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Food Demand Survey (FooDS) - December 2014

The December 2014 edition of the Food Demand Survey (FooDS) is now out.

Results suggest steady to slightly increasing demand for most meat products this month compared to last, particularly for steak.  Awareness of various controversial issues in the media was similar to last month, but was, across the board, compared to this time last year.  

Three new ad hoc questions were added to the survey this month.  

The first question asked: “Scientists are currently working to develop food products that might become available in the future.  If it were possible, would you be willing to eat or drink the following foods?” Respondents were asked to select “Yes, I would eat/drink this”, “No, I would not eat/drink this”, or “I don’t know” for each item. 

64.81% of respondents stated they would be willing to eat rice with a higher level of vitamin A.  Just under half the respondents stated they would eat an apple that does not turn brown after peeling and they would drink milk in a carton that changes color according to freshness.  Only about 20% of respondents said they’d eat a hamburger from meat grown in a lab, eat a pizza from a 3D food printer, or eat a protein bar made with insect flour.

The results are similar to those from a Pew Foundation poll conducted earlier this year, which posed the following, "Here are some things that people might be able to do in the next 50 years. For each, tell me if this were possible, would YOU PERSONALLY do this... ".  For the item "Eat meat that was grown in a lab" 20% said they would, 78% said they wouldn't, and 2% said "don't know" (in their phone survey, "don't know" wasn't mentioned as an explicit option, it has to be volunteered by the respondent". 

Secondly, participants were asked “Thinking about the future, which of the following food and agriculture challenges are you most concerned about?” Participants were shown nine items (randomly ordered across respondents) and were asked to rank these items from most to least concerned.  The rankings were used in a statistical model to estimate scores for each issue that sum up to 100%.  The issue of largest concern was “Having affordable food for me and my family,” with a concern score of 23.3%.  By contrast, the issue of least concern was “Inequitable distribution of food throughout the world.”  Affordable food was 23.3/8.1= 2.87 times more important than inequitable distribution.  The second and third most concerning issues were “Changing the type and quantity of food eaten to address obesity, diabetes, and heart disease” and “Producing enough food to meet the demands of a growing world population.”

Immediately following the previous question, participants were asked “Several challenges facing the food and agricultural sector were mentioned in the previous question.  Which of the two following option do you believe would be most effective in addressing the challenges you thought were most concerning?”  76.23% of respondents chose the option that stated “adopting a more ‘natural’ agricultural production system – more local, organic unprocessed crops and food” would be most effective in addressing these challenges.  Only 23.77% chose the other option which read: “adopt a more ‘technological’ agricultural system – more innovation, science, and research in crops and food”.  I must say I'm a bit depressed by this last finding.

Rolling Stone and Agricultural Journalism

By now, I suspect most of you are aware of the Rolling Stone, rape story saga (here's a timeline of the events).  To recap, Rolling Stone ran a story about a gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity.  The story caused a national outcry, leading to vandalism of the fraternity, protests across the nation, and a suspension of the fraternity system at UVA.  However, after the initial outcry, a number of news sources began to question the veracity of Rolling Stone's account.  Most prominently, the Washington Post ran a number of stories, and eventually showed that the victim's story (at least as initially reported) was fallacious.  Rolling Stone has apologized for running the story.

Reading various accounts of the on goings, it seems that Rolling Stone, and the journalist - Sabrina Erdely - who wrote the story, got at least two things wrong.  First, the journalist went into the story with an agenda. It seems the magazine's editors were predisposed to believe there was a "rape culture" and only needed a good story to back it up.  Sources suggest that Erdely wanted to do a story on campus rape and went from campus to campus to find the "right" one. As one source put it,  

But Erdely was committed by her own admission to finding a story that would confirm her preconceptions about a campus violent crime wave against women.

Second, the journalist only told one side of the story.  As Megan McArdle put it:

Unfortunately, reporting by others suggests that Erdely didn’t do one of the basic things that reporters do to try to keep fabrications or exaggerations out of our stories: Check with the other side.

