Intro. [Recording date: June 28, 2017.]
Russ Roberts: We're going to talk about a number of food issues today, based on some recent columns you've written. And, I have to say, almost every one of them is interesting. Which is unusual for me.
Tamar Haspel: That's a start. Not everybody would agree with me.
Russ Roberts: No. Of course not. Of course not. But that's why I'm the host. I want to start with a column you wrote recently on why some foods are more expensive than others. And, the answer you give is: machines. And you give the example of tomatoes. So, talk about why machines are important in the cost of food, and in particular what they've done to tomatoes.
Tamar Haspel: Well, machines are important in a lot of different crops. But they particularly play out in the conversation that kind of dominates the cost when it comes to food. Which is, people keep asking: Well, why are the foods that are bad for us--the foods that come out of the industrialized food system, the processed foods--why are those so cheap? And fruits and vegetables are so expensive? And it's a very good question. And, subsidies usually are fingered; and I've written about that as well. And they do play a role. But a much bigger role is played by other things that are more inherent to the crops, and aren't, you know, sort of government-imposed. And machines are one of them. Because, the machines that harvest the grains that paper the vast acreage in the Midwest--the corn and soy--are a big part of why those things are cheap. But, when you look at vegetables, it's instructive to look--not to compare them to grains, but to compare them to each other. And tomatoes are a great example of that, Because we have two kinds of tomatoes. We have the tomatoes that we eat, and then we have the tomatoes that go into cans. And the tomatoes that we eat are, have to be harvested by hand, because we demand that they be bruise-free and blemish-free--that they be harvested right at the height of their ripeness. Whereas, tomatoes that are going in cans can get a few bruises. They can have tough skins, because those are going to be removed in processing. But, up until about 1960, we didn't have those differences, because there was no such tool as a tomato harvester. And, it was interesting--because it's not just that an engineer at UC Davis invented a tomato harvester. It's that an engineer at UC Davis (University of California, Davis) invented a tomato harvester at the same time that a plant scientist at UC Davis invented a kind of tomato that was harvestable. And they weren't hand in hand. And the [?] was, through the 1960s, the variety of tomato that was grown for canning changed. And these machines were introduced. And over the course of that several iterations of machines that got better and better, the cost of labor for tomatoes dropped 92%. Which is astonishing. I think [?] about something like, you know, 24 cents a ton. And, it's one of the reasons--it's not the only reason, but it's one of the reasons that canned tomatoes, you can buy at my supermarket--I can find for $1 for a 28-ounce can, when they are on sale. Whereas fresh tomatoes in the summer will set you back $5/pound sometimes.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's just an incredible example of how technology--first of all, in the beginning, it makes the farmer a little bit richer. Maybe a lot richer. But as more and more people adopt the technology, competition forces the price down closer to its cost.
Tamar Haspel: And at the very beginning--at the very beginning, it makes the farmer poorer, because he has to buy the thing.
Russ Roberts: Well, yeah, the outlay. But at first it gives the farmer who adopts the technology, if it's good technology, a competitive edge.
Tamar Haspel: Right.
Russ Roberts: And then they get rich; and other farmers notice it. Or the people who invented the machine want to sell it to those other farmers. And then competition among the farmers pushes the price down. Talk about how--
Tamar Haspel: [?] nature of the market.--
Russ Roberts: you have a beautiful little simple calculation on the tomato example, how the ratio of fresh tomatoes has changed over time. In particular, before the adoption of the harvester and after. Do you have that number handy?
Tamar Haspel: Yeah, well I remember it. Because, before tomato harvesters were introduced the cost of a canned tomato was about $0.15 a pound; and the cost of a hand-harvested tomato was about $0.27 a pound. So it wasn't even a 2:1 ratio. And now it's more than 3:1, with, I think beefsteak tomatoes, the last USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) data I saw showed $0.92--$3.00 and something, $0.17 a pound, versus under a dollar for canned tomatoes.
Russ Roberts: Well--but the canned tomato, it's more than a pound. Sixteen ounces--it was 28 ounces. Right? So, it's even--
Tamar Haspel: Well, that was a USDA price. And it was per pound.
Russ Roberts: Oh, okay. Okay. Thank you. Excellent.
Russ Roberts: The other part I thought was interesting that you highlighted was the impact on employment. I often like to point out that, in 1900, about 40% of the U.S. labor force was on the farm, for related agriculture, and today I think it's under 3%, maybe it's about 2%, 2-and-a bit. And, if you didn't know anything, you'd say, 'That must mean people are starving to death.' But, of course, it's the opposite. We have a lot of food, even though we have many, many fewer--both in percentage and I think absolute terms as well working as farmers. So, what did that harvester--
Tamar Haspel: It's way lower, in absolute terms--
Russ Roberts: What did that harvester do to employment and wages?
Tamar Haspel: Well, it's very difficult to tease out exactly what a machine does, versus all of these other things that affect food prices and farm economics. And, I'm not an economist, although you are. So, hopefully between us, we can puzzle it out.
Russ Roberts: I only play one on EconTalk. No; I am an economist.
Tamar Haspel: And, a couple of things happened. One is, the labor dynamic that was going on at the time. And, after the War, the Second World War, a lot of farm labor moved into cities, because there were better-paying jobs in factories. And so farmers didn't have access to the same kind of labor pool that they had earlier in the century. And not having access to keep labor is one of the factors that really drives mechanization. And so, the shift from tractor to combine happened at about that same time. And obviously that played a role. But the combine did some other things, too.
