Season 3, Episode 2
Americans are in the midst of a food paradox: we have access to more and better and cheaper food than ever before but at the same time, we are surrounded by junk food and a rise in obesity and heart disease. In this hour-long episode of Freakonomics Radio, host Stephen Dubner talks about our massive but balky food network with economist Tyler Cowen, who argues that agribusiness and commercialization are not nearly the villains that your foodie friends might have you think. We also hear from food author/philosopher Michael Pollan, who weighs in on a number of food topics and urges, along with chef Alice Waters, a renewed appreciation for the American farmer.
This episode also explores whether eating local is as good for the environment as we’d like to think. We check in on Santa Barbara County, Calif., one of the top agriculture-producing counties in the U.S. — which nevertheless imports nearly all of the produce it eats. And we run the numbers on how much carbon emission is generated by shipping food around the country (or the world). Finally, we ask whether there is a moral upside to eating food grown far away, and we offer some unconventional advice for people trying to help the Earth a little bit with every meal.
Stephen DUBNER: The Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, which was founded in 1976, is a little agrarian oasis right in the heart of the city, it’s a throwback to how we used to buy our food. The writer John McPhee once spent some time in New York’s farmers markets, selling peppers and writing about how the natives handled, and manhandled, all the fresh food. Here’s what he wrote:
“You people come into the market—the Greenmarket, in the open air under the downpouring sun—and you slit the tomatoes with your fingernails. With your thumbs, you excavate the cheese. You choose your stringbeans one at a time. You pulp the nectarines and rape the sweet corn. You are something wonderful, you are—people of the city—and we, who are almost without exception strangers here, are as absorbed with you as you seem to be with the numbers on our hanging scales.”
That’s from McPhee’s essay called “Giving Good Weight.” The title refers to the fact that you get your money’s worth at a farmer’s market and, more important, that you can look into the eye and shake the calloused hand of the person who actually grew your food. So these days, not much has changed at Union Square. Farmers still rumble in, in the black of the morning.
DUBNER: What’s your drive in the morning?
DAVID: One hundred and fifty-four miles. I left at 2:30 this morning. I have a 1999 Chevrolet in back of me. I just turned four hundred and eight thousand miles on it.
DUBNER: David Graves owns a farm called Berkshire Berries… And today he’s selling all sorts of preserves.
DAVID: Raspberry jam, strawberry, onion jam...
DAVID: Also, hot garlic jelly.
DUBNER: And here’s Kelly. She works for Windfall Farms, in upstate New York.
KELLY: We’ve got an assortment of mesclun mix, various micro greens, a micro mix, we do sunflower greens, escarole, we do edible flowers, throughout the rest of the year we’ll start bringing in some root vegetables, uh, carrots, parsnips, turnips, radishes, potatoes, garlic, pretty much we grow what we like to eat.
DUBNER: And this is Ruby:
RUBY: I represent a small farm upstate called Hudson Valley Duck.
DUBNER: Just walk me through some of your...
RUBY: Well, we have whole duck, duck breasts, duck legs and thighs, duck prosciutto, applewood smoked duck breast, a rillette, which is kind of like a rustic style of pate, legs and thighs that are already confit, which means cooked low and slow and preserved under a layer of duck fat. What else do we have? Duck salami, duck bacon.
DUBNER: There’s nothing you can't do with duck!
DUBNER: So here’s a question for you. If we assume that the Union Square Greenmarket is a wonderful place—and it’s hard not to argue that it is a wonderful place—is it necessarily the model for how we should be buying our food today? In other words, do we need to go fully rustic in order to get good? And yes, we do need to get good. Because while there are many fantastic things to be said about food in modern America, there’s a lot of room for improvement. The economist Tyler Cowen—who’s not a curmudgeon, not by any stretch—he says we are in the middle of a food crisis. Or at least a food paradox:
Tyler COWEN: If you are a foodie today you have more options than ever before. But there’s also more bad food than ever before. There’s more obesity. There’s more junk food. And you see the food world, it’s getting a lot worse and a lot better at the same time. That’s one way to think about the crisis.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio, the show that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Today we’re talking about everybody’s favorite subject: food. Specifically, what’s wrong with food in America, how it got that way, and how it can get better. Later in the show, we’ll look at whether eating local is the path to salvation. For now, let’s get back to Tyler Cowen. He’s an economist at George Mason University who also happens to be a serious chowhound. His latest book is called An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. Now, while economics and food might seem like a pair of ingredients that shouldn’t be mixed, Cowen points out that the two have in fact long been aligned.
