Russ Roberts

Jayson Lusk on Food, Technology, and Unnaturally Delicious

EconTalk Episode with Jayson Lusk
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Limiting Leakage and Lemons... Should we fear?...

Unnaturally%20Delicious.jpg How bad is pink slime? Are free-range chickens happier? Can robots cook? Jayson Lusk of Oklahoma State University and the author of Unnaturally Delicious talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about these questions and more from his new book. Lusk explores the wide-ranging application of technology to farming, cooking, protein production, and more.

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0:33Intro. [Recording date: March 3, 2016.] Russ: Now, this book champions a pretty optimistic view of how technology and science are changing our food for the better. And, not everyone agrees with that. One of your defenses of that position is that it's a very old story. How so? Guest: Well, actually if we look at a lot of things we enjoy about our food system today, if we took a step back and thought about them, we would probably see that there actually were advances at some point in the past, whether it's a hundred years ago or thousands of years ago. So, a lot of our ancient foods--wine, vinegar--these things were technologies at a time. Somehow our ancestors figured out if they wanted to preserve items, if the kept them in certain ways, they wouldn't spoil as quickly, would taste a little better. And, you know, a lot of the plants and animals we have around us didn't exist anything like the form that we see them today, even a thousand years ago. So, something like corn, for example, the ancestor of corn was probably about the size of your thumb. And it was only through selective breeding--not always purposeful-- Russ: You are not talking about the corn kernel. You are talking about the whole cob, the whole thing. Guest: Exactly right. Yeah. And to give the listeners a bit of a perspective, a modern day ear of corn would be about, probably the size of your forearm--about the size of a foot. And so the modern ancestor of that, several thousand years ago, was about the size of your thumb. So that change that happened was because our ancestors picked the bigger ones; they kept those around, traveled with them, ate the ones that were a little tastier. And then of course we've used more sophisticated technologies. But, um, the more recent one with corn is hybrid breeding technologies. And that happened in the early 1900s. And if you look at a trend of, say, corn yields, that innovation that learning that if we were very specific about which strains of corn we crossed with another just led to an incredible increase in the amount of food we could get for each acre of land. So we've been modifying the food we've been eating since the beginning. Russ: Well, you say here--I was rather shocked, and pleasantly surprised, to learn that broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels's sprouts, and kale didn't exist before humans came along? Where did they come from? Guest: Yeah. There's an ancient weed, essentially, a plant. You can google it and find it. It just sort of looks like an unruly plant. And over time people took that same plant and selected it in different ways. So, some people focused more on the little flowers and tried to get them to grow productively, and that turned them into broccoli. Other people focused on other parts--the leaves, tried to get the leaves to grow bigger. That turned into the version of kale we have now. And then, you know, just different people doing different things with that same plant led it to cauliflower and to Brussels sprouts. It's absolutely incredible. Of course this wasn't biotech or GMO (Genetically Engineered Organisms) kind of stuff. These were just people trying to adapt and sometimes, probably not even all that purposefully, were using plants in all these ways that led to the outcomes we see today. And that's not a unique story. It's a story that is true for most of our modern foodstuffs. Russ: Now, a lot of people would argue that that's okay; that was then; this is now. And those older types of changes that we made, those were "natural changes" through breeding and standard methods. A lot of people are very worried or scared about what we're doing to food these days. We're going to talk about some of those techniques, some of the applications of science and technology. But just as a starting point: What would you say to people who are concerned about playing God with our food supply? Guest: That is a question I get a lot. And sometimes it takes the form of: 'I just want food the way God gave it to us.' You know, as we've already been talking about here, the trouble is there's no 'there' there. Which state of nature are we really talking about, the one 10,000 years ago, the one a thousand years ago? Because we've really had a constant evolution in food, that we've had. And I suppose one answer to your question is to say that people probably always have been a little skeptical of new foods. It's not necessarily a modern phenomenon. So, there's some great stories about when the potato was introduced in Europe that people were sort of disgusted by it. Some people thought it looked like long fingers growing and didn't want to eat it. And of course you can see that even into our more modern world that there was a lot of aversion to things like pasteurization. Or even microwaves, for example. So there is I think a natural human tendency to be a little skeptical of new foodstuffs. And that probably comes from our history. Because humans had to be cautious about what we ate. I think Michael Pollan calls it the Omnivore's Dilemma--we have got to be careful about what we are eating, but we also have to be adventurous enough to find new things and keep ourselves alive. And so, yes, we are concerned about a lot of the new food innovations. But I don't think that concern is necessarily new. There's probably some dimensions to it that are new and different. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing: it's a natural human tendency. But one of the things I'm trying to do in this book and my other writings is, put that emotional gut reaction to the side and let's look a little at the evidence. And you don't have to take a new technology just on blind faith. But, you know, let's look and see what the science has to say about it, and use the best information we have to see whether something we might want to use.
6:53Russ: We'll come back to some of those issues at the end. Let's start and look at some of the things you are talking about in the book. Really a fascinating and delightful book about some of the things that are going on in the food world. Some of them will scare some people, I suspect. Some of them will amaze folks. So I want to start with chickens, which is something I've always enjoyed thinking and reading about. I'm not sure why. But I am always fascinated by the incredible productivity of the American poultry industry. And you write, "In 2014 the United States was home to more than 300 million hens, who laid 86.9 billion eggs for our dinner table. Add it all up and the average American ate about 260 eggs last year--an amount roughly equal to what a single chicken lays in a year." And that's an American chicken, of course. In the less developed parts of the world, chickens are less productive, which is in itself also interesting. And those are just egg-layers. Of course, for eating of chickens, there's something over a billion chickens alive right now. Last time I looked, there's about 4 chickens for every person being raised for their dining pleasure. And one of the things people worry about, especially egg-laying chickens: they are typically raised and live in cages with very little freedom, very little opportunity to experience whatever a chicken experiences in a different world, a wilder world, if that exists. And a lot of people are upset about that, and promote free-range chickens, and other solutions. So, what do you think of these concerns? And what has happened in some of the--what are some of the innovations people have done to respond to those concerns? Guest: Well, the first thing I'd say about concerns about animal welfare: they are certainly valid concerns. They are legitimate and they are things that we probably want to think about and worry a little about. The trouble with, and this is true of so many, you know, of life's pressing problems is that the answers aren't nearly as easy as they might first seem. And there are lots of really tough tradeoffs when it comes to thinking about really tough issues like animal welfare. And there is kind of a common view in which food and agriculture was great in the 1940s and 1950s, we had all these free range chickens running around and small diversified farms; and man, if we could just get ourselves back there we'd be a lot better off. But the world we see today is a result, yes, of a lot of technology changes. And we think about the question: Why would these farmers start bringing chickens indoors in the first place? Well, you know, chickens don't like to be outside when it's hot or cold any more than you and I like to. So, farmers learned that if they brought them inside they could protect them from weather. The other thing it did is it protected them from a lot of diseases. And surely people are familiar with the bird flu epidemic that hit the United States last year--it killed millions of chickens. And that happened because of contact with wild birds. So, you bring the animals indoors, at least it helps protect a little bit against some of those problems. And then we can start feeding them more specialized diets, and make them more productive, and picking better genetics. So, this wasn't some evil plot to be mean to chickens, but sort of the evolved process that led to this point where--and the driver ultimately isn't some big evil corporation, but I think it's often you and I, the food consumer. When we went in the grocery store and we saw a lesser-price alternative, we typically went for it. And that competitive pressure led to the sort of outcomes we see today. And I think the difficult question is: What are the alternatives and what can we do about it? And throughout this book I often will draw a contrast of what are two ways of dealing with problems. Probably the most popular method--at least the one with the cultural cache today--is a sort of romantic traditionalism method. So the answer is: If we don't like all these chickens in cages today, let's just go back to the way we did it in the 1950s. Open the doors; let the chickens run