Russ Roberts: Tamar, explain what a combine is. Because--we've all heard of it. But tell us what it is.
Tamar Haspel: It's a really cool machine, actually. It's this giant box with different attachments to it. And it's kind of like, you know, your Kitchen Aid stand mixer: It has all these different things it can do when you plug them in. And, but its basic job, combine, is a combination of things. So, the basic 3 functions it does are harvesting--so, as you drive the combine over the field, it picks the plant, it cuts the plant off. Threshing, so it removes the grain, or in the case of corn, the cob, from the plant; and it also cleans it: it gets some of the schmutz off the grain. And it also can take the leftovers, the stalks and the leaves, and either spit them back out on the field because a lot of farms use it to cover the bare earth, or it can bale those and they can be used for animal feed. Now, a big combine is, I think they can cost close on a million dollars at this point. They are extraordinarily expensive. But one of the reasons they are extraordinarily expensive is this dynamic that we saw--where, a farmer would get a combine, and all of a sudden, that farmer not just could farm more acreage, but at some level would have to to get the economies of scale to put the capital into the farm equipment. And, the Midwest lends itself to that because of the geography. It's flat and fairly uniform. And that's one of the reasons that we have these huge swaths of corn and soy and wheat in the central part of the country. And so, combines were part and parcel of that transformation you were talking about, from going from 40% of the U.S. labor force on the farm to, oh, it's between 1 and 2% now. But we grow much more food on less land.
Russ Roberts: How wide is a typical combine, if there is such a thing as typical? Do you know?
Tamar Haspel: Well, they go as wide--the widest attachment I've seen--and if there are farm people out there, I'm sure that they can correct me on this if I'm behind--the widest one I saw was 32 rows. But I think most are probably a little bit smaller than that.
Russ Roberts: It's an incredibly--to me it looks like a giant comb being pushed ahead, through--
Tamar Haspel: It does--
Russ Roberts: And it only works effectively on what are called 'row crops,' right? And what are those? And what aren't those?
Tamar Haspel: Row crops are the grains and legumes that are grown in rows. They are cereals, grasses that lend themselves to this kind of harvest, because they are uniform; they all ripen at the same time. And they are very distinct from fruits and vegetables, which--I mean, there's a reason the USDA calls them 'specialty crops,' because they need a lot more attention; they need a lot more maintenance; they have a lot more inputs; they generally require irrigation, which row crops sometimes do but often don't. And, farming them looks very, very different.
Russ Roberts: I want to give you a couple of examples of--this is one of my favorite things. I don't know--listeners may know this or not, but I'm really, I really love specific examples like these of how productivities change, the impact on consumers. So, one of them which is surprising--I don't know if you've heard this one; and I've never talked about it on the air--is orange juice. So, orange juice comes in these not-so-attractive containers, environmentally, sometimes, they might come in an aseptic juice-box: there was a big debate over whether that was good for the environment or not. They come in various kinds of cartons and plastic. And a lot of people would feel, I think intuitively, that it's better to squeeze your own orange juice for the environment, because that way you don't have to have all the packaging. And what people wouldn't notice--and I heard this from a Coca Cola executive--and of course they own Minute Maid and probably 90 other things--but you don't think about the fact that if you are going to transport oranges from, Florida, say, to your house or to your local supermarket, they are round. So, they've got to be put in a box. The box isn't round. So, you stack a lot of boxes in the truck; but the boxes hold a certain, really, relatively large amount of air by definition because the orange is round. But a juice box is flat. So, when you send juice boxes from the factory to the grocery, you are transporting the oranges in an incredibly efficient way. You need fewer trucks, fewer trips. And then, the other part of course which we don't think about is that Minute Maid is really good at squeezing oranges. And we're not as good. You might say, 'Well, what do you mean? We get all the juice out?' But Minute Maid not only gets all the juice out. You might compost--which is lovely--it seems to be a good thing. People smile on it. But, Minute Maid uses every single bit of that orange, because they've got a lot of oranges to take care of. So, the skins are used for all kinds of things; and the--animal feed--
Tamar Haspel: I was going to say--the skins, they use the by-products for all kinds of things.
Russ Roberts: So, it's surprisingly effective. And it's also, of course, probably in many ways better for the environment. Unless you live in Florida. Right?
Tamar Haspel: And actually, it's funny, because the whole round-versus-square part, in my business, not the journalism business but in our oyster farm, we pack our oysters in onion bags. And, of course oysters are irregularly shaped to begin with. But when you put them in onion bags and you stack them on pallets for transport, or you put them in onion bags and then you put the onion bags in larger boxes, you are doing exactly the same thing as the oranges: You are wasting a lot of space. And, we work with a much larger producer here on Cape Cod, and they have switched over to boxes for that very reason.
Russ Roberts: And the whole revolution--I once did a half-tongue-in-cheek but a half-serious piece that the cardboard box is one of the greatest inventions of all time. And, the cardboard box on steroids is called a container ship. And of course--
Tamar Haspel: You know, it's funny because I have had that exact same conversation with--talking about the greatest innovations of the 20th century and everybody is like, 'Oh, the computer.' And I go with 'Container shipping' every time.
Russ Roberts: Because it's shockingly transformative of price. And I think--I'm going to give another example, but it's really important to remind ourselves that the price comes out to the consumer because of the competitive process. If only one person had container ships, they could keep all those lower costs in the form of higher prices for themselves.