COWEN: If you read the early economists like Adam Smith, or Frederic Bastiat, they were obsessed with food and food markets. A lot of early economics, it is a theory of food and the food supply, because at that time food was a very large percentage of national economies. It was an important issue. People could die or starve if the harvest didn’t go well. So economics and food have been intimately related really from the beginning. And I’m trying to put food back in the centerpiece of economics.
DUBNER: Cowen has a popular economics blog, called Marginal Revolution, and a separate blog called Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide. He has lots of rules for finding the best restaurant meals. For instance, cheap food is usually better than expensive food, especially when you find it in a strip mall or at a food truck. Here’s another Cowen rule: if you come across what he calls an “ugly and unknown” item on the menu order it. One more Cowen rule: while you might be drawn to a restaurant full of good-looking, happy people—avoid it. People who are serious about food generally don’t look that way. And last of all: don’t be a food snob. Food snobs, Cowen says, are messing up everything. They place too much emphasis on expensive food or trendy food, or…
COWEN: There’s another kind of food snob where everything has to be like a farmer’s market, everything has to be sustainable, everything has to be in some way modest or geared down, or hippie-like.
DUBNER: As Cowen sees it, too many people spend too much energy worrying about their own pet preferences, which takes focus away from the real problems. And there are real problems. For instance, about fifteen percent of Americans are said to be “food insecure,” meaning they don’t have enough to eat. And thirty-five percent are obese. Our number one cause of death is heart disease, and it’s quite likely that a lot of things we eat contribute to that. Added to this mix is the fact that we’re only now slowly crawling out of a long, bad food rut.
COWEN: I think there’s a very bad period for American food. It runs something like 1910 through maybe the 1980s. And that’s the age of the frozen TV dinner, of the sugar donut, of fast food, of the chain, and really a lot of it’s not very good. If you go back to the nineteenth century and you read Europeans who come to the United States, they’re really quite impressed by the freshness and variety of what is on offer. But we went a very particular route in our food world, and for a good seventy or eighty years we had some of the worst food in the developed world, and that’s the hole we’ve been trying to climb out of.
DUBNER: The conventional reason that’s given for why our food got bad is that we were victims of our own success.
COWEN: It’s the notion that we did agribusiness first, we did long-distance transportation first, we commercialized everything first, and we got junk food, and chains, and bad supermarkets because of commercialization. That’s the standard story.
DUBNER: But that’s not the whole story, Cowen says. There are specific, overlooked, moments in history that hurt the way we eat.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: In 1924, a law was passed to restrict immigration from countries outside the Western hemisphere.
COWEN: So the mid 1920s, the first thing we do is we choke off immigration, which is just going to kill off the quality of our food. Like, imagine current American dining without immigration.
DUBNER: The culinary stagnation caused by immigration policy ran straight into the Great Depression.
COWEN: That doesn’t help the restaurant trade either, it doesn’t help dining out.
DUBNER: And that coincided with another downward force on good food.
COWEN: Prohibition, which puts out of business a lot of the best restaurants.
DUBNER: As Cowen sees it, restaurants were seedbeds of innovation, but during Prohibition, some of the best restaurants were forced to shut down since they couldn’t survive without alcohol sales. Now, interestingly, the overall number of restaurants in the U.S. tripled between 1919 and 1929, but they weren’t the kind of restaurants that a food lover would love.
COWEN: What you get are more diners, fast food shops. Food is much more for children. Children, I’m sorry to say, they don’t have great taste in food. They like soft, they like sweet, they like Wonder Bread.
[Wonder Bread ad]
COWEN: So American food becomes more food for children.
DUBNER: So the American food scene became a bit of a kindergarchy, with a surge in family-friendly restaurants —much more so than in other countries.
DUBNER: Another turning point for American food: World War II.