wild. And there are some merits to that approach. Russ: People are doing it. People are doing it in their own backyards. Guest: Oh, they sure are. In fact, one of my neighbors in fact has some outdoor chickens, so I get to see them pretty frequently when I go for walks in my neighborhood. And so, yeah, it is taking on--that's great; people like doing that. And actually those kinds of eggs can be a little tastier, because the animals get a little, get a more diversified diet. But especially when you look at those statistics you quoted about, just the volume of egg production in the United States--it's really incredible. I think most people don't really realize how many eggs they are eating a year and how many animals it takes to produce those. And so to imagine going in the world we are in today to one where everything was grown in that kind of production system is really hard to imagine. It could be done, but eggs would be, certainly, a lot more expensive. And we'd need a lot more land to do that. And so, the other kind of alternative model is there are some technologies: there are some changes we can think about in terms of new technologies or even new economic approaches that might lead to better outcomes. So, most people if they go in the grocery store today--you can buy cage-free eggs. There's no label on it. It's probably eggs from chickens that were living in these small cages: people call them battery cages. Or you might see cage-free eggs. And those are typically the alternatives that are presented to us in the grocery store. There are organic eggs, which are essentially cage-free. And those cage-free eggs, we have a lot of ideas about what that means. But the reality probably isn't what most people think it is. It's just a very large barn where the chickens essentially have the ability to roam around wherever they want. And the advantage of that over the cage system is the animals have more freedom of movement, and they can exhibit some of their natural behaviors like scratching in the dust and doing the things that chickens have natural urges to do. But the thing a lot of people don't realize is there are a lot of real downsides to that sort of production system, too. There tends to be--it's not always the case--higher mortality rates: so the hens die a lot more in those systems. When you think about animal welfare, dying is about the worst it can get. And one of the reasons they die is because of this thing called the pecking order: it's a real life thing. A lot of chickens together that don't know each other, they are going to compete for dominance. And so they'll peck on each other; and that causes some problems. And the other issue, there, too, is there's just a lot of--it's a really dirty, dusty place in a lot of these open barn systems. And that affects the chickens' healths, but also affects the workers' healths. So you are again back to this tough issue of tradeoffs. We'd really like these chickens to have more room, but when we give them more room, they fight with each other; they tend to die at a little faster rate; and it creates these environments that are really smelly and dusty. And so that--you know, I'm not advocating for one type of system over another, but it's a tough tradeoff. And so one of the things I ask in the book is: Is there a way through this tradeoff? Can either technological development or development in--talk about an economic development, even, that you might use to get us into a better position?
14:21Russ: And so, talk about--is it J. S. West, is that the name of the company? Guest: Yeah. This is a company in California, a very large egg producer out in California. And there's some interesting politics in California because back in 2008, on the ballot initiative was, before the voters in that state, they essentially voted to ban these--not gestation crates, that's for pigs--to ban the battery cages for chickens. And so the producers out in California were stuck having to figure out what they were going to do next. And they knew about the cage free systems and a lot of them did that. But it wasn't clear that was going to be the best alternative. And so as it turns out there have been some researchers in Europe working on this problem for a number of years, and there's sort of an innovative compromise between this cage system and this cage-free system. And it's a type of cage called an enriched cage, or a colony cage--it goes by a variety of different names. But it's an attempt to try to combine the advantages of these two systems. And so, what it is, is essentially a much larger cage--probably about the size of a king-sized mattress. It's about that large. And it's got quite a few birds in it--probably 50-60 birds in there. But they've got a lot more freedom of movement, so they can move around a lot more. And it has some amenities that aren't there in those tight battery cages. So, there are perches the birds can get up on. There's a little area where they can dust-bathe. Russ: Woo hoo! [?] Guest: Yeah. Exactly. Russ: [?] a dust bath to [?] Guest: And there is a little area where they can lay their eggs in a nest. You know, it's not surprising, but the hens like to have a little privacy when they are laying their eggs. And so, even though they've got this big cage, they almost always go in that nest area where it's a little secluded to lay their eggs. But, you don't have this situation where there's thousands upon thousands of birds in this big open barn. So the sort of pecking issues are not nearly as problematic. It's still there but it's not as big an issue. And you don't have nearly the dust problems, and the particulate matter, emission problems, that are there in the cage system. So it's an innovative compromise. It's also a compromise in terms of cost. If you look at the cost of production, it's somewhere between that cage system and that cage-free system. And so, you know, it's a new technology: it's something that scientists, animal welfare scientists were working on for years as a way to try to think about ways of making chickens' lives better while not increasing our food budget too much. Russ: So, the coolest thing about this--we'll put a link up to it--is you can actually watch the chickens live, on camera. The company wants to be transparent. And the thing you notice is that they are still pretty crowded together. The other thing you notice is something I've heard from agricultural people as well, which is: Chickens are really nervous. They don't really take advantage of--they are not lounging around, taking advantage of a little extra space. They are just nervous creatures. They are very busy. Guest: They are. When you walk into one of these barns, when a human comes in, they know it. And they move around. And, exactly: they are a little neurotic, perhaps. Russ: Who knows? Perhaps. They could be very relaxed inside, serene as can be. Guest: The one thing I would say, though, is--yeah, you are right. I think it is awesome that a company like this gives the transparency to let the consumers see what they are doing for their own selves. And some people are kind of surprised by it: They think, 'Wow, I didn't realize the conditions were so small,' or what have you. But, what I would contrast that, though, against, is not your romantic ideal of what free range chickens are; rather the reality of what free range chickens are. Russ: Yeah. I always say the romantic ideal is a chicken from, like, "The Sound of Music"--leaping across the valley or the mountainside singing joyously in their freedom. And that's not what they are. Guest: No. In fact, just as a little anecdote, I will often teach at summer school in Italy in the summers. And a couple of years ago, a student in the class, his family ran a farm nearby; and he said, 'Would you like to go see my family's farm?' And I said, 'Oh, that would be awesome. That would be great.' It's just the idyllic sort of small Italian family farm that you might think of, had some, you know, had a little winery there, and they had some cows. And they had some free-range chickens. And where were those free range chickens? Where do they love to be? On the manure pile they kept right outside of where they kept the barn with the cattle. And you know, a lot of those chickens didn't look very good, either: they were being pecked on by others. But that's what free range is. And so when we look online at, say, J.S. West operation, we don't want to compare it, as you say, to "The Sound of Music," or whatever chicken. We want to compare it to the real life free range chicken. Russ: And they also have, of course--they are more likely to get parasites. It's a tough life being a chicken, in a battery cage or outside a battery cage. We'll just leave it at that.
19:54Russ: Let's move on to 3-D food printing and the robot chef. Because that's really some amazing stuff going on there. Particularly the robot chef. Guest: It is. I saw a little, just a small excerpt in a sort of industrial magazine about this company that had come to a trade show and introduced this robotic chef, and I thought, 'Man, I have to learn about this. It sounds really interesting.' So, fortunately I was able to get in touch with the maker. So, I'll talk about the robot chef first. This is not a robot on like, say, "The Jetsons" where they are moving around talking to you. It's sort of a--think about a large kitchen cabinet almost that has robot arms attached to the top. And these arms can move backwards and forwards and they can grab things, but they are sort of placed above a kitchen stove with, you know, microwave and other things near it. But the really interesting thing about how this works, is they take chefs--in the case of this Moley Robotics, they took the winner of the British show "Top Chef" and asked him if he'd put sensors on his arms while he was preparing a meal. And so the computers are recording his every movement as he is preparing his dish. And then they can translate his movements--they can essentially program the robot to mimic those movements in every way of the chef. For me, the really cool thing about that is, I'm a little bit of a foodie myself; I like to eat nice food and go to nice restaurants; but sometimes it's expensive. Sometimes I've tried to make the same dishes that some of the celebrity chefs do in their restaurants, with varying degrees of success. But the cool thing about this is, if it's the sensors attached to these chefs' arms, we're getting an exact replica of what they would do if they were in our homes. Russ: It's so cool. It reminds me--two things it reminds me of, one is Andy Serkis who plays, in the Planet of the Apes