A Plea for Culinary Modernism

This piece by Rachel Laudan is a masterful discussion of the ahistorical fascination with "natural" food.  She gives an interesting historical account of the evolution of cooking and eating, and make the case that industrialization was the great food equalizer - that the view that "natural" food was good for the poor is hogwash.

Here's one excerpt:

As an historian I cannot accept the account of the past implied by Culinary Luddism, a past sharply divided between good and bad, between the sunny rural days of yore and the gray industrial present. My enthusiasm for Luddite kitchen wisdom does not carry over to their history, any more than my response to a stirring political speech inclines me to accept the orator as scholar.

The Luddites’ fable of disaster, of a fall from grace, smacks more of wishful thinking than of digging through archives. It gains credence not from scholarship but from evocative dichotomies: fresh and natural versus processed and preserved; local versus global; slow versus fast: artisanal and traditional versus urban and industrial; healthful versus contaminated and fatty. History shows, I believe, that the Luddites have things back to front.

She points out the condescension in the idea that other people should toil away to make their artisanal ethnic foods so that we can take pleasure in them.  Laudan concludes with some of the following thoughts:

Were we able to turn back the clock, as they urge, most of us would be toiling all day in the fields or the kitchen; many of us would be starving. Nostalgia is not what we need.

What we need is an ethos that comes to terms with contemporary, industrialized food, not one that dismisses it, an ethos that opens choices for everyone, not one that closes them for many so that a few may enjoy their labor, and an ethos that does not prejudge, but decides case by case when natural is preferable to processed, fresh to preserved, old to new, slow to fast, artisanal to industrial.

An Anthropologist Takes on the Paleo Diet

Interesting TEDx talk by the anthropologist Christina Warner on the accuracy of our beliefs that underlie the modern Paleo Diet.  I particularly enjoyed her discussion around the 11 to 12 minute mark about how many of our current fruits and veggies are modern,  human creations that were no where to be found in the Paleo era.

What's going on inside people's heads when they see controversial food technologies?

That was the question I attempted to answer with several colleagues (John Cresip, Brad Cherry, Brandon McFadden, Laura Martin, and Amanda Bruce) in research that was just published in the journal Food Quality and Preference.

We put people in an fMRI machine and recorded their neural activations when they saw pictures of (or made choices between) milk jugs that had different prices and were labeled as being produced with (or without) added growth hormones or cloning.  

What did we find?

Our findings are consistent with the evidence that the dlPFC is involved in resolving tradeoffs among competing options in the process of making a choice. Because choices in the combined-tradeoff condition requires more working memory (as multiple attributes are compared) and because this condition explicitly required subjects to weigh the costs and benefits of the two alternatives, it is perhaps not surprising that greater activation was observed in the dlPFC than in the single-attribute choices in the price and technology conditions. Not only did we find differential dlPFC activations in different choice conditions, we also found that activation in this brain region predicted choice. Individuals who experienced greater activation in the right dlPFC in the technology condition, and who were thus perhaps weighing the benefits/costs of the technology, were less likely to choose the higher-priced non-hormone/non-cloned option in the combined-tradeoff condition.


Greater activation in the amygdala and insula when respondents were making choices in the price condition compared to choices in the combined-tradeoff condition might have resulted from adverse affective reactions to high prices and new technologies, although our present research cannot conclusively determine whether this is a causal relationship. In the price condition, the only difference between choice options was the price, and the prices ranged from $3.00 to $6.50, an increase of more than 100% from the lowest to the highest. Such a large price difference could be interpreted as a violation of a social norm or involve a fearful/painful/ threatening response, which, as just indicated, has been associated with activity in the amygdala and insula. Kahneman (2011, p. 296) argues that these particular brain responses to high prices are consistent with the behavioral-economic concept of loss aversion, in this case, a feeling that the seller is overcharging the buyer.

The punchline:

Estimates indicate that the best fitting model is one that included all types of data considered: demographics, psychometric scales, product attributes, and neural activations observed via fMRI. Overall, neuroimaging data adds significant predictive and explanatory power beyond the measures typically used in consumer research.

What will the future of food look like? recently asked a series of "experts" to opine about the future of food and predict how our plates will change.  The predictions are rather predictable as are the choice of experts.  