A number of people have said that the details of the case are a distraction and it is the bigger issue that one should focus on.  But, as McArdle wrote:

Nor am I very convinced by the people — including Erdely — who have argued that focusing on Jackie’s story is getting us “sidetracked” from “the real story,” which is about the rape culture at UVA and the slothful institutional reaction to Jackie’s story. The story was headlined “A Rape on Campus.” The first thousand words are devoted to Jackie’s horrifying story, and much of the rest of the story is devoted to Jackie’s descent into depression and her interactions with the deans. If the story is so irrelevant to the real point of the article, then it should have been pulled out when the victim refused to provide details that would have permitted the author to contact the accused for comment.

But of course, if Jackie’s story had been pulled out, the article wouldn’t have received anything like the attention it got

OK, so what does any of this have to do with the sorts of things I normally discuss on this blog?

I'd argue that something analogous often happens in the reporting of stories related to food and agriculture, particularly animal agriculture.  It is not a perfect analogy, and I am in no way drawing a moral equivalency with rape.  What I am getting at is the way journalists tell stories and how their editors choose whether to run them.

It is not as if Rolling Stone is too removed from food reporting.  They ran their own expose on meat and animal cruelty just last year.  In a story titled In the Belly of the Beast the lede goes as follows:

A small band of animal rights activists have been infiltrating the factory farms where animals are turned into meat under the most horrific circumstances. Now the agribusiness giants are trying to crush them.

I'm not claiming that the stories told in the Rolling Stone piece aren't true (in some cases they likely have videos and pictures to back their claims).  Some of the events are horrific and may well be prosecutable offenses.   But to what extent are they symptomatic of a broader "cruelty culture" and of the industry more generally, as the story seems to suggest?  

Is there a more general pattern to how these stories are told? It is likely that the authors went in to the piece with a story to tell, and lo and behold they found one. It likely fit a preconceived narrative that the publishers believed.  To what extent did the authors reach out to get the "other side of the story?"  There seems to be little attempt to systematically do that (though they do cite an episode from Nighteline where a reporter confronted a dairy owner).  Again, I'm not saying the particular stories they tell are incorrect, but what I am asking is whether the article indicts the entire industry as the story seems to suggest?  After all, the story ends with an indictment of the present agricultural system and a call for an alternative sort of system.

This isn't just about this particular Rolling Stone story on animal cruelty.  Look, for example, at this piece by Jon Entine at Forbes.com, where he shows video footage of Michael Pollan, an ardent critic of today's commercial agricultural system, outright admitting that much of the journalism about food and agriculture doesn't have to tell both sides.  According to Entine, Pollan said in an interview:

The media has really been on our side for the most part. I know this from writing for the New York Times where I’ve written about a lot of other topics. But when I wrote about food I never had to give equal time to the other side. I could say whatever I thought and offer my own conclusions. Say you should buy grass feed beef and organic is better, and these editors in New York didn’t realize there is anyone who disagrees with that point of view. So I felt like I got a free ride for a long time.

That was precisely the problem with the Rolling Stone rape story.  The writer got a "free ride" because the story fit a narrative already believed to be true.  

I have no problems with journalists writing true stories of injustice or cruelty in food and agriculture.  And, I am not a fan of the "ag gag" laws.  What I caution is making broad claims about industry-wide behavior without the evidence to support it.  

Who are the Soda Tax Baptists and Bootleggers?

That is a question asked by Adam Smith and Bruce Yandle in an article over at Reason.com.  They write of the traditional Baptist and Bootlegger scenario where one group with the moral high ground gives cover to another group with entirely different motives:

Why “bootleggers and Baptists”? Recall that both historically supported laws that shut down liquor stores on Sunday, but for entirely different reasons. Taking the moral high ground, the Baptists fervently hoped to see a decline in alcohol consumption. Just as fervently, the bootleggers longed to eliminate competition at least for one day a week. Together, they formed a powerful duo.

They then go on to discuss the various calls for soda taxes.  But, they apparently only see Baptists and no bootleggers.

The “Baptist” part of the story is clear cut. Long-time support for such excise taxes comes from the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the NAACP. These and other organizations see sweet drinks as a major detriment to American health and well-being that feeds our skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates.

...