he wires himself up and acts and it gets transformed into this animatronic creature that has his facial expressions. It's an incredible, very similar thing. The other thing it reminds me of in a much milder way is Ratatouille where you have the rat up under the hat of the chef who doesn't know what he's doing, but he's basically steering him; and that's what this is. There's an algorithm reproducing what a great chef in theory would be--did, literally. Not 'would do' but did. Guest: Yeah. In the same way from that movie Ratatouille that the chef was able to pull a fast one over his diners by thinking he was the one creating this great meal, we could do that for our friends and family: 'Look at this great meal I've prepared.' All the while we've got some robot in the back room doing it for us. But yeah, I think that's just a fascinating technology. It's not on the markets yet, so it's something that's still in development. But I think they hope to have some models ready for sale in 2017. Whether this takes off or not, it's hard to tell. But it's certainly a really cool idea. And it's a really cool idea when we think, again, about our past with food. Because if we go back, even 50 years, think about your mom or your grandmother and how much time they spent in the kitchen. And there's just been incredible change over time. Part of it is social norms. So, we men are sort of expected to help out a little more in the kitchen. That's probably a good thing. But a lot of it is just technology differences. And you can see it in these time-use surveys that try to monitor how people are spending their time throughout the day. The average woman today spends half as much time in food preparation, about a hundred--80-100% less time in meal cleanup. That is amazing. Those aren't chores, especially the meal cleanup part, that really anybody likes. Cooking, we might like. But often when I cook it's on my own terms. But there can be a little drudgery to it if we have to do it every day, day in and day out, especially we're shuttling the kids to soccer and trying to make meetings and all those sorts of things. And so the ability to turn those jobs over to a robot or for food processors to give us foods that are more convenient, it's really, I think, really increase the quality of life. Russ: Well, you'd think the next step would just be a box--a quote--we call a Cuisinart a "food processor". But what we really want is a food processor where you just open a drawer, you put in a bunch of ingredients, you call up the right recipe, and it does all the things inside the box. Right? It's sort of like a robotic surgeon but you don't have to have anybody guiding the arms. You'd think that would just be the future. Right? Guest: What we really want is the Star Trek food replicator, where Captain Kirk just pushes a button and you've got something waiting for you right there. That's the ideal. That doesn't mean people can't cook if they want to-- Russ: I use a fountain pen. Guest: Exactly. Russ: Now and then. Not often. I wish I had more reason to. I'm trying to think of reasons to use my fountain pen. I'm enjoying the tactile thrill of old-fashioned writing. The 3D Printing--it's kind of Captain Kirk-y. Guest: It is. It's moving in that direction. It's not all the way there. But it's a step in that direction. So, there have been scientists working--there are some researchers working both at Cornell and at Columbia that have been working on this for probably 10 years now. And so, people have probably seen the 3D food printers that print things in plastic. Again, you give it some shape or some figurine and it can replicate that. And the 3-D food printer works in a similar way, but instead of dealing in plastics it's dealing in foodstuffs. And it's really interesting. A lot of the applications today are frankly with things like chocolate which are easily moldable and that you can sort of melt and get into a more liquid state, and it will dry up. But they are moving a lot of other directions, too. And I think, one of the interesting stories is that one of the first people to print a 3-D printed food was a high school girl for her science fair project: that she got her hands on one of these printers that the folks at Cornell were putting out and she affixed a chocolate, a device that would squeeze out the chocolate in just the right proportions. And she won her science fair; and I think they've taken the idea and run with it, in a lot of different ways. So, like, for example, Hershey has a variety that can make these really interesting chocolate creations: you can print a piece of chocolate in your name, or in almost the shape of a jungle gym, if you will. There are other varieties of this that print in sugar--I'm not 100% sure how they work, but you've got one nozzle that's pushing out sugar and the other that's pushing out water and it's crystallizing that sugar. Russ: Cool. Guest: Yeah. You can look at pictures online. They're really artistic creations more than anything else. But there is some serious food being made there as well. I think the Culinary Institute of America has bought one. And anything that can be made, again, into something a little softer can be printed. And so, pastas for example are being made; pastas stuffed with any variety of things that can be put inside of a pasta. Cheeses are being printed. These are, I think, interesting ideas. I think one of the more interesting parts of it is this idea of customizability. So, when you think about printing you might think this is some kind of evil, processed food. But processed food--one of the characteristics of a processed food is that it's just homogenous. It's all the same for everybody. And at least the hope for something like 3-D printing is that, you know, Russ you can have your cookie with your initials printed on it, and I can have mine with my initials on it. And it's not just the look of it, but it's also the content. So, if you want a little more Vitamin A and I want a little more calcium, I can do those. In fact, we might even be able to put whatever medication we need, whether it's allergy medication or your cholesterol pill, perhaps we can have this sort of personalized pharmaceuticals in our granola bar when we print it in the morning. So this whole idea of customizability and uniqueness is a really interesting twist I think, that one can put on this idea that otherwise can be considered some kind of processed food.
28:40Russ: Let's move on to a slightly more controversial and maybe important area, which is fertilizer. One of the things I thought about when reading your book is what a great word, 'fertilizer' is. I never think about it. It makes the land more fertile. I'm going to read some statistics here on cost that you write about that I was fascinated to read. You say,
For example, in 2014, a central Illinois corn farmer was likely to spend $173 per year on fertilizer and $66 per acre on pesticides, even on highly productive farmland. All that was on top of the $119 per acre the farmer paid for seed. Of all the nonland costs associated with growing corn in Illinois, about 30% are tied up in fertilizer.
And you give a lot of other examples. But a lot of people complain that we've, through overplanting and overfarming we've drained soil of its nutrients and we have to use these artificial fertilizer methods. Talk about what's your assessment of that argument and what's going on to try to reduce the amount of fertilizer and still keep yields high. Guest: So, I think there are some real concerns. There are some concerns about over-application of fertilizer. As you mention, it's not inexpensive, particularly in the years I cited there like 2014: fertilizer prices are going to vary quite a bit with oil and gas prices. But yeah, they are costly. So, farmers aren't just putting the stuff on the land because it's cheap. But it can act as a little bit of insurance. So, if I didn't get enough rain, I might want to fertilize there to make sure I boost yields enough. So, the trouble is, though, when fertilizer runs off it can get into our waterways, and it can create these dead zones because it encourages the growth of algae and bacteria that can consume all the oxygen in the water. So, these are real concerns. I think the challenging question is: What are we going to do about it? Are we going to go back to these farms of the 1950s? Or is there something better that might be on the table? And when I look out there, I think most people have no idea the kind of sophistication and technology innovation that's happening on most commercial farms these days. It's really absolutely amazing. One thing I might do, if you don't mind, is take a little bit of a step back and just talk about really interesting study that's been going on for over 100 years here by the University of Oklahoma State-- Russ: Yeah, you wrote about it in the book. I loved that. Go ahead. Guest: So, people are worried about sustainability, and are we going to have enough food in the future given our current practices. And a really interesting example of that is that there was the first professor of agriculture at Oklahoma State University is hired in the 1890s. He started an experiment that runs to this day. And basically what he wanted to know is: What happens when I plow up this native prairie land and plant wheat and just do it year after year after year and never provide any additional fertilizer? So, he was very much interested in this question; and this kind of research is going on all across the country at various universities like mine. I just think it's a fascinating example and a way to illustrate--there are agronomists and soil scientists that have been interested in this stuff for a long time. And the interesting thing about that study is, if you look at the wheat yields from that study 120 years later, it's actually--we're actually getting more wheat than he did in the 1890s. And how is that possible? Even though he's never provided any more fertilizer. And the answer to that question is that they are planting new varieties of wheat on that land. So, better genetics. So, one way to think about that is that improvements in genetics have more than offset the losses in soil fertility. But the good news is we don't have to accept losses in soil fertility: we can add fertilizer to it. So, you know, the traditional form of fertilizer was manure. And so the amount of fertilizer was constrained by the amount of animals that we had around. And there was this really amazing discovery in the 1900s by a couple of German scientists, Haber and Bosch, and they learned how to pull nitrogen out of air. And