Russ Roberts: So, I want to give you another example. This is a crazy example. I used to really be into eggs. I'm still into eggs a little bit. But, in my book, The Price of Everything, I did some egg examples. And, as you mentioned--this is a little bit old; it's probably even more impressive now. But, the first statistic I want to give you is that in 1900, a maid--somebody who cleaned houses--made about $240 a year. That person would work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. So, they were making about $0.07 an hour. And in 1900, a dozen eggs cost $0.20.
Tamar Haspel: Wow.
Russ Roberts: So, they were really cheap. They weren't really--they took 3 hours' of work for a person of manual labor to earn enough money to buy a dozen eggs. Today--and housecleaning hasn't changed much. You have a vacuum cleaner; but most of it's hard work. Most of it's physical exertion. A maid today--let's say, earns $10/hour--and many earn more than that, of course, but let's say, $10 to be conservative. They might pay a dollar--that's what I wrote in this book--for a dozen eggs. So, that's 6 minutes. So, the price of eggs to a person with limited skill and training has fallen by 30-times over the last hundred years or so. Which is incredible. So, how did that happen?
Tamar Haspel: The price of eggs dropping so precipitously happened for a variety of reasons. And, you know, there are reasons that have parallels in pretty much every other branch of agriculture. But, we have developed chickens, bred chickens, that are really, really good egg layers. Not just really good at laying eggs but really good at doing it on less feed. So we have some breeds of chickens that are just astonishing. And I have egg-laying chickens in my back yard and I am astonished at how even they can convert feed into eggs.
Russ Roberts: What do your chickens--your chickens in your back yard--how often do they lay?
Tamar Haspel: Well, it depends. In they heyday, they lay probably about 250-300 eggs a year.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Tamar Haspel: But as they get old, it decreases significantly.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. A modern industrial chicken lays about an egg a day--close to 350 a year, I think. And a third-world chicken--meaning a chicken running around in the back yard with inadequate nutrition maybe and disease issues, I think it more likely an egg a week. So, a modern chicken in the industrial setting is about 5 times more productive.
Tamar Haspel: And actually, some of the most interesting work that I've seen trying to go on trying to improve livelihoods in the developing world is breeding chickens that are specifically bred to not require feeding--they fend for themselves, which is what most, you know, developing-world chickens do--and still be productive egg-layers. And the power to improve lives when protein foods are in short supply is pretty astonishing. But anyway, here in the United States, here what we've done is we've bred more efficient chickens. And we have also developed systems to raise those chickens more efficiently. And what that has resulted in--and it's been a gradual process, but it, you raise the chicken in a smaller and smaller space. And now, the cage systems are such that the chicken does not move around much. It doesn't expend much energy. It just sits in its cage and it lays eggs. Now, this is a system that I have a real problem with. Because, you know, economists tend to point to the fact that we're producing high-quality food very inexpensively. And that's very important. But, there has to be a point at which we say, 'Are we willing to do this to an animal in service of this price differential in eggs?' And I don't think that we ask that question often enough, or rigorously enough.
Russ Roberts: Well, we don't want to think about it, for starters. And I want to come back to that in a second.
Russ Roberts: But I want to first add one data point that I think dramatizes the efficiency that you talked about. In the old days, you put a bunch of chickens out in the back yard; and then in the morning you see--like you do, probably--you see, 'Did they lay any eggs today?' And you go pick them up. So, in the modern world--and again, these numbers are about 10, maybe 15 years old, so I don't know--they are probably more impressive now. But, a modern chicken coop has almost a million chickens in it. So, it's like a city of chickens.
Tamar Haspel: Right.
Russ Roberts: The number of workers---this is the shocking part--the number of workers in that chicken factory, that egg-laying factory--is 2 (two). So there's two people who are overseeing 800,000 chickens that are laying a quarter of a billion eggs a year--and my favorite number--I calculated this; I think I got it right: If those people, if all they had to do without the coop--In other words: The coop is technology, the coop is in just a place where the chickens live. It's got, it dispenses medicine, it dispenses food, it collects the eggs. It does all kinds--it's incredibly capital intensive. If all those two people did was just pick up the eggs those 800,000 chickens lay, and they picked up 2 in each hand a second, they'd have to work 23 hours a day just to pick up the eggs and put them somewhere. So, it's an incredible improvement in technology, that as you point out-- Oh, one more important point. As I was doing my research on this part of the book, I asked an old person who had been in the egg business for 50 years about these changes. And he said, 'The coops are so much bigger.' And he said, after a while he said, 'You know what the problem with our industry is?' And I said, 'No.' And he said, 'Too many eggs.' Because it just lowers the price. And as a result, the gains from all that improvement in technology go to the consumer.
Russ Roberts: But, as you point out, let's talk about this. As you point out, we don't want to think about it much. And when we do think about it, some of us, maybe a lot of us, certainly an increasingly a lot of us, egg eaters are uneasy with the facts that these eggs, these chickens lead a very unchicken-like life. And I just want to put in a plug for my friend and co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos, John Papola, who has a really phenomenal documentary on how we treat animals, called At the Fork, which raises these issues. He's a mediator, and he's wanted to investigate what is going on in the farms that produce the food he eats. And it's not so nice.
Tamar Haspel: Yeah. It's not so nice.
Russ Roberts: So, what are your thoughts on that?
