Jayson Lusk on Reframing Debates with Data

From foodtank.com by Michael Peñuelas
Jayson Lusk on Reframing Debates with Data

Jayson Lusk is a Distinguished Professor and the Head of the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University. He is one of the most-cited food and agricultural economists of recent decades and has published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and working papers.

Dr. Lusk is the President of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association and the author of multiple books including “The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto about the Politics of Your Plate” and “Unnaturally Delicious:  How Science and Technology are Serving Up Super Foods to Save the World.”

Growing up in a rural, agricultural area of West Texas, Lusk spent his youth “hoeing cotton weeds and raising sheep and hogs for 4-H and FFA (Future Farmers of America) competitions.” After a few summers spent interning in food processing plants, he took an agricultural economics course and “loved seeing how math and data could be used to help understand how farmer and consumer make decisions.”

He is outspoken on a number of aspects of the United States (U.S.) food system and is a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Fox Business Network, the New York Times, and other media outlets.

Food Tank had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Lusk to discuss what motivates him in his work, what changes he would like to see to the Trump Administration’s food policy, and what challenges economists face in their work.

Food Tank (FT): What motivated you to step outside of the halls of academia and bring your analyses and criticisms of policy proposals like soda taxes, vegetable subsidies, and GMO labeling to the popular media?

Jayson Lusk (JL): Having grown up around people involved in production agriculture and working with the scientists who bring new food and agricultural technologies to life, my sense was that the public could use a broader perspective about how and why we grow food the way we do. Popular media portraits of the state of food and agriculture often paint selective and sensational pictures of the state of modern agriculture. My economic training also made me skeptical of the effectiveness of many of the policies that had become fashionable.

I don’t think I’ve ever argued that our current agricultural production system doesn’t face challenges, rather one needs to understand the tradeoffs and consequences of attempts to move away from our current system and consider whether the policies being proposed will actually create the outcomes people want. So, my main motivation is to provide information to help consumers, farmers, agribusinesses, and policy makers make decisions that will lead to a prosperous food future.

FT: The U.S. Food system currently fails to satisfy the basic needs of some consumers. What interventions do you think are most efficiently correcting this deficit and who is driving them?

JL: I’m not sure I agree with the premise of the question. Our food system feeds more people, more affordably, with more variety, and more nutritiously than has any other food system in human history. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Some people, even in rich countries like the U.S., go hungry, and many farmers cannot turn a profit. We have a variety of policies that attempt to address those problems with varying degrees of success. The research suggests the SNAP program, for example, is largely successful in achieving its goal of improving food security.

FT: If you could convince the Trump Administration to move forward with a few modifications to food and agriculture policy at the federal level, what would they be?

JL: First off, I’d be cautious about renegotiating trade agreements. Agricultural trade is enormously important both for farmers and consumers. Farmers of many agricultural commodities find their ultimate consumers in other countries. U.S. consumers enjoy greater variety and more stable food prices thanks to trade.

Another important area for focus is support for agricultural research. Research-led innovation that is focused on productivity growth can help farmers adapt to climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lessen environmental impacts while promoting food security. However, there is a lot of uncertainty in the scientific community about funding support for food and agricultural research, and in real terms, public funding for research in this area has declined in recent years.

At the farm level, the move away from traditional commodity programs that restrict farm decisions in favor of crop insurance has resulted in a more dynamic farm sector, but more focus on fruit and vegetable production may be desirable from a public health perspective.

FT: Could you explain the challenges that you and other economists face in understanding consumer behavior, including how consumers will actually react to proposed food marketing and policy initiatives?

JL: We’ve long known that what consumers say they’ll do in a survey doesn’t always match what they’ll buy in the grocery store. In surveys, the public is highly supportive of GMO labeling, but my research shows similar levels of support for absurd policies like DNA labeling.

None of this is to say that consumer research isn’t useful, only that it needs to be done carefully in a way to control for hypothetical and social desirability bias. And we need to acknowledge that most consumers don’t spend the same level of attention to food issues as do academics and journalists. Understanding economic incentives and having thoughtful conceptual models are extraordinarily useful in thinking through the consequences of policy initiatives.

For example, there are many proposals on the table to alter components of SNAP to promote healthier eating by, say, banning the purchase of sodas or “junk food” with SNAP dollars. Not only might such a policy hinder participation (and thus the program’s main objective of reducing hunger), but a bit of economic reasoning suggests it will likely be ineffectual as well. Why? Because the vast majority of SNAP participants spend more on food than they receive in SNAP benefits. As a result, they only need rearrange which items are bought with cash and which are bought with SNAP to “get around” a ban on soda.

As another example, there was much debate about the potential costs of mandatory GMO labeling. On the one hand, proponents of the policy were correct to note that the initial costs were simply the “price of ink.” But then what? Consumers and food manufacturers will respond to the policy, and producers fearful of losing market share are likely to opt for more expensive non-GMO ingredients, driving up food prices.

The focus on incentives, tradeoffs, and interactions is really at the heart of trying to project how consumers will actually react to food marketing and policy initiatives.

FT: Your recent books have focused on the debate surrounding the uses of biotechnology and on the rhetoric used by some wings of the food movement. What is your next major focus?

JL: I think it is fair to say that misgivings about food and agricultural technologies and support for coercive food policies have, much to my dismay, bipartisan appeal. While my initial foray into public writing on this topic was somewhat polemical, I’ve tried to find productive ways of engaging in these debates. My latest book, Unnaturally Delicious, tells the stories of food and agricultural innovators seeking to solve the major challenges of our time. My view is that if we truly want to make meaningful positive impacts addressing climate change, obesity, nitrogen runoff while simultaneously enjoying tasty, affordable food, we will need innovation in food and agriculture. Productivity growth is the forgotten cornerstone of sustainability, and reintegrating these concepts is a key challenge for the future. I’m working to ensure the benefits of food and agricultural innovation are more widely shared and understood.

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