that's the way we get most of our nitrogen today. And there's a lot of estimates out there; and again, this is the sort of thing that I think a lot of people don't think about: but the ability to extract that nitrogen out of the air allowed us to grow a lot more food. And there are some estimates that suggest that somewhere around 4 billion people on this earth today owe their very existence to the fact that these two German scientists were able to figure out how to get more nitrogen. So in other words, nitrogen has been the greatest limiting resource in agriculture, this fertilizer, throughout human history. Now we are this other problem: that now we have so much of it that we in some cases over-use it. So, how can we cut back in a responsible way? And so I talk about a couple of different examples. There is a company here out of Oklahoma called SST Technology that is sort of a precision agriculture company: they are a data management company. And what they allow farmers to do is to keep track of their farmland and keep data on the amount of nitrogen in the soil, in addition to the amount of water in the soil; and combine that with data on these yield monitors--most of the time farmers of any size today when they go through and harvest their corn or wheat or soybeans, they are calculating how much yield on every square meter, for example, as they go through that field. So, you get these really pretty maps of which areas of the field are yielding higher and which are yielding lower. And so this company I talk about in my book, and SST, is combining all this data in ways that are allowing farmers in ways that are allowing farmers to make really precise recommendations and fertilizer applications--so only applying fertilizer in those areas of the field that actually need it. And then, you know, not overapplying it in other areas that don't. And it's really cool technology. It's actually all cloud-based now. And agronomists can go in and use that software and make a recommendation: I want this much fertilizer in this area and this much in that other area. They send it up to the cloud and it comes down to the fertilizer applicator and it automatically makes adjustments as it's moving through that field. It's just really an incredible use of big data and modern technologies.
35:38Russ: Let's turn to meat. I'm a very eager eater of meat myself. My wife is a vegetarian. So we span some of the range of choices people make about their food habits in our one house. But a lot of people say, you know, 'Meat is inefficient. You take all this corn with all this great nutrient, of stuff, and you turn it into a cow--and the cow--it's just an inefficient way to get your calories. It contributes to global warming.' And a lot of people are upset about it. Now, of course there's two ways you could deal with it. You could encourage people to be vegetarians--which of course is going on all the time. And my wife fell prey to that--God bless her; I respect that choice. Seriously, though. I'm joking, a little bit--I think it's a great thing to be a vegetarian if you can be, mainly for moral reasons, not environment reasons. But I'm open to the possibility that it has environmental consequences I don't know about. What's your thought on this? And what are the possibilities of laboratory-grown meat, which you write about in your book and which is really interesting? Guest: Yeah. Well, there's a lot of issues that you brought up there. Let's take the first one about inefficiency. I hear this one a lot. One way it's sometimes put is, 'Feeding this corn to cows is just wasteful. It's like going down to your supermarket, buying 6 boxes of cornflakes, and throwing 5 of them away and only eating one.' I think that's a wrong way to think about it. One way I think about it is by using a little bit of an analogy. So, let's imagine we had some scientist. They are off searching for new plants. They head down to the Amazon [Amazon River--Econlib Ed.]; they find some brand new plant, never heard of before. And this plant is an incredible producer of calories. It pumps out the calories, given small amounts of fertilizer. But they get back to the lab and do some tests and find out: Oh, it's too bad; this new plant is toxic to humans; we can't eat it. But the scientist goes back to the lab and comes up with a machine that can take this new plant and convert it into food that's really great-tasting. Unfortunately this machine uses up energy. It takes a little bit of water. And it--you lose some of the calories in the process. Well, is this scientist a hero? Are they some kind of evil villain? I don't know. I think there's a lot of ways to think about this. We should really applaud this scientist for finding some really cheap way of producing calories and then turning it into something that we really want to eat. So, let's call this new plant 'corn.' And let's call that machine 'the cow.' And that's what we have. Most of us don't want to eat the corn that's grown directly in the field. Most of us--the corn, by the way, the corn that's grown is field corn. It's not the sort of sweet corn that we think about eating. And why do we grow this much corn and soybeans as much as another plant? It's because they are really efficient producers of calories and protein. But they deliver those calories and protein in a form that we don't typically like to eat. And also, the one nice thing about them is they are in a form that is easily transportable. So we can put them on trucks or on barges and send them across the world. So, they are great sources of calories and easily stored and transported; but they are just not very tasty. And so what we want to do is turn those into something that we like to eat. And you are exactly right: Most of us like to eat meat. And if you look at the data, probably at least 95% of the U.S. population are meat eaters. And I kind of agree with you: in a lot of ways I respect someone who can give up eating meat, because, boy, it sure would be hard for me. And I suspect for a lot of people, both for health reasons but also because it's just really tasty. We enjoy it. And we probably enjoy it because Mother Nature gave us some reasons to enjoy it. Most meat comes in a--it's packed full of vitamins and contains some fat that's good for our bodies and some things we couldn't get in other ways. So, yeah: if you want to look at it one way, you can say meat is wasteful. But if you look at it in another way, what cows do is they take one form of calories and convert them into another form that we like to eat. And, I should say: Most cows, throughout most of their lives, actually eat grass. These are actually calories we couldn't directly eat as humans. But there are environmental concerns. So, one of the big problems with beef is that the digestive system of these cows is such that it produces a lot of methane. So, cows burp. This methane goes into the air. And people are worried about the contributions to climate change, and so forth. And so, again, we're back to this question again: This is a problem; we can all agree it's a problem. The question is: What are we going to do about it? Russ: It's obvious. The answer is you just need to put a little, some Zantac, with the 3D food processor or whatever, so the cows wouldn't burp as much. But maybe they just explode. Maybe it would be worse. Sorry about that. I couldn't resist. Guest: There are some options down that line. So, another--some scientists are working on various forms of grasses that are more easily digestible for the cow. So, that is an option. But one option is the one that has been relentlessly pursued by the meat industry is just to get a lot more meat out of each animal. Using less resources. And boy, we sure do that now. In fact, we have fewer cows in the United States today than we had in the 1950s, even though we are getting about twice as much meat. So we are getting about twice as much meat from each cow; and that's coming about through a whole host of technological changes--changes in genetics and a variety of other things. Russ: Talk about the lab part. Guest: Yeah. The entirely new way to tackle this is to say, 'Let's just take the cow out of the equation.' And so I talked to a guy named Mark Post. He's a professor in the Netherlands. He found out that if you take out stem cells from an animal--muscle stem cells--that these cells will naturally reproduce themselves. That's what they do. So, he extracts cells, these stem cells, from a cow. And he puts them in his proverbial petri dish with some food for them to eat. And they grow into muscle fibers. And then they attach those muscle fibers to each other. And then eventually, after a while, you've got muscles. And that's what meat is: it's just a bunch of muscles from animals. And, so, yeah: He's created lab-grown meat from these stem cells. And the idea is that we can imagine a world where we just have a just much smaller number of donor animals. By the way, he doesn't kill the animal to take the stem cells. They can still live and eat their grass and do the things they like to do while we pull out a few stem cells, and then use those stem cells in a lab to produce the things that we like to eat. And, you know-- Russ: When you say 'fewer animals'--it's a lot fewer. It's not just like less. It's a radical reorganization of the beef industry. Guest: Yeah. Tens of millions less, probably, worldwide. Exactly. So, he's done this. He had a big media event about a year ago out in London, where he tasted his burger in front of a big audience of journalists and some celebrity chefs. I actually asked him how it tasted. He said he thought it was a little dry. And the reason, once you think about it a little bit is kind of obvious: If you have just a bunch of muscle, there's no fat in it. So, if you want it to be a little tastier, he's got to figure out some ways to get some fat stem cells. Russ: I have to ask you about that event. Because I read about it in the book. It was fun, but: Why didn't he let someone else taste it? Is there a worry? I understand when, you know, a doctor injects himself with his own vaccine because people are scared and they don't want to give themselves some disease, and they are worried about it. But were people worried about it? You know, you watch these cooking shows, and you see all the--the cook tastes the food, makes this great face. You want to say, 'Well, I'd like to be the judge of that.' Not the person who cooked it. So, did anyone else steal a bite of it? Get a second opinion? Guest: I think there were two or three people. So, he had a celebrity show up there. I think had a journalist. But it was a small group. There were about 3 or 4 people eating, and hundreds watching. And that is the problem now--it is technologically feasible, and there are a couple of U.S. companies today that are working on this, too--but it's pretty costly. Russ: An expensive burger, wasn't it? Guest: I think it was well over $100,000. Russ: Who'd want to share it? But I guess you'd want it mostly yourself. Guest: Of course, as any good entrepreneur does, though: He's optimistic. He thinks he can get the price down to about $30 per pound of burger. Russ: Still a bit expensive. We're going to have to do better than that. Someone wiser or innovative and even more optimistic is going to have to get involved to make that a more viable activity.