Tamar Haspel: I think that the way we treat animals in our conventional systems is often what I would think is substandard. I am not a vegetarian. I eat meat. But I believe that if we're going to raise animals for meat, we owe them a decent life. I eat very little meat that comes out of the conventional food supply. My husband and I, you know, catch our fish; and we shoot our own venison. And that's most of the meat that we eat. But, there's also pressure--I think there's beginning to be pressure--to change these things. Although, I'm not at all convinced that it's going to make a lot of headway. And I'm glad you brought up eggs, because it's a really, really good example of the dynamic between producers, consumers, and prices. Because, there is starting to be, oh, I don't know, about 3 or 4 years ago, a lot of pressure on egg producers to go cage-free: to take those chickens out of those little cages and put them in open spaces that have some kind of enrichment in the environment. And, we can talk about whether that's a better life for a chicken or not; and people do have that conversation. But, so, companies like, you know, Panera Bread and McDonald's and lots of other bigger companies were putting pressure on the egg industry to change. And the egg industry has been changing. And as a result, there are many, many more--and I don't have the numbers at my fingertips--there are many, many more cage-free eggs available than there used to be. And if you go into an ordinary supermarket, you find them. And they are more expensive. They are about--it varies--but maybe $1 more per dozen. And Business Insider just did a story last week about how there is a glut of them, and consumers won't buy them because they are unwilling to pay for them. So, when you go to McDonald's and you have your Egg McMuffin, the price difference is probably either small enough so that it is invisible to you, or it has been finessed in such a way that it has not been passed on to you. But consumers themselves, if we expect them to pay more for animal welfare issues--and there are similar issues around environment sustainability--I--you know, I think we are whistling past a graveyard. I don't think that's going to happen.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I didn't see that Business Insider issue. But it doesn't quite make sense. Usually if there is a glut of something and people don't want to buy it, the price will come down. And then that difference will--
Tamar Haspel: Well, it depends--it depends what the choice is. I don't think consumers look at cage-free eggs as much different from ordinary eggs. And if there's a premium, it has to be pretty small before consumers will ignore it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; you just expect that premium to get very small if suddenly there are a lot cage-free eggs available just for the same reasons we've been talking about--competition. Could be a short run phenomenon. It could be they've invested, suppliers have invested a lot in these technologies and they are not going to pay enough to sustain that model. That's very possible.
Tamar Haspel: But then they have to go on and replace them with the old cage system, which is a huge investment again. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say I don't think we're going to go back; but the reason we're not going to go back is not because consumers are going to step up. The reason we are not going to go back is that the food chain is going to fix this problem. I think that most of the problems that I would say are priorities in the food chain--and I can give you my personal [?] list--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Go ahead. Give us some.
Tamar Haspel: Okay. Here's my personal crank list. I think that animal welfare is a big one. Particularly with regard to chickens and pigs. Although, to some extent with cattle also, but only in the later, the last 6 months or so of their lives in feedlots. And some feedlots are fine. But other feedlots are not so good. I'm not a big fan of confining animals; and I've written about the fact that it's really hard to try and figure out what makes an animal happy. But I think we owe it to those animals to try to give it our best shot. And, you know, we have chickens; and we've had pigs; and we're having pigs again this year. And, I think I have a shot at figuring out what makes a pig happy, in the same way you have a shot at figuring out what makes your dog happy, or your cat happy. Animals have a way of telling you what they like and what they don't like. And I think it behooves us to pay attention. So, animal welfare is a big one for me. I actually think once we get out into the fields and we are talking about plants, the single biggest problem is fertilizer runoff, because it's causing toxic algae blooms that are doing tremendous harm to water systems. I'm also concerned about the fact that we're growing a huge amount of food that goes into food, that is not particularly healthful. So, we're eating a lot of processed food that's built on this huge quantity of corn and soy. But, you know, that's a very sticky problem to solve. Because it involves not just farmers but food processors, and consumers, of course, who vote with their wallet.
Russ Roberts: Well, I certainly want to get rid of the ethanol subsidies, which have--
Tamar Haspel: Yeah, that, too--
Russ Roberts: mandates which have made a lot more acreage devoted to corn, which I don't think has been a good thing for the world, or the environment.
Russ Roberts: Fertilizer runoff is an interesting issue. When you say it's a big problem--I don't know much about it. Where are those blooms, those algae blooms? Are they centralized--is there a particular area of the country that it's a bigger problem than others?
Tamar Haspel: They are happening in a lot of places. And, there's a big problem in Des Moines, where, I believe the water utility--and somebody has to check this before you take it to the bank--it's the water utility in Des Moines that has sued the upstream farmers because they have such terrible problems. And there was a big problem in Toledo with Lake Erie. There's a big problem in the Neuse River Basin down in North Carolina. There's a huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. These problems are not small, and they are not localized. They are very big and very significant.
Russ Roberts: I just want to mention 3 ways that economists think about those problems. Because that's a classic example of what economists call an externality--imposing costs on other people. So, one way to fix that, or improving that situation is to tax fertilizer. Which would discourage its use. The second would be to mandate a particular way of utilizing fertilizer or ways of farming. And the third would be what you just mentioned, which is a lawsuit. Which would make it expensive for people to use it in a different way than a tax or a top-down solution of a mandate of certain types of farming being required. So, it's just interesting to me, I think, for people to just think about a little bit what those choices represent.
Tamar Haspel: Can I [?] you to suggest another way?
