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An Economist's Food Rules: Forget Local Food, Avoid Meat, Eat More Carrots

In his new book, an economist offers an unorthodox set of tenets for eating well while improving the world.

“Food people need to pick their issues,” says Tyler Cowen, an economist, blogger, and connoisseur of cheap, ethnic eats in the Washington, D.C., metro area. “I think the issues that are important to pick are meat and antibiotics.”

Issues that are not important, in Cowen’s view? Eating local, going organic, eliminating GMO crops.

Cowen’s new book, An Economist Gets Lunch, takes a series of unorthodox stands on the best way to eat well while improving the world. It reads like a how-to guide for adopting Cowen’s particular brand of conscientious eating and tosses aside certain closely-held tenets of foodies and environmentalists. Locavorism gets the hardest rap, and agribusiness an unusual amount of praise.

It’s occasionally aggravating, particularly since Cowen often cites details without research to back them up. (In the great dish-washing debate, for instance, he advocates for hand- over machine-washing but apparently wasn’t aware of the energy and water-saving advantages of the dishwasher.) Still, it’s worth considering the points on which he aligns with traditional food gospel and the points on which he differs. Taken together, they offer a reasonable, alternate vision for how to approach these issues.

Like most environmentalists, Cowen supports a policy that would control carbon emissions. His policy of choice is a carbon tax, which would help guide consumers’ choices to low-carbon products and activities and release us from the burden of remembering what we’re supposed to be doing and what we’re not. “Most people, 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,” he writes in the book. He sees deforestation as a major problem, and supports a higher tax on meat and efforts to support reforestation. He also wants to encourage lower-carbon urban living by eliminating height limits and parking requirements for developers.

Most environmentalists could get on board with that vision. But Cowen also defends agribusiness on environmental grounds: its efficiency has kept more land free of agricultural development, he argues, and makes feeding cities possible. He thinks that countries where hunger is still a problem need to adopt similar systems, including GMO crops, and that, on balance, chemical fertilizers have both advantages and disadvantages.

“I think in trade-offs more than most foodies and non-economists,” he says. “Whether we like it or not, people want cheap food.”

And in that rubric, local food doesn’t win him over. Local food may taste better, but far-away food’s contributing to climate change, at least, is minimal. Transportation makes up only 10 to 15 percent of food’s energy costs, he points out—a “minor issue” that ranks far below the carbon impact of meat consumption.

Considering these trade-offs, as Cowen does, leads to at least one new and potentially useful rule of thumb. If you’re worried about the transportation costs of food, he says, worry only about the food that’s moved by plane. “Go hardy,” he writes. “Hardy” vegetables—winter squash, leeks, kale, carrots—can grow most places or can survive slower transport. Asparagus, on the other hand, is sensitive and has to be flown in from Mexico. If you’re going to buy vegetables like that, buying local might make sense after all.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user

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