In Food We (Dis)Trust

This blog post by Chef Michael Formichella describes one of the key outcomes he learned from some focus groups conducted among frequent consumers of grass-fed beef.  He learned that (emphasis his):

There were several notable comments passed by all three groups that I wanted to expound upon. It revolves around trust.

He hit the nail on the head with this one.  Although it is rarely discussed in this way, our modern “food wars” almost all disseminate over the issue of trust.  People (sometimes for good reason) distrust agribusinesses, and as a consequence, the technologies they develop.  This leads to calls for things like organic food – which people then distrust because it turns out that organics are not all they are often touted to be.  Much of the local food movement can, in my opinion, be explained by an effort by some to interact more closely with those they believe are more trustworthy. 

What bothers me about the folks I’ve called the food police or the food elite is that they have fostered, and even encouraged, this atmosphere of distrust to promote their own books, restaurants, and political agendas.  I do not deny that some of the distrust of modern production agriculture is deserved, but as someone who has grown up around “large” farmers and people working in agribusinesses, the caricature that is painted of them cannot withstand close scrutiny.  I strongly suspect that the guys running 5,000 acre farms are no more or less “trustworthy” than the muckraking journalists who vilify them.      

Economists don’t much talk about it, but trust is perhaps the linchpin in the engine of economic growth.  It allows specialization and development of comparative advantage.  It facilitates trade.  It creates environments in which there is some reasonable expectation that success from investments in research and technology will be rewarded.  (There is a really nice podcast between Russ Roberts and David Rose on Econ Talk on this and related issues if you want more).     

So, when I hear and read people implicitly saying “don’t trust any farmer but your local farmer” or “don’t trust anything developed by Monsanto or Cargill or ADM” or “don’t trust the research from Land Grant Universities” or “don’t trust supermarkets,” I take pause. 

You’re setting yourself up for a pretty meager existence if the only person you can trust is yourself.  Locavores are willing to extend that trust to the few people who happen to live in close proximity to them.  But, I’m hoping for more because the more people you can trust, the better your life is going to be.  I happen to believe in the power of firms trying to maintain a reputation, the power of consumers acting with their wallets and feet, the threat of litigation, and sometimes plain self interest tempered by market forces to help foster a climate of trustworthiness.  Clearly, not everyone agrees.  But, what I’d like to see is less inward-looking thinking (i.e., trust only your neighbor) and more thinking on how production agriculture can appear to be (and actually become) more trustworthy.