RADIO ANNOUNCER: On this 1,048th day of American democracy at war against the foes of freedom, we bring you our mayor, the Honorable F.H. LaGuardia, speaking to you from his desk in City Hall in another talk to the people. Ladies and gentlemen, his honor, the Mayor.
MAYOR LAGUARDIA: Patience and fortitude.
DUBNER: New York City. January 28, 1945.
MAYOR LAGUARDIA: I want to talk to you today both about the meat situation...
COWEN: People still wanted to eat meat; meat wouldn’t always be fresh.
MAYOR LAGUARDIA: You take the neck, for instance. Betty, get me the bones so that I can describe it better. The piece that I have in my hands has been boned, but there is a real good supply of meat in it. If you would want to take a cleaver and break it into smaller pieces, it would make a good stew in gravy with potatoes or dumplings and the children would like it.
DUBNER: Strangely enough, Tyler Cowen says, U.S. meat consumption didn’t decline during World War II. But it wasn’t the same meat as they were eating before.
COWEN: People ate a lot of Spam.
COWEN: It’s a canned good; it doesn’t taste very good. What we did in wartime was gear up our production of everything. We had to produce a lot, including food, very quickly and have it be produced in a form that could be stored. And we made our beef and our pork and everything else just not nearly as good.
DUBNER: World War II forced us to excel at industrializing our food and transporting it long distances. Once the war was over, we kept going in this direction. This industrialization trend was eventually met by another trend: a flood of women in the workforce, which, it turns out, furthered our appetite for processed, readily available food.
[Swanson Frozen Dinner commercial]
COWEN: You want foods that are easy to handle, quick to heat or reheat, somehow very convenient and not necessarily the best foods. Women have started working, they have less time in the kitchen, but you don’t yet have all the innovations you have today. And what you see happening is as two-earner couples and television spread across the world, food ways change and in some ways decline at first, and it takes a while for markets to adjust to that.
DUBNER: You write, “Quick and microwaveable meals were developed by bacteriologists rather than chefs.” Not a good thing. You write, “Television enabled advertising and homogeneous national brands to emerge.” So Tyler, when I read that and when I hear you talk now, you sound quite convincingly like the standard kind of food snob. I mean you personally are quite dismissive of bad food, correct? Am I right, or no?
DUBNER: You put a lot of effort into eating food that you really want to eat, correct?
COWEN: It’s fun, not effort, but correct.
DUBNER: And yet you’re also against what you call ‘food snobbery.’ You write, “That food snobbery is killing entrepreneurship and innovation.” And that, “Food snobs are right that local food tastes better, but they’re wrong that it’s better for the environment, and they’re wrong that cheap food is bad food.” So, okay, you do a great impression at first listen at least of a food snob. But then talk to me about where you and they split.
COWEN: There are a lot of different issues in what you bring up, but let me just give you a few traits of food snobs that I would differ from. I think agribusiness and consumerism are seen as the great villains. I think both are essential, we can’t do without them. They feed the seven billion people in the world. We do need to improve them, but I would work on improving them through innovation. The biggest food problem in the world today is that agricultural productivity is slowing down and for a lot of the world food prices are going up. And for that we need more business, technology and innovation, not locavorism.
DUBNER: Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, if we assume that this messy food system of ours needs fixing, what are the solutions?
Alice WATERS: I think that the work of the farmer, it needs to be elevated to a very important and vital place.
DUBNER: And, what does dinner look like tonight?
DUBNER: I’m curious, Michael, what are you going to have for dinner tonight, do you know yet?
Michael POLLAN: You know, I don’t know because I’m going to a restaurant.
DUBNER: What kind of restaurant?
POLLAN: I’m going to Chez Panisse.
DUBNER: I’m going to a restaurant.
DUBNER: And one more thing: there may be no such thing as a free lunch but there is such a thing as a free podcast. Every week we put out a Freakonomics Radio podcast, for free. You can subscribe at iTunes or, if you want to learn more, visit Freakonomics.com
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics Radio. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Today, we are talking about what’s wrong with American food. In a bit, you’ll hear what my Freakonomics partner Steve Levitt has to say about the very, very high cost of tomatoes, at least when he grows them. But first, let’s hear from Michael Pollan. He is a writer who has become a kind of national food philosopher. He says a lot of our food problems are due to what’s called “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” which is also the title of one of his books.
