You Are What You Eat

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Tamar Haspel on Food Costs, An... Sally Satel on Organ Donation...

chicken farm.jpg How much do you think about where your food comes from? What concerns drive the choices you make? In this week's episode, host Russ Roberts welcomes Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel for a fascinating conversation about the food we eat, the trade-offs we make, and the judgments about others that seem to follow.

Now it's your turn. As you know, we're all about conversation here, and there's a lot to talk about this week! So share your thoughts with us in the comments below, and/or start your own conversation offline. (Though of course we'd love to hear about that, too!)

1. What does Roberts mean when he says we don't want to think much about our food? To what extent do you think that's true, and why? What implications does this have for our diets? Our culture? The environment?

2. To what extent to we owe it to our animals to find out what makes them happy? How is this different for chickens versus the family dog?

3. How is fertilizer runoff an example of an externality problem? What ways does Roberts suggest that this problem might be solved? What does Haspel suggest? Which suggestion do you think holds the most promise, and why?

4. What kind of vegetables should be encouraged to maximize both calories and nutrition? Why is this so out of balance today, according to Haspel, and what can or should be done about it?

5. Do you grow any of your own food? If so, why do you do it? We'd love to hear your experiences.

Comments and Sharing

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Floccina writes:

Contrary to one thing said in the podcast, the guy quoted below says that apple trees can produce a high amount of calories per acre:

Wheat can produce 3-4 million calories per acre and potatoes can produce 6-8 million calories per acre. But what about apples? I've harvested one Gravenstein tree and will do the next one today. I got 288 pounds of fruit off the first tree and my orchard is on a grid of 200 trees per acre. That means this tree produced the equivalent of 57,600 pounds per acre. At 236 calories per pound for raw apples (Source:, this equals 13,593,600 calories per acre for an apple tree producing less than 300 pounds per tree. This is 3.4 times the calorie production for wheat and 1.7 times the value of potatoes (using 4 million calories per acre for wheat and 8 million for potatoes - the upper end of the spread).

Can anyone here confirm or refute?

Neil Henriksen writes:

1. In Homo Deus pp 29,30 Noah Harari estimates that the average American uses sixty times the energy (228000 calories) that might have been expected in the stone age (4000 calories per day). These figures include work done, natural resources used, etc. Harari is sceptical about humans ever arriving at a stable, non growth state.

2. I note that the term 'free range' is nowhere used in your interview.

Neil Henriksen

Linda Greenberg writes:

I think most people do think about what they eat; some really enjoy what they eat, others fear they are getting too fat or too something and in their conflicted thinking they can't stop thinking about food.
Most people don't think about the pig that produced their bacon. One hundred or more years ago, the small scale farmers who raised pigs thought about the bacon that the pigs would produce and killed the pigs for their bacon. It wasn't a moral question; it was a matter of eating and caloric intake.
It is interesting that in a nation with so much available food, we obsess on how food is eaten. We want to control farmers and their land.
I still believe that this is man's world or I should say, it is a God-given world, and we are here to subdue nature and animals. They are not our equals. We don't owe them a good life.

Mitzi writes:

My grandfather was born in 1914 and owned a 172-acre, diversified farm with his 2 brothers.They produced everything they ate except flour, peanuts, chocolate, sugar, and coffee. My grandpa cared very much about the happiness of his animals. Some of the chickens had names and honorable burials. The mean ones went in the soup pot. He kept sheep for wool and as pets. He cared very much for his cattle. and made sure they were healthy. Their health was his. They looked pretty satisfied with life.
I produce about 20-30% of what we eat in a small garden, depending on time of year. I think a lot about our food, mostly because producing it by hand is really hard work. I think everyone should grow something. It is good to try a really big garden at least once in life, just to show you how hard getting enough calories really used to be.

Lacey writes:

Enjoyed this- it was food for thought. Life on the farm is romanticized. In the good old days the animals had to survive weather, disease, and predators. I'm not so sure animals are worse off now. The stories from my Dad about the family farm make me grateful for the modern grocery & everyone in the food chain.