Russ Roberts: Sure! Please.
Tamar Haspel: Not that I'm an economist.
Russ Roberts: Those are just three off the top of my head.
Tamar Haspel: I think one of the most important things we can do--and it's a difficult thing to do, is we can try and provide incentives to farm, for farmers to farm in a different way. So, for example, there's evidence that different techniques like no-till and cover-cropping can reduce the run-off from fertilizers because it increases the soil's ability to hold on to water.
Russ Roberts: For sure.
Tamar Haspel: But those things can be expensive. They can decrease yields. And if this is something that we all benefit from, I think we have to talk about making the case that incentives for these need to be built into the farm belt. Maybe we need to restructure it in some ways to take these things into account. And aligning the subsidies that we earmark for agriculture with the environmental outcomes that we not just want, but I would argue, need, I would call that a priority.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I guess that if these lawsuits are sufficiently punitive, those kinds of alternative ways of farming will become more attractive. There will be an incentive to use those. But, of course, you can do it more directly through the Farm Bill. I'm always uneasy about that--that's just my style.
Tamar Haspel: I kind of am, too, but I don't know a better way.
Russ Roberts: Well, we'll see who wins those lawsuits. If the city of Des Moines or whoever it is that's suing them wins, maybe we'll see some changes. It will be interesting to watch.
Tamar Haspel: Yeah, I think it actually--and I wish I'd read up on this before I talked to you, because I think there was a ruling that--my memory isn't good enough to talk about it.
Russ Roberts: That's okay--
Tamar Haspel: But it's an interesting case.
Russ Roberts: We'll look for a link to it and put it up with the episode.
Russ Roberts: Let's move to vegetables. And we'll use the animal welfare example, a good point, as a segue. A lot of people, because of this issue of the way animals are treated--and of course most of the way is to make these animals more comfortable requires space. So, the chickens require space. The pigs certainly require more space. The feedlots that you mentioned--and I mentioned John Papola's documentary At the Fork--when you see how they are actually treated, it does make any reasonable meat eat somewhat uncomfortable. As you say, it's hard to know how happy an animal really is. But you do see discomfort. You see fear--well, it appears to be, anyway. I think it's a very interesting issue. So, a lot of people have suggested, of course, as a way to deal with this--and there are other motives--that we should just eat more vegetables. We don't think broccoli feels pain, as far as we know. And there are also worries about climate change that people suggest might be improved by having fewer cows, say, producing methane and other things that they produce. What's the problem with that? You wrote a really interesting piece on why that's not as attractive as you might hope.
Tamar Haspel: In some ways, of course it is attractive, because we all should eat more vegetables. But here's the thing about vegetables. Right now, about 1% of American cropland is planted with vegetables. If we all ate the vegetables that we were supposed to eat, we'd triple or quadruple consumption. Maybe we're up to 3%, or 4%. Throw in some fruits and maybe you're up to 10% of the acreage that we have in this country, but probably not even. Probably just 6 or 8% could grow all the fruits and vegetables that we're supposed to eat. And, it's great that we would all eat these things. But it's not going to solve agricultural problems because you are talking about this tiny sliver of our land. And, the other thing is, if we eat more vegetables and fruits than is recommended--the 4 or 5 servings, even 6 or 8 servings--and we want to eat 20 servings and have a vegetable-heavy diet, that becomes a problem because vegetables are expensive to grow. They are inefficient; they don't provide the kind of calories per acre that other crops do. And so, my little bugaboo is that when people think healthy, I wish that I could get them to stop thinking fruits and vegetables and start thinking whole grains and legumes. Because I think those are the answer. And, earlier we talked about row crops. And so, some incredibly nutritious foods--lentils, peanuts, dry beans, barley, oats--even the corn and soy that are planted right now, if we ate them as foods rather than fed them to pigs and cars and turned them into Twinkies. And it's those foods, I think, that are so uncharismatic and dirt cheap that we need to be turning our attention to rather than the broccolis and the kales and the green beans.
Russ Roberts: So, you have two fantastic facts there; I just want to mention. First, 60% of the world's calories come from just 3 crops--corn, wheat, and rice. Which is unbelievable. And when you are talking about vegetables, you don't mean corn, wheat, and rice. You mean broccoli, kale--you mean green vegetables, right?
Tamar Haspel: Right.
Russ Roberts: Because I think of those as vegetables; but you are using the term a little more precisely. The other--this is just to make your point about cost--it costs $5000 an acre to grow broccoli; and corn is $700. "Factor in that corn delivers 15 million calories per acre to broccoli's 2-ish million, and the cost to grow broccoli"--meaning, corn is about 7 times more calories per acre, delivered--the cost to grow broccoli is 50 times larger than corn, per calorie. It's just shocking.
Tamar Haspel: it's astonishing. And the point I was trying to make was it's not really subsidies that's causing this discrepancy. But also, in our corner of the world here where we have a problem with too many calories, we tend to think of calories as the enemy. But when you are talking from an agricultural standpoint, that we have 7 billion, going on 9 or 10, depending on who you believe, we have to think about calories, because every single one of us needs about 2000 a day, give or take. And so broccoli, and green vegetables, deliver essentially nutrients with very few calories. Whereas, legumes and whole grains deliver nutrients with calories. And, given the choice, from a land use point of view you want the nutrients and the calories. From a diet point of view, if we get too many calories, you definitely want some of the nutrients without the calories. And I'm a big vegetable eater in my house, but I think we have to acknowledge that vegetables are something of a luxury. And, this idea that they are going to feed the world is--the math doesn't support it.
