. The trouble is that Cowen’s tract on the food economy is really two books in one: One half is a primer about how to eat cheaply and well, and the other half is an argument about optimal ways to reform the food-distribution system. As an eater, I often found myself agreeing with Cowen’s commonsensical (if fairly obvious) recommendations for eating out and shopping at grocery stores. As a would-be reformer, he is much less convincing.

Among the many things Cowen feels he knows—important things that the ordinary person can’t be expected to fathom—is the following dictum: The best food can also be the cheapest, and vice versa, especially in foreign countries. The book begins with an anecdote: In Nicaragua, a country not famous for its cuisine, Cowen perspicaciously asked his cabdriver to take him to the best lunch spot. For twelve bucks, including the cost of the cab ride, he got the local fast food, quesillos. And lo, it was good—“a thick warm tortilla with gooey cheese, with onions inside and a splash of vinegar.” That night in the village square, he dined on what all the locals were having: fried chicken with french fries from the nearby stands; also awesome. And thus a new, italics-worthy hypothesis was born: “When donkey carts are common and women carry baskets on their heads, eat your fish right by the ocean or lake.

Had he been my literal airplane seatmate, I might have said, “Yes, I know,” and turned to look out the window until we landed in Cincinnati. Instead, I put the book down for a while, to let the hyperactive flow of commonsense advice settle a bit. When I picked it up again a little later, I found his “mission statement.” In laying out his prescriptions for the food system, Cowen claims to thoroughly debunk three supposedly entrenched food doctrines: The best food is the most expensive; agribusiness is bad; and food experts should not heed the preferences of consumers as a “trusted source of innovation.” To extirpate these fallacies, he says, we need “a special kind of revolution.” And so, to wrest some control from the “food elites,” he proposes the following counterargument: Every meal counts; good food is often cheap food; and everyone should be innovative as a consumer.

“Well, yeah,” I said to the imaginary guy in 4-C. “Sure.”

To shore up his own credentials as a food innovator, Cowen devotes the first half of his book to a rambling, loosely organized culinary memoir, rehearsing his experiences in eating and the conclusions he draws from them. Shopping in a Chinese supermarket made him eat more greens, and the Chinese people who shop there are all thin; ergo, maybe if Americans all shopped at Chinese supermarkets, we wouldn’t be so obese. Maybe obesity, he further posits, is a sort of generalized, unconscious choice—Americans accept it in order to be able to eat more fattening food.

His disquisition on barbecue is, like his chapter-long rundown of all the different kinds of Asian food he’s eaten, stunning in its irrelevance to what the other half of this book purports to be about, namely, a total revolution in food. Instead, Cowen happily reminisces in the book’s opening chapters about all the good food he’s eaten on his many travels, while bragging a little about how smart and resourceful he was in tracking it down—mostly, of course, off the beaten path, as his paradigmatic quest for the Nicaraguan quesillo showed.

Cowen doesn’t propose any solution for the world’s food ills until page 176: Because the average consumer can’t possibly make the right choices in the thorny thickets of food procurement, the food economy’s price system should nudge consumers toward making better food choices. “Most people,” he writes, “even well-informed people, don’t have a good sense of how much an afternoon drive in a Mercedes contributes to the climate-change problem, relative to buying a batch of flown-in asparagus or subbing in a steak for a chicken breast.” And so, in order to take all the guesswork out of the process, he proposes a “carbon tax,” a pricing scale for food ensuring that the cheapest food is also the best for the environment: “The tax does involve an informational burden on the government, which must levy the tax and determine its rates on different types of carbon emissions.” In other words, instead of letting us decide for ourselves what to buy, he wants the corporate/governmental bureaucracy—that paragon of objectivity, integrity, and public interest—to regulate our food choices for us, according to some scale of “green” taxation whose core features Cowen does not make clear in any way. This entire line of reasoning strikes me as completely at odds with Cowen’s rhetorical embrace of food consumers as first-line “innovators.”

Also, he goes on to say, agribusiness, Monsanto, and genetically modified organisms might do some bad things, but they also produce some important benefits; people who oppose the proliferation of GMOs are Luddites obstructing the necessary progress of agriculture when we need to double the global food output to feed the world’s exploding population. GMOs, he says, should be approved globally for use in third-world countries; that’s the solution to widespread hunger in Africa and India and China: “GMOs increase the supply of food, thereby lowering food prices and feeding the poor,” he writes. And they’re not bad at all! “The truth is that 300 million Americans, and millions of visitors to this country, have been eating these crops since the mid-1990s, without serious evidence of any ill effects or serious negative effects on the environment.” As a further defense of Monsanto, he cites its ubiquity, telling the anecdote about a woman who saw Fast Food Nation and tried to boycott the company for a month and found it impossible: Monsanto products are everywhere. Therefore, how can the company be evil? It sells chard!

I dislike arguing with guys like Cowen. He’s passionate about food, his heart is in the right place, and he’s concerned about a lot of the same things I am—the global food crisis, eating well, and finding a solution to the terrible worldwide inequities in the food system. However, instead of recognizing that many of us can think freely and draw conclusions for ourselves based on our experiences and the widely available facts, he proceeds on the evident conviction that his readers are enslaved to the elitism and paternalism of what he derides as the locavore Slow Food dogma of writers such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters. The guiding principle here seems to be that we all ignorantly turn up our noses at the delicious-smelling halal food cart on our way to Whole Foods to buy grass-fed free-range bison.

Indeed, much of An Economist Gets Lunch seems to proceed from the irritating assumption that without an economics degree, we’re all stumbling around in the dark, blindly eating local apples that might have been refrigerated for months in storage (using energy!) when it would actually be “greener” to eat a fresher one flown in from halfway around the world. In fact, nothing Cowen says is earth-shattering—some of his counsel on navigating the ins and outs of food shopping seems like sound-enough advice, while some of his policy prescriptions strike me as ludicrous. Apparently, when an economist gets lunch, he talks with his mouth full.

Kate Christensen is the author, most recently, of the novel The Astral (Doubleday, 2011).

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