44:57Russ: Talk about--let's talk about a downside, a not so attractive side of this, which is the pink slime controversy. What happened there? Guest: Yeah. You sort of stole my thunder. Because at least in the book, the way I tell the story is I don't tell the stories about pink slime till we get to the end. So, Readers Be Warned. Russ: Spoiler Alert. It's too late. Guest: Yeah. So, at least the way I tell the story is through the eyes of an entrepreneur. So, there's a guy named Eldon Roth. He grew up very poor in South Dakota. He had a variety of odd jobs in the food industry. And one of those jobs was working in a big food, meat, processing plant, where they would make frozen meat products. So, they would take these animals, freeze them, and then distribute them around the country. And he looked around and noticed that this freezing process was really inefficient. There are big warehouses where the whole warehouse is having to be kept below freezing, essentially. And he had the idea of taking this meat and running it through two metal rollers, to bring the temperature down really quickly. And the sort of story I tell is, you've probably all seen A Christmas Story where Ralphie's poor friend gets his tongue stuck on the metal flagpole. And that sort of tells you, you know, when something is metal it can be a lot colder. It can freeze something a lot more quickly. So, the same things works with meat. He would take these steaks or other cuts and run them through these rollers and bring them down to temperature really quick. Which is useful--it lowers the chance of spoilage. But also eliminated this waste of just cooling down a bunch of air, if you will. So, he invented this technology and went off and created several companies to use this technology. And was just looking for new opportunities. And one of the biggest opportunities out there is ground meat. One of the biggest markets that exist. So, if you take the average cow that comes through, about half of the meat on that cow is ultimately going to wind up as ground meat, or as hamburger. And what he noticed, though, was a lot of the meat from the animal wasn't being used. So, the problem here--the way I framed the problem--is one about food waste: that a lot of people were concerned that we throw away too much food. And something like that--the food wasn't actually being thrown away in this case, but it was being used in less productive ways. And there are lots of cuts from an animal that are really fatty; but they do have pieces of meat in there. It's not just very economical to pay someone to use their knife to cut them out. So he developed this process where he heated up the cuts of meat to--not to a point where it cooked the meat, but to such a point that it would melt the fat. And you'd put that in a centrifuge, and you'd pull the fat away from the protein. And then that protein is the same protein that you have in any of our other hamburgers: you reintroduce that protein, collect all that protein, and you can mix it in with ground beef. And so essentially he was cutting down on food waste. And there are several estimates of how much waste it was cutting down. But at least one that he claims or that his company claims, is that this process is equivalent of saving over 5000 head of cattle every day in the United States. Russ: Might be slightly higher estimate than the actual. But it clearly saves some. Guest: It's more than zero. And so--yeah. So, he had a very successful business. So, he was able to pull out these useful parts of protein, and people were mixing them in with ground meat. So, it lowered the price of ground meat. Not only did it lower the price--it also lowered the fat content. So, this was in the 1980s and 1990s--there was a big Low Fat push. Russ: People thought fat was bad then. Guest: They did. So, this was an inexpensive way to get very lean ground beef. And he had a very successful business. Going on. And all was proceeding smoothly. And then a series of media stories broke that most people are probably aware of. And this product he was producing--the name they were using, and the name that's still used in the industry is: Finely Textured Beef. Lean, finely textured beef. But at some point it got the name 'pink slime.' And from there on, he ran into a lot of trouble. Russ: Yeah. One of those is not like the other. One of them sounds kind of interesting, and the other sounds awful. What was the nature of the controversy? Why were people upset--why do they call it 'pink slime'? Because it wasn't real meat? What was the issue? Guest: Well, in a lot of ways this is a really sad story, I think. I've been in his plant. I've seen the process. It's only pink because it's frozen--as is any other meat that you freeze. And it's not slimy at all. In fact, if you google pink slime the image that you see is almost certainly not his product. In fact, I've talked to a lot of people in the food industry; nobody really knows what it is, but it's probably not food. Russ: Why did he get--why did he get slimed, for that? I understand part of the impact of the story came from the labeling of it as being slime, and some of these images that may not be accurate. But, what was the issue at all? Why did anybody care? Guest: I think people didn't know about it. And when they learned this process was being used they probably felt a bit deceived. There was another aspect to the process that I haven't mentioned, which was one part of the process, before they package it, they put a small mist of ammonia on the top. Russ: Yeah. That was it. Guest: Which lowers the PH--makes it so the bacteria aren't nearly as likely to live. And it was probably that, that caused a lot of concern: 'Oh, you are putting this chemical in our food, and we don't know about it, and it is in all of our school lunches and how dare'--it sort of fed into a narrative that exists about these evil big food processors that are just trying to make a buck, while selling us this inexpensive, unsafe food. The more you push on that story, the less it holds water. So, for example, in the given hamburger there was more ammonia and the bun and the cheese than there is--even the mist of ammonia was applied. This ammonia, by the way, it's an ingredient that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) recognizes as safe. In other words, you can use it all you want to, all you want. Russ: But if you drink it, it will kill you. That's the problem. Right? If you drink a cleaning product, you are going to be rushed to the hospital. And it's the same word. Guest: It is. Russ: So it doesn't sound so good. Guest: Like most chemicals, it's the dose makes the poison. Russ: Correct. Guest: That's true of even things we routinely eat, whether it's salt or any number of things. And so, yeah--I think the media storm came about because it again fit this narrative of big, bad food--almost like a Jungle kind of story: there's these things going on in these meat plants you don't know anything about. And for me, I think kind of the sad story about it is, this--he's a small business owner. I mean, he had two or three plants. But this is not some big conglomerate. Moreover, I've been a lot of food plants. His plant was one of the safest plants--cleanest plants. And had invested millions of his own dollars to make sure his product was safe. I talk about these things in the book. He washes the air in his plant: he sucks the air out, runs it through a washer before it comes out. His plant is pressurized to keep out bacteria and other problems from the outsides. So, for example, when you are coming outside of the plant, you open a door to go to the outside, the air basically force-pushes you out. You almost fell down, when I was there, that day. So, the story somehow was it was unsafe, and this guy was trying to hide things. You know, just really, I don't think fit the facts. Moreover, I think the real challenge is, when you contrast it against this other narrative that we have: We really want people to not waste food. And we want to make use of every morsel. Here is a person doing that. You know, doing the best he could. He saw an opportunity to eliminate food waste. He did it in the best way he could and the safest way he could. Won all these safety awards. And then we vilify him for doing it. Russ: Yeah. Well, that's the--I think we have a primal dislike--you talked earlier about, people just want to eat God's food, or natural food. Inevitably, most of the stuff we eat doesn't fit our romantic associations, whether it's what's really going on in a slaughterhouse or how the hens are treated or how meat is processed. It's going to inevitably jar us when we come face to face with it. Some people who are upset about that are going to use it any way they can. And this I think has a very effective propaganda effect for them. It probably turned a few more people into vegetarians as a result.