Russ Roberts: What do you have to say to my listeners on paleo diets? Who worry about--they don't want to go to those grains. They want to stay away from them. You got any help for them?
Tamar Haspel: Well, we could get into the whole issue of diet and its connection to health, but I think, suffice it to say that there's not a whole lot of agreement on any of those issues. But, there's not a whole lot of mainstream support for the idea that a paleo diet is optimal. And, from an environmental standpoint, a beef-and-leaf diet is absolutely the worst you can do in terms of carbon footprint.
Russ Roberts: The only thing I want to mention--I remember a wonderful book by Stanley Lebergott on the anthropological view of human evolution and how in the old days we would sit around and eat berries and grass and lead simple lives without livestock and other modern amenities. But, he points out that it takes a lot of grass and berries to get enough calories to feed yourself. So, it wasn't--this idea that people sat around: they'd hunt for a couple of hours, and then they'd sit around and, I don't know, look off into the distance, think deep thoughts. They--human beings--probably spent an enormous part of their day trying to stay alive.
Tamar Haspel: Right. And this is our deep-seated love of foods that have a lot of calories. But it's not unique to humans. It's funny: when I take the melon rinds and innards--the cantaloupe once I've cut off all the melon--I take it out to the chicken coop and I give it to my chickens. And they'll peck at the rinds. But they go ape for the seeds. They know that those are high protein, high calorie foods. And that goes immediately. And after that, at their leisure, they'll peck away at the orange[?] that's left on. They know. They're not dumb.
Russ Roberts: You also have bees, I understand.
Tamar Haspel: Yes, I do.
Russ Roberts: We did an episode with Wally Thurman a while back on the issue of colony destruction and some issues--I forget the right acronym--is it CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder)? Which stands for what?
Tamar Haspel: Colony Collapse Disorder.
Russ Roberts: That's what it is. I love that disorder--makes it sound like it's the neurotic result of trauma or something. But, what I loved about your piece on bees is you actually tried to say something nuanced, because it's actually a complicated issue. So, talk about where you think we are on that issue of the health of the honey bee in America. From that episode--maybe listeners didn't hear it; and you refer to it in your article--honey bees are incredibly important. So, talk about why and what's gone wrong and why people are worried, and where you think we are.
Tamar Haspel: Let's talk about bees. But can we also talk about nuance?
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Tamar Haspel: Because I think that's kind of the common theme in a lot of the things that I tackle. Here's the thing about bees. It used to be that bees in this country were very easy to raise. And I'm talking about from a recreational point of view. I'm not talking about commercial beekeepers. But, I know people who had hives in the 1980s, and you just put it out there and your bees did fine. But now, it's really, really difficult to keep bees alive. It's difficult for recreational; and of course it's difficult for commercial. And you can see the difficulty that commercial beekeepers have with the data on the number of colonies that are lost every year. And, lots and lots of movie-smart people [?] are researching this. And, pretty much everybody--not absolutely everybody, but there's a reasonable consensus in the scientific beekeeping world that the number one problem is this little, you might call the varroa mite. And we didn't have varroa mites here until, I'm going to say it was maybe the late 1980s; maybe it was the early 1990s. And they came here--I don't think people are sure where they came from. Possibly Asia. And now they are in every single hive. And the varroa mite is--it latches onto the bee. It's a parasite. And, just so you have a sense of the scale: It's as though you had a parasite the size of a football on your back. They are fairly large compared to honey bees. And they wreak all kinds of destruction; and they can also make the bees susceptible to pathogens and disease. But they are not the only problem. There also--there is no question that pesticides in the environment are a problem. And not neonicotinoids. But, the whole burden of different pesticides is a problem. There are new kinds of diseases. There are new viruses. There are new fungi. There are new pathogens. It's just become very, very difficult for bees to survive. And there's also a question of bee monoculture. We only started breeding bees in this country about 50 years ago. And, they were all from similar lines of genetics, until recently when beekeepers have started to try and incorporate more genetic lines into bees. But, it's like--it's a perfect storm of things that are killing these bees. And it's heartbreaking to watch your hive die, which I have done more times than I like to count. However--they are making progress. 'They' being the sum total of people who are looking at this problem. Particularly, there's a guy who is a commercial beekeeper out in California, I believe, a guy named Randy Oliver. His website is Scientific Beekeeping. And, you know, you ask him, 'What are the top three problems with bees?' and he says, 'Varroa, varroa, and varroa.' And, varroa management looks like it is really improving the survival of bees. And we are getting better at varroa management, because it doesn't look like varroa is going away. But, there are also things that are happening from a pesticidal point of view. So, Neomix[Neemix?] has gotten everybody angry. And the reason is that these seeds are coated with this particular pesticide, so it's systemic in the plant. Which is one problem. But there's another problem. When you plant those seeds, you get a cloud of that pesticide coming off. And there's fairly compelling evidence that I've seen that the systemic level is quite low, and probably not sufficient in most cases to harm the bees. But the cloud, when you plant it, is a big problem. And farmers are developing ways to plant those seeds without that cloud. And I think they are also working on better ways to attach the pesticide to the seed. So, hopefully things are improving. But I've got to say the numbers are really not encouraging. And for beekeepers to lose over 30% of their hives every single year is really demoralizing.