POLLAN: The phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” is an anthropological term for a, um, an omnivore that can eat so many different things, some of which is not good for you, some of which will kill you, and deciding between what is good and what is bad is a big part of why we have these giant brains we have. And that anxiety afflicts us. It doesn’t afflict the cow or the koala. I mean, they eat that one thing, and if it’s not that one thing, it’s not lunch. And things are pretty simple and you don’t need a big brain you just need a big stomach to digest all those leaves. And so it’s part of our existential predicament to worry first do we have enough food and second do we have the right food.
DUBNER: I guess the clichéd way to ask this question would be if you, Michael Pollan, were food czar for the day, or agriculture secretary for a year, God forbid for your sake that you’d have to do that job, it’d be miserable.
POLLAN: And for the nation’s sake.
DUBNER: Okay, so you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the problems that have come to exist and how they’ve come to exist, but start to talk about some solutions from the production side, not yet from the consumer side, but from the production side.
POLLAN: Sure, well I think one of the most important things to do is to diversify our agriculture. You know, we’re growing vast amounts of corn and soybeans, these commodity crops that we heavily subsidize the planting of. And it’s too much of a good thing, or too much of a so-so thing. And that we should devise mechanisms in our agricultural policy that reward farmers for having more than one or two crops, because the more different crops they have, the less need they’ll have for fertilizers, which are, you know, huge fossil fuel burners, the less need they’d have for toxic chemicals and weed control problems, and it would allow us to diversify our diet on the consuming end. Because one of our problems with diet, too, is monoculture. We eat just too much of a very small handful of not very good for us things like sugar and high fructose corn syrup. So, I guess I would try to figure out a way to get farmers to diversify and that’s not easy by any means because mechanization pushes you in exactly the opposite direction.
DUBNER: Talk to me for a minute about the subsidy part, which I know you’ve written about a lot. You say that we’re over-reliant on things like soybean and corn and we use it in anything and everything to our dietary detriment.
POLLAN: Well, yeah, because those crops are really the building blocks of fast food. You’ve got the high fructose corn syrup coming of the corn, and you have the hydrogenated oils coming out the soy. And right there you’ve got a fast food meal, or the makings of one.
DUBNER: But persuade me that that’s not just what the public wants to eat and that the market wants to buy and sell. In other words, talk to me about how this isn’t the way a market’s working, this is the way a government-subsidized market is working.
POLLAN: Well, the reason that we subsidize those crops is not because people wanted to eat them, necessarily. Hydrogenated soy oil and high fructose corn syrup were not things that anybody was clambering for. They actually grew out of an overproduction. And one of the geniuses of capitalism is when you have too much of something that nobody wants you’ll figure out how to trick it into a form where people will eat it or buy it. So overproduction breeds ingenuity, also. And why did we have overproduction? One of the reasons is that we subsidize these crops. And one of the reasons we subsidize them is that it’s easier to subsidize storable commodities than it is things like broccoli or carrots. I mean, the history of subsidies is very complicated because we began trying to support prices basically and keep farmers in business. That’s what we did during the Depression because the price of things like corn had fallen essentially to zero. People think we did it because we didn’t have enough food in the depression. Actually we had plenty of food in the depression we didn’t have enough money to buy it and the farmers were going out of business. And so we started with various systems to support the price of corn, and soy, and some other storable commodities. Over time, the point of these subsidies changed during the Nixon Administration in particular to force down the price of commodities rather than to hold it up. And that was a radical change, and it had the effect of leading to this vast overproduction. Now, I said that it’s harder to subsidize vegetables, and it is. And the reason being that if you subsidize something you tend to get these waves of overproduction. But with corn, and soy, and rice, and wheat, and cotton, it’s not a big problem because you can put it in a silo and store it for three to five years. You can, you know, put it in the bank in effect. If you do that with vegetables you have this rotting compost. I mean, you can’t have overproduction of broccoli without, you know, having a disaster, stinking disaster. So to the extent that the government wanted to play this role in the food system of either supporting farmers, or driving down the cost of food, commodity crops, grain is how you do it. And there are also, they underlie so many other things because you feed grain to animals. So you’re supporting animal agriculture too, indirectly; you’re subsidizing feedlots. And all this made sense, and it achieved some goals, but it had a lot of unintended consequences. And one was since these were the crops that you got paid for you planted as much of them as you can.