54:21Russ: I want to turn for a minute, and I want to leave a little time at the end for policy issues that we haven't talked about yet. But I want to do something briefly about Wal-Mart. Because Wal-Mart's entry into the grocery business and the food business is such an enormous--it has such an enormous impact. And I just want you to tell the story about--two things, really. I'm thinking of the interview we did with Roger Berkowitz and Legal Sea Foods and the care he has to take--purely self-interested or altruistic doesn't matter--to make sure that the food is relatively safe. Because his brand name is very at risk, every day. And that's true of Wal-Mart as well. And what they are doing with their rotisserie chickens, which we've talked about in passing in a different context recently, I think with Robert Frank--I think the chicken world came up. But talk about what they are doing with rotisserie chickens to make sure they are safe. Guest: Yeah, well first just on the scale of Walmart, I think their data suggest that one third of all Americans enter a Walmart every week. Absolutely crazy. Russ: Mind boggling. Guest: Something like that. One quarter of all the food dollars spent in grocery outlets are spent at a Walmart. So, whatever they do is big stuff. And, you're right. As you say, we may get a little bit to policy issues: we want stricter food standards and what have you. But companies like Walmart, and a good example recently is Chipotle. The biggest deal for them is their brand name. They've spent millions, probably even billions of dollars in the case of somebody like Walmart, developing a brand name and a brand reputation and that's what lets them earn a little bit of a premium over generics, or gets those 1/3rd of Americans going in there every week: it's because they have a little bit of brand equity. So they want to protect that. And it's worth it to them. And as the VP (Vice President) for Food Safety for Walmart told me, he said, 'You know, the government regulations, that's like the baseline. We go way above that.' Because they've got something much larger at stake. So, one of the things he talked about was the technologies they are using to make sure the rotisserie chickens are safe. So, the old system was that the government would send around inspectors to test the temperatures on their chickens, make sure they were cooking them at a high enough temperature to kill all the bacteria. And at least over one reporting period they found out that across 4000 stores in the United States, they had 10 government inspectors stop by to see if they were doing what they were supposed to do. Walmart, because they are concerned about their reputation, also paid some third-party auditors to go by; in that same time period, the people they paid to check up on them stopped by about 100 times. They're selling millions of chickens, so there's still a good chance that the chicken you or I might have bought in the checkout line was not, somebody wasn't following up to make sure it was cooked to the temperature it was supposed to. So, what they did is they implemented some wireless thermometers they give their employees. And now every single chicken, temperature is checked before it is put out on the line. And moreover, that data is immediately sent to Wal-Mart's offices where they can monitor and record every one. So they went essentially from testing 10 chickens every month to millions. Russ: They didn't check only 10 chickens, but the amount that 10 people could check. Whatever that is. Guest: Yeah. Exactly. Russ: Hundreds, probably. Guest: To millions. Exactly. So, as the head of food safety for Walmart told me, their sample size is all. So, n equals all. Russ: Hard to believe. It's amazing. Guest: So they can check on certain stores--do they have a manager at a store who is not being as careful as he should be, or maybe there are certain times of year, even certain suppliers, maybe, who, you know, I guess suppliers wouldn't have anything to do with the temperature, but certainly in terms of testing for bacteria. That's the other thing Walmart did--one thing about their size, interesting, is when they make a change, it has a big impact not just on the people shopping at Walmart but across the whole industry. So, a few years ago they implemented new standards for testing for e-coli and salmonella. And there's some good evidence to suggest that when Walmart enforced these higher standards, it improved the safety of all the meat throughout the whole supply chain. Russ: Because? Guest: Because Walmart is such a big buyer that a lot of these food processing plants, say a beef processing plant, they are not just selling to Walmart. They are selling to everybody else, too. So, if they are going to adopt new safety standards to meet Walmart, as long as they've got the standards in place, it's still going to impact the meat they are selling elsewhere.
59:24Russ: So, I, like you, tend to be pretty happy with the state of food. I'm 61 years old; I remember something of what a grocery store was like in, say, 1965 or 1970. For all the complaints that you hear, the variety of cooked and unprocessed food that's available in a grocery store today, it's an extraordinary achievement. It's just an amazing effect of technology and innovation and research. Some of that is, of course, coming from the government, or government subsidies to schools like Oklahoma State--and you talk about that a little in the book. I'm a little more skeptical, but a lot of people would say that's been a great thing. Certainly a lot of it has been just the entrepreneurial innovators in the purely private sector, whether it's in the retailing aspect of it or the processing. It's just an incredibly innovative area. And the result is lots of different kinds of food, low prices, which raises the standard of living of people over time. It's a glorious thing. That's my perspective. The other perspective on the other side is, you know, people you call the Food Movement. They see this as an industrial, corporate, profit-driven activity, where a lot of the effects are--a lot of the negative, down-side effects are hidden or are borne by others. In a different piece of this you have people like Nassim Taleb on the program here, who has said that we are playing with fire: that the risks of the innovations that have driven some of these productivity changes through genetic modification are really--we don't know enough about them. So, what do you think we ought to do about that disagreement? The fact that there are people like you, who think the science is on your side, things are safe, these things are not to be worried about? If you want to use organic food, help yourself. But the rest of us would like to eat our steaks and want to eat them in a certain way, and thank you very much. And the other side is saying, no, you are really having a threat of an impact much beyond your own stomach and your own table. What do you feel about that fight, that tension, and what government should do, if anything, to adjudicate that dispute? Guest: So, I think one useful thing is to--at least I try to do in this book--is accept the premise that a lot of people in the food movement have that we have some problems. It's not a perfect system. There are some people that go hungry. We do have some bad environmental consequences of some of the practices. So, those problems are real, and I agree they are real. So I think the bigger challenge is to say: What are we going to do about them? And, are the actions, are the policy prescriptions they are proposing going to meaningfully have an impact on human health or the environment? Before this, I wrote another book called The Food Police. It's a little more argumentative and polemical. In that book I try to evaluate a lot of the policy prescriptions and proposals that people have. And I think just the unfortunate reality is a lot of the things people propose, whether it's GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling or the fat taxes or taxes on meat, for example--they'll have some effect, but they are not going to meaningfully have impacts on human health and the environment that we really want. At least, the only way for those kind of taxes to have the kind of effects they want is to be so burdensome that we are really restricting people's freedom and coercing them in a way I think they wouldn't like. And I suppose that's one of the reasons I'm optimistic about technology use, is that when I look back at, yeah, the increase in variety there's just also, just an incredible increase in efficiency--that if we can get more meat from each animal, if we can get more eggs from each chicken, if we can get more corn from each unit of land, each pound of fertilizer, that's leaving more for future generations. That's lowering food prices for people that have a hard time having enough food to eat. And so really I think one of the things I'm sort of asking for here, at least among some people in the food movement is: let technology be at least one piece of the solution. It doesn't have to be the only part. But it hopefully should play a role in dealing with some of these food problems. And I think for whatever negative things I might have to say about some of the things advocated by the food movement, they've done a lot of positive things, too; and they have increased choice and variety. You can go to farmer's markets now, you can buy local foods, you can buy organic food. I think some of the arguments made for buying those are kind of silly; but the fact that those choices exist is wonderful. And the fact that people can choose to pay a little more to get those things is great. It's a great part of our market economy. And the government has facilitated that, to some extent, helping standardize labels or helping make sure that there are market institutions. For these I think a lot are positive. I think the big worry about technology is, you know, nobody, not really, not many people come out and say, 'I'm against the use of science in food.' Nobody says, 'I'm anti-science.' I think their concern, probably, if I had to be, try to be fair about it, is that there's a view that the benefits of these technologies are mainly accruing to these large corporations. And those benefits aren't being distributed equally to farmers and to consumers and they are causing all these externalities. That's not a view I happen to agree with; but I can understand where it's coming from. And I suppose in terms of the sort of policy question, I think the way I would look at that is, the answer is, if you don't like Walmart or Monsanto or Kellogg Food, Kraft Food, what have you, in mind the answer isn't to get rid of those companies, to ban them or restrict them. The question is to make sure that the barriers to entry are low enough that anybody can compete with them. And one of the problems I think sometimes is these big companies try to [?] erect all sorts of barriers to entry. And ironically, one of the barriers to entry they use is to say, 'We need really stringent safety tests. We want to do a lot of super duper tests, have a lot of regulation before you can introduce this new biotech food.' That helps preserve the status quo and the incumbent firms and keeps out all the small startups who don't have the teams of lawyers to make it through this regulatory process. So I think unfortunately, somewhat ironically, these calls for increased regulations, increased standards actually serve to benefit these larger companies that people are saying they don't like. So what I'd like to see is to make it easier for there to be more competition from entrepreneurs and innovators.