Russ Roberts: So, let's talk a little bit about the practical side of beekeeping, for you. You are not a commercial beekeeper I assume. Or I don't know--
Tamar Haspel: No, I'm not.
Russ Roberts: So, how many bees might you have, as an amateur?
Tamar Haspel: Well, we only have two hives; and I will tell you that we got them through the winter, and we lost both in the spring.
Russ Roberts: So, what will you do now?
Tamar Haspel: Well, we're going to wait until next year, because we just don't have the heart to start again this year, because we have started again so many times. But, we have found that we have gotten better at beekeeping. We have done better at varroa management. There are two acids that we use to control bees: we use formic acid, which is in the form of mite-strips that you put in the hive; and then there's oxalic acid, that we use a drip in the fall after there's no more brood. And then we do mite counts, so we know what our mite problem looks like. But obviously that's not the sum total, because we did get through the winter; and then both hives died, despite the fact that we were feeding them. So, it's funny because the people here on Cape Cod who I work with--and there are some very good beekeepers--are apt to say that one of the biggest problems is what they call PPB--which is Piss Poor Beekeeping. And don't ever underestimate that. But, we're trying to learn. We're trying to do better. Bees are incredibly interesting, and watching a hive thrive is very rewarding. So, I think we'll probably try again next year.
Russ Roberts: I want to talk about that rewarding issue, because you have chickens; you've got bees. And both are increasing, I think--certainly the chicken part is. My sister-in-law has some chickens in her backyard. Occasionally she loses one to a fox or a raccoon or a coyote. But, I'm not a big fan of the chicken as a pet. I do get the appeal of an egg. Eggs are cool. And I assume they taste better; so I'm going to let you talk about that. But, what I found interesting about bees is a neighbor of mine recently gave me a thing of honey that her hive had produced. And, it's the essence of local--because she's a neighbor--and the bees produce that honey by hanging out with the flowers in our neighborhood--
Tamar Haspel: In your yard--
Russ Roberts: Possibly in my yard. Well, she's not a next-door neighbor. So, maybe not in my yard. But the honey that came from that was extraordinary. And I'm curious how much of the appeal of beekeeping for you--and chicken keeping--is the quality of the product versus the experience of interacting with the animals and the creatures.
Tamar Haspel: So, people talk about this all the time; and I think it's an important topic. But, one of the reasons that people think that their--the eggs from the chickens are delicious and the honey is delicious is because we evaluate the things we eat on more than just their flavor. And the fact that you know that it came from your backyard, or it came from these bees down the street, makes you look at this with benevolence and enthusiasm. And, when we first got chickens, we got these eggs; and they are beautiful eggs because they are fresh, and the yolks stand up: they are a different color; they are not pale yellow--they are sort of bright, orangey yellow. And we were eating them. And it occurred to me that they really didn't taste different. They pretty much tasted like eggs.
Russ Roberts: Or chicken. No, I'm just kidding. Go ahead.
Tamar Haspel: And so, we did a blind taste test, where we recruited people--and we literally had to blindfold them, because the eggs from your backyard, they do look different. And we discovered that when people are blindfolded, they cannot tell one egg from another. I wrote a piece about this. And, actually, I interviewed a poultry scientist about this, because the egg industry has known this forever, because they've done these rigorous tests. They don't do it with actual blindfolds. They manipulate the lights so you can't tell the difference in color. And they know that when people know it's a brown egg versus a white egg, they have a preference; when people see a yellow yolk versus an orange yolk they have a preference. But if you take away all the visual cues, you cannot tell one egg from another. And I got so much angry email, I can't even tell you.
Russ Roberts: Because they can tell.
Tamar Haspel: I was--people told me that their chickens lay more delicious eggs; they don't know what's wrong with my chickens. But a chicken is the great equalizer. A chicken can take a huge variety of different kinds of diet and crank out the same egg. Which is one of the things that has made its domestication such a win from human [?] the food supply.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, what about honey? Do you think they're the same?
Tamar Haspel: No, honey--it is totally dependent on what those bees are harvesting. Have you ever had chestnut honey or buckwheat honey?
Russ Roberts: No.
Tamar Haspel: So, chestnut and buckwheat are these really dark honeys, and they have different flavors. Clover honey has a very light color and a delicate flavor. And they vary depending on the flower, because different nectar tastes different. And so, what you love is that particular combination of flowers that are in your neighborhood at that time. So, where we are, we have locust trees that bloom in the spring--so there's locust honey in the spring. But then we have goldenrod and autumn olive in the fall, and so that honey would be different. But you also just love the fact that your neighbor has bees, and you think the honey tastes delicious.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. I actually walked by her house, and I was probably about two blocks from her house, and I passed a honeysuckle plant. And I stopped and I smelled it; and it was extraordinary. And I suspect that's one of the secrets to that. But there is a psychological factor, for sure.
Tamar Haspel: So much of what we eat is something that we have grown or hunted or raised. And I find it enormously satisfying to feed my family and my friends these foods. I do think that there is a very, very compelling human imperative to feed ourselves. And there is a kind of brainstem-level satisfaction that's different from, you know, acing a test or getting a promotion or writing a book. It's a really deep-seated satisfaction, to be able to put something delicious on the table that I have harvested with my own hands.
Russ Roberts: On your website you say, quote, you "try to stay connected to the idea that food has to come from somewhere." What does that mean to you, and elaborate on that.