DUBNER: What do you think would happen if, and this could not happen, but what do you think would happen if the federal government removed all crop subsidies overnight?
POLLAN: It’s a really interesting question, and it is hypothetical because it would bring down the banking system, you know, overnight, so the Fed would not allow it to happen. There’s so much debt on farms every year, you know, trillions of dollars that farmers take out to plant, and those depend on that check coming from the government. That’s your proof that you’re going to be able to pay it back. So if would be a disaster for the banking system. And from everything that I’ve been able to learn it might not even work to undo the system that we have.
DUBNER: Okay, so let me ask you to take a step back and let’s think away from agriculture itself for a minute and think about, you know, eating. I’m curious, Michael, what are you going to have for dinner tonight, do you know yet?
POLLAN: You know, I don’t know because I’m going to a restaurant.
DUBNER: What kind of restaurant?
POLLAN: I’m going to Chez Panisse.
DUBNER: I’m going to a restaurant.
POLLAN: Yeah. Well just to the café upstairs. So I don’t know what I’m going to have actually. I’m being taken to dinner.
DUBNER: Ok, so I pulled up the menu here.
POLLAN: What do they have?
DUBNER: So dinner menu for tonight looks like we’ve got some six Hog Island sweet water oysters on the half shell with mignonette. I don’t know what mignonette means.
POLLAN: It’s a little vinegar with some shallots in it.
DUBNER: Thank you. Then a grilled Belgian endive with pancetta, rosemary, and egg. Squash hummus with shaved fennel and pickled cauliflower. Celery root and rocket salad with crème fraiche and beets. A house-made rigatoni with Llano Seco Ranch pork ragu.
POLLAN: Oh, man, you’re making me hungry, Stephen.
DUBNER: And then a bowl of Churchill-Brenneis Orchards page mandarins and Flying Disc Ranch dates.
POLLAN: Yeah, well you see that one of the things that Chez pioneered doing was telling you where the food came from and putting the names of the farmers, which has become, you now, almost an obnoxiously cliché in a lot of restaurants, but I actually think it was a very salutary development. You know, one of the things we need to do in this country is raise the prestige of farming, and recognize the work that good farmers do, which is really important to us. We depend on them, and yet they’re for most of us totally anonymous.
WATERS: I do really believe that...
DUBNER: That’s Alice Waters herself, the owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where Michael Pollan is going for dinner tonight.
WATERS: I think that the work of the farmer, it needs to be elevated to a very important and vital place, and we need to consider the people who take that on as precious as the people who educate us in the schools. And when that happens, when we begin to value our farmers, you’d be surprised how many people will answer that call, who will really be encouraged to take on that profession. It’s happening already, just among young people who are concerned about the future of this planet, and know that we’re headed to a dead end if we don’t think about where our food comes from and take care of that land that produces our food.
DUBNER: So here we are: back to the farm, and the farmer. You could call it the go-small-or-go-home food movement, with its emphasis on eating local at any expense. Tyler Cowen, the foodie economist we heard from earlier, he does not see this as any kind of broad solution:
COWEN: I would say there is a better food philosophy. I think locavores like most people mean well. You know, we’re all imperfect. We all do things and hold views for reasons that are not totally rational. And the purpose is to have some kind of dialogue and get us to a better place.
Steven LEVITT: I pay zero attention to local foods. I am not a connoisseur of food, and I just kind of eat what I like.
DUBNER: That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago. When it comes to food, Levitt is not exactly a connoisseur.
LEVITT: I had Cocoa Pebbles for breakfast.
DUBNER: His favorite part, of course, is drinking the milk at the bottom of the bowl…
LEVITT: Most definitely. [laughs]
DUBNER: His dream lunch?
LEVITT:...maybe McDonalds or Burger King or something like that.
DUBNER: And pass the salt, please.
LEVITT: Oh, God, I love salt!
DUBNER: So it might surprise you to learn that Levitt has somewhat of an agrarian past...