But where are the bootleggers? If we probe a wee bit deeper, we may discover why there is no bootlegger/Baptist success story for taxing away sugary drink consumption. Bootleggers are generally associated with producing substitutes for the highly-taxed or regulated item. For example, U.S. producers of natural gas love it when the Environmental Protection Agency places heavy restrictions on coal-burning power plants.

Because Coca-Cola and other soda manufacturers also sell diet drinks, juices, water, and other non-taxed alternatives, they apparently don't have an incentive to be "bootleggers", and thus Smith and Yandle conclude there are none, which is why they argue that soda taxes haven't gotten far politically.

In part they're right.  But, I think they're missing an all together different sort of "bootlegger" in the story.  Some baptists are bootleggers: they're one and the same.   

Yes, non-profits, public health advocates, academics, and bureaucrats often make appeals that seem virtuous and Baptist-like.  But, often their motives are less than altruistic.  

Consider the fact that almost every call for soda or fat taxes also suggests that the tax receipts should be spent on activities that would directly or indirectly benefit said groups.  Here for example, is Mark Bittman in the New York Times

The resulting income should be earmarked for a program that encourages a sound diet for Americans by making healthy food more affordable and widely available.

A New York Assemblyman, arguing for a statewide fat tax said the proposal should go foward

as long as the revenue is directly targeted and used to address a healthy lifestyle, and not to fill a budget gap

Yes, these programs might benefit people's health.  But, look at who else the earmarks also help.  Who will be paid to do the education, promotion, monitoring, etc.?  Moreover, the federal government already spends millions of dollars every year on dietary and obesity research, and surely many academics would benefit from increased budgets for research and education grants on obesity, nutrition, and health care.

I'm not necessarily saying this sort of research or education shouldn't be done, but what I am saying is that many of the Baptists in this case also have (perhaps not even self conscious) bootlegger-type motives.  As a result, its often hard to have thoughtful discussions about the economic justifications (or lack thereof) of fat taxes.  I think it was Upton Sinclair who said

It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends upon his not understanding it.

GMOs and the Precautionary Principle

Much has been written about Nassim Taleb's coauthored paper arguing that the precautionary principle dictates that we should avoid GMOs.  Given the prominence of the author and his willingness to berate detractors, the paper has received more attention than the ideas in the paper merit.  

This piece by Stuart Hayashi raises an excellent point.  The issue shouldn't be about the presence of risk per se but about risk on the margin.  How much riskier (or less risky) are GMOs compared to other techniques?  As Hayashi point's out, Taleb's argument is akin to running an experiment without the control.  There is an implicit assumption that using GMOs (the experiment) are unambiguously riskier than not (the control).

Hayashi's post had an summary description of Taleb's main argument, which also shows how the same sort of logic can be used to argue that GMOs should be adopted.  I've taken Hayashi's description of Taleb's argument and replaced a few of Hayashi's words with my own in brackets:

"The argument is as follows. If we talk about the risk [likelihood] of a GMO doing damage [creating benefits] on any one particular day, it seems that that risk [potential benefit] is minuscule. But what is the statistical risk[likelihood] of a GMO inflicting harm [being created that creates enormous benefits] one day . . . eventually? As time advances, that risk[likelihood] of a GMO eventually causing turmoil [great good] increases exponentially . . . Therefore, the argument concludes that as long as transgenic technology is employed, it is inevitable that one day, something devastating [wonderful] concerning GMOs will occur. Therefore, the one method whereby we can guard [help secure] ourselves against this otherwise-impending harm [benefit] is to avoid [promote] usage of genetic engineering"

Even if Taleb's argument is right, it must also be right for any number of other possible risks we face: from say, new diseases that come about from interacting with domesticated or wild animals, from risks of using alternative energy sources (curiously, Taleb says nuclear energy is excluded because "the nature of these risks has been extensively studied"), from risks of potentially electing a warmongering despot, from risks of developing robots and artificial intelligence, from risks of comets passing by the earth, from risks of returning from space travel, risks from conventional plant breeding, etc, etc.  It is not an argument that is anyway unique to risks from GMOs.  Maybe Taleb is right and we are all just sitting around waiting for some worldwide disaster.  Even if that's true, I seriously doubt it will be the GMOs that get us.