Tamar Haspel: I think it's really easy to forget how our food gets produced. And, what you said earlier: People don't want to look. And especially when it comes to animals--they want to buy cubes wrapped in saran wrap in the little styrofoam tray. And I think we forget what has to happen and who has to work hard and who has to suffer in order that we have affordable food. And I think that when we aren't aware of those things and most food production happens sort of out of public view, that's when we risk some of the excesses, that that documentary you mentioned, I'm sure, although I haven't seen it, documents, because lots of them have. And it's not just animals. It's certainly farm workers and my colleague Barry Estabrook has done some important work on that. And it's also soil degradation, the way we're growing crops in this country. There are problems. And I think that if we all tried to stay a little more closely connected to the things that we eat, we might be able to tackle those problems in a more constructive and cooperative way.
Russ Roberts: Do you think there's a difference between vegetable and animal protein? I think about--I don't grow either, I don't do either of them myself. But if I think about it, my wife has gardened some in our life; and just even the most simple thing--homegrown basil is really fun to put into something. It's very fresh; obviously it's delicious. Is it a good idea for people to see the processing of beef and chicken and pork? Would it make their lives more--would it change the way we feel about ourselves and our lives? Besides the fact that it might change what you want to eat, because it would be unattractive for most of us--which is why we'd like the styrofoam tray. I'm thinking of the sort of primal idea that, that being connected to your food has some effect on us. I don't know.
Tamar Haspel: It's hard to say; and I think it would affect different people differently. I think growing some food at home is a terrific idea, I think because you get this sense of satisfaction. I've never known anybody who grew food who didn't have that sense of satisfaction. And it's also great, I think, if you have kids to get kids involved in doing these things. We talk about this intransigent obesity problem we have. And over and over when I talk to people one of the things they say is, 'Well, adults are going to be hard to change, but if we can shape children's view of food a little bit differently, maybe we won't have so much of a problem as they grow up.' I also think that--I think that a slaughterhouse should be a Senior Class trip in every public high school in America. I think that it's important to understand that an animal has to die for you to eat meat. Whether it would change the way people view food for good and all, or whether it would just put high school seniors off hamburgers for a little while is very difficult to say. But I don't know that there's a downside. So, you know, I think transparency, engagement, and ultimately the only way the food system is going to change is for the food chain itself--the companies that buy the raw ingredients--and for consumers, who are those companies' customers, to change their habits. And I don't see that happening, if, if food growing and production remains a mystery.
Russ Roberts: It seems to me--you talked about how it might be hard to work on adults, but we can make some difference with children--it seems as if younger folk in general. I'm 62. People who are in their 20s have a very different attitude toward food, and food production, and vegetarianism, and animal welfare than did my generation or, certainly my parents. And if you told my parents--I suspect that if you tell them that we're worried about whether their chickens are happy they'd be puzzled at that question--an issue, it's not something that they even--in fact, I think they might laugh at you, even. Whereas--
Tamar Haspel: I'm going to push back on that. Because I don't think they would.
Russ Roberts: Well, you don't know my parents, Tamara! But go ahead.
Tamar Haspel: Hahaha. My mother grew up going to her uncle's farm in Minnesota, some citizen's farm in Minnesota. And they had chickens. And a big chicken house. Lots of eggs. And I actually think that a lot of people of that generation--sure, they might scratch their head at caring so much. But, I think they also might be horrified if you showed them pictures of what happened in a factory farm.
Russ Roberts: Oh, I agree. No--I just think the insulation of modern consumers of food from the process induced a lot of apathy that I think is much less common in today's youth.
Tamar Haspel: Yeah. I think they are paying attention; and the market research on that would certainly back you up.
Russ Roberts: So, the point I wanted to think about, and I want to hear your thoughts, is that food is, in many ways--you made a great point earlier that broccoli is a luxury, or certain types of green vegetables are a luxury. It seems one of the ways of thinking about our incredible wealth that we often underappreciate in America--obviously our obesity problem is an example of that. But the other aspect of it is the amount of attention that we pay to our food. The amount of attention we pay to how it's produced. And I don't mean in the farming sense, though that's part of it. I also mean in our homes. The role that food plays has gone from a necessity to a sport. Right? Our television--there's something called the Food Channel. The fact that that exists is just remarkable. And the attitudes we have toward food, the way that we judge people, the way they eat. Mary Eberstadt had a fascinating essay that many sexual taboos are less common now--we are much more open about that--and now we use food to judge other people and to condemn them and to use political correctness on them and straitjacket them and so on. And as a food writer, you must get that in your email. You must think about it. So, close us out with some thoughts on that.
Tamar Haspel: Well, I'll tell you that I try really hard not to do that. Because, I think that food taboos and obsessions with how food is made, and you know, the whole farm-to-table movement and things--these are pretty much unique to wealthy people. And there are huge swaths of the country I think where this doesn't happen in this way. And it certainly doesn't happen in lower-income households. There was a study done recently--I think it was out in North Carolina--where a sociologist went into the homes of people, primarily lower-income, to actually see what they made for dinner. How their families reacted to these things. And there was none of that. There was only the struggle to find the time to cook, to figure out what to cook, to try and get kids to not eat quite so much of what was bad for them. And I think that for a lot of people, food is a struggle every day. And maybe this phenomenon that you've talked about is a further polarization in a society where polarization is running rampant: that rich people obsess about their food, and most people just try and eat a decent meal.