LEVITT: So, growing up one of the most romantic memories, nostalgic memories that I have is that almost every weekend during the summer my father and I would drive an hour and a half to a little working farm that my grandparents kept as a hobby and the memories of us really growing, you know, corn and zucchini and cucumbers and potatoes is one of my fondest memories. I’ve always dreamed of having my own children experience dirt roads and the simple country life of pretend farming. It’s never really come to pass. I am not very good at growing things. We’ve tried having a garden in the backyard and the rabbits took care of that pretty quickly. So finally I hit on a solution that might actually work which was something that I saw in a magazine, which was a hydroponic tomato-growing garden.
DUBNER: It was a neat little contraption pricey, about $150. But all you had to do is put in some water—no dirt—and seeds, and turn on the special light and, voila! Fresh cherry tomatoes, grown right there in your kitchen.
LEVITT: Well, I can’t say it worked out so well. It certainly was a lot of labor and my kids were interested in it for maybe a day or two. And it sat right in our kitchen and this ultraviolet light was blasting away. The neighbors even asked us what was going on. I think they thought maybe we were growing pot in our kitchen. We had in the end, I think, about fourteen. Fourteen cherry tomatoes, total.
DUBNER: So let’s see: there’s the cost of the hydroponic garden, and the electricity, the labor…
LEVITT: Even if you take the minimum wage rate, I think we are talking about maybe fifteen dollars per cherry tomato. Something like that. It was a costly experiment in eventually failing to get my children to have the same love of farming as I have.
DUBNER: But it did get Levitt thinking. A lot of things that we do for fun, or for entertainment, things like gardening, or knitting, baking, these are things our great-grandparents had to do and probably would have loved to not have to do.
LEVITT: Yeah, so, you know the line between work and leisure is a complicated one. Leisure is defined as something you would do for yourself even though you don’t get paid. So some people will cut their own yard or grow their own cherry tomatoes. But things that you will happily do for yourself, you wouldn’t happily do for your neighbors. If my neighbors, who had seen us growing the cherry tomatoes through the window, had said, ‘Look could you grow me some cherry tomatoes and I’ll pay you the market wage for what it is to grow tomatoes,’ I’d say, ‘Are you crazy? I’m not growing your tomatoes. You grow your own tomatoes.’ That’s what really gets to be interesting, is why is it that we are willing to do things which are completely unpleasant and we would never think of doing them in a market setting but the romanticism of doing them as leisure somehow takes over. And that’s a question that I think really an economist can’t answer. That’s the question for a psychoanalyst, I think.
DUBNER: And as Levitt sees it, all these activities we do , growing our own cherry tomatoes, brewing our own beer, baking our own bread, this says something about us.
LEVITT: Yeah, I think all of this movement towards doing our own labor, and pickling, and fancy food stuff that you do at home, I think that is really a sign of how spoiled we have all become, that our basic needs are so well taken care of that we need to seek out some sort of hardship to feel whole. Which is a good thing. It’s a great thing. What could be better than having all of your basic needs met?
DUBNER: This is the Camino Real farmer’s market in Goleta, California. It’s in Santa Barbara County, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The produce is bountiful, and it’s local…
JEFF: We’ve got lettuce, and greens and chard, leeks and fennel, and turnips and artichokes and spinach and cabbage, broccoli and about everything else you can get your hands on this time of year. Our farm is about two miles away from where we are selling right now at the farmer’s market.
SHOPPER: It’s just amazing. Yeah.
DUBNER: Santa Barbara County has a lot going for it. The beach, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and farming. It is in the top one percent of agriculture-producing counties in the U.S., about $1.2 billion worth a year. Now, imagine for a moment that everything is interrupted by some kind of a natural disaster:
David CLEVELAND: In 2005 there was a mudslide at La Conchita, which is a community in the southeastern part of Santa Barbara County, right on the coast.
DUBNER: That’s David Cleveland. He teaches environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. The mudslide he’s talking about killed ten people.
CLEVELAND: And also blocked off the 101 freeway and the railroad, which are the main transportation connections with Los Angeles. And these transportation links were closed for at least a week.