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COMMENTS (19 to date)
Andy writes:

Great episode!
one comment though - when you talked about WalMart and their chicken cooking and testing, I think that the number of chickens that were tested for temperature prior to the thermometer upgrade was likely underestimated. I believe the estimates about the number of regulators and 3rd party auditors and their frequency of checks, but the in store kitchens will have had HACCP plans that required testing of every "lot" or "batch" of chickens coming off of the rotisserie. The HACCP plan would have required in-store employees to take temperatures from a sampling of the chickens being cooked to verify full kill temps. The requirement here is a combination of regulatory and industry requirements.
Thanks again!

Jeremy writes:

Thanks for another great episode.

The usage of antibiotics in meat production was not covered. How critical are the drugs for maintaining production levels? What about research between meat consumption and human antibiotic resistance? Are these concerns legitimate? Also, there is growing investment in plant-based technologies which are creating better meat, cheese, and egg alternatives. What are the micro and macro implications of a global shift towards plant-based diets and technologies?

Emerich writes:

Yes, another great episode that sheds light and overturns cliches. Much of the conventional wisdom is distorted or plain wrong; public attitudes are shaped by an anti-technology, anti-science bias (of the left-wing variety), and knee-jerk hostility to business. Far from shining light into things poorly understood, the press mostly inflames the biases. Who sheds a tear for the bootstrapping entrepreneur whose innovative life's work is destroyed by media frenzy for inflammatory headlines in service to their favored narrative?

Greg writes:

I love the episodes related to agriculture and food.
An excellent counterpoint to this interview would be an episode with the farmer Joel Salatin, who raises chickens exactly as Mr. Lusk suggests is unsafe and unprofitable.

Tom B. writes:

I thought the discussion of cow as machine converting humanly undesirable calories into desirable calories was illuminating. That is, of course, a key tenant of modern animal agriculture - treating animals as non-sentient machines.
Another line that was jarring, meat is "packed full of vitamins and contains some fat that's good for our bodies and some things we couldn't get in other ways." Please! I understand meat can taste good, but from a nutritional standpoint there is zero reason to eat meat, unless you are looking to get heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Last point, Professor Lusk presents the tough trade-offs between choosing to eat eggs from caged chickens versus free range chickens. Of course, the real choice is do I participate in this vicious industry or just stop eating animals and animal products?
Love your podcast, Russ, but you do seem to go very easy on your guests from the world of agriculture. Maybe your wife can supply you with some questions next time? :)

Kevin writes:

I love these type of episodes. I learn alot and the guests are fascinating. The experiment since 1890 reminds me the pitch experiments - it is a testament to human passion that institutions, ideas, and even experiments can survive us!

@Tom B

Meat is awesome nutritionally. We are meat eaters evolutionary. In general in the animal kingdom are carnivore rates of heart disease and cancer greater than plant eaters? Do humans have evolutionarily unique biology which makes meat dangerous to us and not tigers?