The selection of experts only included one scientists - nutritionist Marion Nestle - and her future look to me a lot like our past, as many of us: 

will enjoy home gardens and locally and sustainably produced food, at greater cost.

It is implicitly assumed that home gardens and "local" are the same as "sustainable".

Indeed, many of the answers fell prey to a kind of romantic traditionalism.

The list of experts mainly included chefs, journalists, and food activists.  Aside from Nestle, not one active food scientist was interviewed.  There was one restaurant consultant and one investor in "companies dedicated to solving food problems" interviewed, but not one person currently engaged in farming for a living, no food microbiologists, no geneticist, no agronomists, no animal scientists, no food engineers, no one working for today's largest food and agricultural companies.  In short, few of the kinds of people who are most likely to have the most substantive impact on the way we eat and farm in the future were interviewed.  

Its like our thinking about the future of food has become stuck in some sort of retrogressive mindset.  

Livestock, Externalities, and the Environment

The Wall Street Journal published a piece  today that I wrote dealing with externalities in livestock production.  I didn't choose the title - my argument isn't that livestock production doesn't have environmental impacts, rather I question the relative size of the impacts and discuss the best way to handle those impacts.

A few snippets:

That the price of meat is too low might come as news to food consumers who, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, paid 14% higher prices for ground beef this June than they did in June 2013 and 29% more than two years ago. Recent droughts and high corn prices—due in part to Washington’s support for ethanol—are largely to blame. It is unclear how high prices must rise to overcome the view that meat is “too cheap.” Some industry critics have even called for new “meat taxes” to discourage consumption.


The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that U.S. agriculture, including livestock production, accounts for only about 8% of total greenhouse-gas emissions in the country. Livestock in the U.S. have lower greenhouse-gas footprints than in other parts of the world. This is partly because American producers generally use higher-quality feeds, higher-yielding breeds, and more productivity-enhancing technologies such as probiotics, vaccines and growth hormones. Future improvements in feed and animal genetics could further reduce animal-agriculture’s impact. As economists have shown, one should not underestimate the ability of innovation, markets, the courts and private negotiation to resolve the adverse effects of externalities.

Moreover, the concept of externalities when applied to food is nebulous. At a recent Institute of Medicine meeting I attended, a room full of Ph.D.s struggled to understand exactly what to measure.


Let us also not gloss over what is beef’s most obvious benefit: Livestock take inedible grasses and untasty grains and convert them into a protein-packed food most humans love to eat. We may be able to reduce our impact on the environment by eating less meat, but we can also do the same by using science to make livestock more productive and environmentally friendly.

For more on that last point, see my previous post.

The piece was in part motivated by the fact that social commentators’ accounts of externalities often reflect a shallow understanding of complexity of the subject.  The economists A.H. Barnett and Bruce Yandle accurately discerned the fact that, “economists unwittingly developed a weapon of mass destruction that, in the hands of journalists and popular policy analysts, at times corroded almost to the point of uselessness the beneficial theory of markets and competition.”  As a participant in one of the CDC-IOM planning workshop on “Exploring the True Costs of Food”, I have witnessed the disconnect that often exists between public health advocates and economists on the nature and role of externalities (I discuss some that disconnect and the complexity of externalities in this article published in Agricultural and Resource Economics Review).  Often, factors that are argued to be externalities are simply zero-sum transfers (as is the case for health care costs paid by public insurance programs like Medicaid), have effects that are actually internalized in other market prices (such as the risk of injury to workers in meat packing plants), or are not externalities at all. 

If the issue is that livestock are consuming "too much" water and that water isn't appropriately priced, the key is to think about how to develop water rights and markets so that the price of water reflects its relative scarcity.  But, it should also be clear - given the correlation between drought and beef prices - that a lot of the water use is factored into the price of beef.

That there are externalities in beef production is hardly news.  The much more difficult question is how to address them.  Technological progress is a key solution.  Research shows that the carbon footprint of beef production fell 16% from 1977 to 2007, with much of that reduction resulting from responsible use of technologies.  Many consumers are averse to these externality-reducing practices and technologies, but more “natural” production systems are often associated with lower productivity, greater water and land use, and higher carbon footprints.