Warren writes:

We always have animals, life without animals feels empty. We are empty nesters now, but in the past our children were in 4H and FFA and we raised, showed, and marketed chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, pigs, dairy goats, dairy cows, and cattle. But always, always we, and everyone we knew had an agreed moral understanding about animals. Animals are naturally wild and in their normal habitat they can take care of themselves pretty well. We humans take control of them, alter their breeding and habitat and prevent them from being able to care for themselves. Therefore the very least we can do for them is to keep them in good health and PAIN-FREE. We always did this, and if it was not possible we put the animal to death pain-free.

Today that moral no longer exists. Even dogs and cats that you see at Veterinary Hospitals are kept alive and in pain, often in mutilated conditions.

I believe that this minimum moral standard can and should be maintained in commercial animal activities.

Greg Alder writes:

I currently grow almost all of the fruits and vegetables that my family eats, and I guess I do it because it's both very difficult and expensive to find clean and tasty fruits and vegetables to buy.

I found that once I started growing these things at home, I resented the inferior stuff presented to me in grocery stores. It can be quite a bit of work growing some food at home, but I find it worthwhile.

Blinn writes:

In response to Floccina:

I agree with your assumptions about the calories produced/acre for the crops shown. There are some other factors to consider.

For instance the cost of production ($ per calorie) is interesting:

Cost of production for an acre of apples (or any crop for that matter) can vary dramatically. UC Davis estimates operating costs of apples to be ~$6,400/acre. So at 13,000,000 calories to the acre this equates to a cost of $0.00049/calorie

Cost of production for an acre of wheat per the USDA ERS is $300/acre. So 4,000,000 calories per acre would amount to a cost of $0.000075/calorie or about 1/6th the cost of a calorie of apples.

This is a simple comparison based on operating costs only, and doesn't include costs of capital for trees in the orchard, irrigation systems, or the fact that apples are often grown on higher quality (i.e. more expensive) land. Considering these additional factors only makes the difference in cost more dramatic.

We could also look at this from the cost to the consumer. Assuming a price of $1.50/lb of apples and based on 236 calories per pound a consumer pays $0.006/calorie. Whole wheat flower on the other hand costs about $4 for a 5 lb. bag for a cost of $0.80/lb, assuming 1,500 calories per pound of wheat consumer pays $0.0005/calorie or about 1/12th the cost of an apple calorie.

Todd writes:

In terms of treatment of chickens and other animals curious if it might follow an Environmental Kuznets curve?

Rodney A Miller writes:

It shows you have that kind intellect that is secure enough to challenge your own thinking. The episodes that discuss externalities give insight into libertarian thinking. Controlling ag eternalities with law suits would be interesting. Could LA sue mid-west ag producers for the effects of BOD and turbidity, etc. in the Mississippi River. When you fly over the Gulf the Miss looks like it is pumping sewage in the Gulf. You can tell libertarians treat externalities (other than Russ Roberts) like the plague. They certainly don't support creating environmental causes of action for litigation. One of the favorite conservative tropes is that trial lawyers have too much power. I am more and more persuaded by econtalk of the power of markets. In my mind good markets work best with some regulation. Regulatory rules can be the way to make markets function most efficiently without externalities. Not all regulations are justified and good but many of them are essential to the most beneficial market. I think this is a measurable reality.

There is a sustainable ag community. Watch some of Joel Salatin's videos. I think you will find that the market is working in the direction of producing better products for those that can afford them. I would guess Whole Foods suppliers proactively attack externalities. As a 25 year vegetarian and now former vegetarian there are health hazards of eating too much soy and carbs from a plant based diet. Many of our chronic illnesses are due to too many carbs and not enough green vegetables. The list of chronic diseases whose true cause is a lack of minerals from leafy green vegetable is very long.

[Comment re-posted at commenter's request after being originally positioned in wrong thread--Econlib Ed.]

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