The moral arguments against meat are more interesting, the health and biology ones are generally nonsense.

Vegetarians in their earnestness remind me of a joke: "Someone who doesn't watch TV, a vegetarian, and a crossfitter walked into a bar... and we know about it because they told everyone as soon as they arrived."

Mike D writes:

That was a hard podcast to listen to. I would much rather listen to a controlled debate over the subject than that one-sided view. It is so complicated. At least he admitted to a strong bias.

The part I disliked the most was that at the end, Jayson proposed what he thought the largest opposition was, and then answered that, instead of the true "Beef" that people have with industrialization and science in our food system.

1. current industrial farm animals were never meant to eat the foods that we feed them, especially in CAFOs. From that moment they are weaned, its a race to make them big before they die.

2. Jayson compared GMO to cross-breading. well, you can "weed" out weak varieties and breed strong varieties. What is natural and fits within the species can change. but you will never get an ear of corn that is transgenic naturally.

3. How food interacts with our bodies is still not completely understood. Micronutrient/vitamin levels and hormone signaling is a complicated process. The role of our gut boime is only now beginning to be realized.

4. The beginning to call for lowering the levels of antibiotics we give to animals, because they are being ingested by our bodies and causing problems internally, as well as super bugs.

The idea that the most important thing is output may work in a car factory, but we may not see the results of GMOs until our children are grandparents.

Simply letting customers know that food is GMO or not lets them decide to participate in this 80 year nation-wide undocumented study.

Mike

Tom B. writes:

Kevin, thanks for commenting. I recommend two books that effectively summarize the overwhelming scientific evidence on the benefits of a whole foods plant based diet: Dr. Michael Greger's How Not to Die and Joel Furhman's Eat to Live.

Russ, Dr. Greger and Dr. Fuhrman would be terrific guests.

Gary W writes:

Two items:

1. Mike D wrote, "Jayson compared GMO to cross-breading. well, you can "weed" out weak varieties and breed strong varieties. What is natural and fits within the species can change. but you will never get an ear of corn that is transgenic naturally." An article describing research at Lund University states otherwise. Link.

2. Y Combinator has funded a cooking system that is along the lines of the cooking robot. However, the ingredients are delivered ready to cook in a special "oven." Link

Russ Roberts writes:

Mike D,

I understand the challenge when a guest has a viewpoint. They often do. So I try to challenge some back on my own. But I also try to have guests with different viewpoints. In this case, you can listen to the Taleb episode on GMOs and I'm sure we will have other perspectives coming to EconTalk in the future. Thanks for the feedback.

Stephen Williams writes:

An interesting interview as usual. The moral question about eating meat instead of vegetables is old but good. In Australia nearly all our beef and lamb come from animals that feed on open pasture, there are few feedlots for beef and none that I know of for sheep. These paddocks have huge numbers of native flora and fauna. My paddocks are full of lizards, snakes, possums, echidnas, wombats and kangaroos and much more, innumerable bird, insect and rodent life. Now if this land was used for crops, first you would have to clear it smooth, poison everything and erect strong fences, then an ongoing regime of pesticides and fertilisers. In a single five acre paddock many millions of animals and insects would be killed or displaced.

If eating meat is frowned upon because of the animals slaughter then surely the loss of habitat and killing of the animals displaced for crops must outweigh the loss of a few cattle or sheep.

Just thinking out loud.

David Zetland writes:

A good example of aggie thinking (I did my PhD @ UC Davis, Ag Econ), but I think a bit too nuanced in a few ways:

Industrial ag produces massive (excess) pollution that's not internalized in prices or regulations (lobbying!)

http://www.aguanomics.com/2016/02/cowspiracy-review.html (see data on pig waste that can be handled for $0.05/kg)

Cowspiracy is a bit extreme on its opposition, but it's not wrong on costs. As a former vegan/vegetarian, I am convinced that sustainable meat production is possible, and happy to eat/kill animals for it (the food chain is not just of humans!)

I was VERY pleased to get the California egg update, as farmers predicted "the end to eggs" after 2008. That was typical F/U/D, as we found.

http://www.aguanomics.com/2009/01/sludge-on-your-veggies.html?showComment=1233333240000#c9058927490364101588

http://www.aguanomics.com/2015/05/anything-but-water.html

JRo writes:

Very interesting, Gentlemen. Thanks!

When Russ began citing America’s chicken and egg stats I was reminded of the war story about the US Navy pilot being interrogated in the Hanoi Hilton. He was asked what is served for breakfast on his aircraft carrier. This being of no operational significance, he told them, “Eggs.” How many? “Two, three, as many as you want.” Shortly thereafter, the POW was being beaten for lying to his interrogators. They knew there were 5,000 men on the ship, which would mean at least 10-15,000 eggs served every day and they had decided there couldn’t possibly be that many chickens aboard!

Rhishi Pethe writes:

Given my interest in food, nutrition and food technology, I really enjoy these episodes. The discussion about cows acting as machines to convert calories and nutrients from not so desirable to desirable forms was very very interesting.

This was a hard podcast to listen to and I felt not enough time was spent on policy and a lot of time was spent on 3D printing, robot cooks etc.

Can I please recommend Danielle Nierenberg (Food Tank), Anna Lappe as guests for future episodes on the topics of food and food systems?

Kevin writes:

@Tom B

Hey Tom, I offer the whole history of mankind and evolution as evidence meat is fine for us, but your books sound cool too.

jw writes:

Tom B,

It may be the case that the entire US obesity problem and many other health issues are due to the over consumption of plants, not animals. Cereals and sugars are turning out to be the culprit (all backed by the USDA food guidelines, which were not originally based on good science and continue to be politically biased). Fat is certainly not the enemy, simple carbs may be (acknowledging that there is tremendous variability in individual tolerance for foods).

As I have said before here, some of the worst scientific "studies" done are in nutrition.

As Stephen W says regarding pasturing, much of the meat grown in the world in on land unsuitable for farming. And as Lusk notes, field corn is not the sweet corn that we consume. You probably should eat grass fed beef or free range chickens, but the cost is prohibitively high for many people who need affordable meat. Meat is a nutrient dense and calorie rich resource without which we would not have evolved.

Keep taking those B12 supplements!

Jim S. writes:

It seems to me that the primary issue in eating meat is a moral one, health considerations are secondary. I feel that if I were a better person I would be a vegetarian, however I am not a better person and I still eat meat. I would like to know the animals I eat are raised in a fairly humane way. I have been to cattle feed lots and would like to see better conditions, but don’t feel cattle in general are raised in especially cruel ways. I have also seen a pig raising facility and I did think it was too cruel for the animals and therefore I have stopped buying pork. I do love ham and if I could find a more humane source of ham I would buy it and happily pay the price premium required to improve the lives of the pigs. I have never seen any pork labeled “humanly raised” in the general grocery stores I shop at.

LogJamin' writes:

I thought this episode was one of the laziest performances by Russ in a long time. There was no discussion, just a series of softball questions about why meat and our food system is awesome.

Not one question about GMO's and the externalities our system of agriculture places on society.

VA writes:

The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability by Lierre Keith argues that ALL agriculture kills and that vegetarianism doesn't sidestep that reality.

The question I really wonder about is: what would our food system look like without subsidies?

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