DUBNER: So Santa Barbara couldn’t ship its produce down to the distribution centers in L.A., or anywhere else, nor could it ship produce in. But that wouldn’t seem to be a problem, since Santa Barbara grows so much. You’d think the grocery stores would still have plenty of fruits and veg.
CLEVELAND: So we had produce sections that were empty. And here’s farmers with boxes of harvested fruit and vegetables that their distributors can’t pick them up. And so farmers said oh yeah we went and talked to the produce manager at this grocery chain and we said look we got stuff that we can’t get out and you can’t get anything in, let’s make a deal. And they were told no, sorry, we got a contract.
DUBNER: Did you feel it was absurd or along the lines of borderline criminal?
CLEVELAND: Often those two things go together, I think.
DUBNER: It turns out that Santa Barbara County is a pretty good microcosm for just how complicated, or how messed-up – our food network is. Here you’ve got a place that grows more than $1 billion worth of food a year but, as you just heard, when transportation is cut off for a week, the produce sections at grocery stores start to empty out. Isn’t that bizarre? You’d think, with all that local produce, that Santa Barbara would be the epicenter of the local-food movement. So what’s going on here? David Cleveland, the U.C. Santa Barbara professor, he decided to find out.
CLEVELAND: I think it was four or five years ago, the cover of Time Magazine was “Local the New Organic,” and you know, that kind of…One of my students brought that in and said hey have you seen this, and I said no I haven’t seen that. Because I had been teaching a class on rural agriculture for last ten or fifteen years at UCSB, and localization hasn’t been an explicit part of what we talked about. And I just realized that this was being promoted as a remedy for a lot of the problems that people, many people saw with the mainstream food system.
DUBNER: And when you see this being promoted as a remedy, or maybe even a panacea it sounds like you’re saying?
CLEVELAND: Uh huh.
DUBNER: And what was your first reaction to that then? Was it like yeah this is what we need, or, uh oh, this might not be the right prescription? Or, I don’t know, maybe a combination?
CLEVELAND: It was a combination because It’s emotionally appealing the idea of yeah local food, going to the farmers’ market, and you know, all the stuff that goes with that. And at the same time my academic background was saying well how do we really know if this is working. And we’re all familiar with the concept of greenwash and self-delusion, and you know, misplaced assumptions, and so I immediately said, well gosh, I wonder we should really see how local the Santa Barbara County food system already is, because we have thriving farmer’s markets, CSA’s are growing like gangbusters, and restaurants are advertising their local food, and the UCSB dining residential dining is a major program to get more local food. And so I said will gosh let’s just see how local we are.
DUBNER: So how did you come to this? Did you grow up on a farm? Did you grow up thinking and knowing a lot about agriculture, or did you come from the environmental side? Were you an environmentalist who wanted to get into the science of it?
CLEVELAND: I came from the food side. I think I…
DUBNER: Meaning you eat? What does that mean the food side?
CLEVELAND: Meaning I’ve always been interested in food. It’s always been…My early years were on a farm. I’ve always been interested in eating good food. You know, like a person always reads the labels when they buy stuff. I guess that coincided with an interest in the bigger picture of the environment and population, and how do we deal with this stuff. When I did my dissertation research in Ghana, West Africa, in the northeast part of the county, it was during one of the major drought periods. And both years I was there was a major famine. And I would lie in my little mud hut at night thinking why are people in this part of the world they’re smart people who work hard all day long and yet they’re going hungry. And yet there are other people in other parts of the world who don’t know nearly as much about how to grow food and don’t work as hard and they have too much food. And you know, just thinking about those issues kind of drove my interest in understanding agri-food systems.
DUBNER: So, David, I’m curious can you just describe kind of your drive from home to the university? When you take that drive what do you pass? Are you passing strawberry fields and almond groves? What’s it look like?
CLEVELAND: Well actually I ride my bike to campus. It’s only about five and half miles, and I live on the coastal bike path so it’s very nice. But I pass organic farms on the way. Actually yesterday when I biked into campus there were strawberries ripening on their plastic mulch, and fava beans growing. And I could smell the compost and manure.
DUBNER: So you’re describing what to me at least over the wire sounds like a locavore nirvana. You’re talking about these restaurants and even the university dining hall, you know, advertises its local food. And you bike to work through the lovely alternatingly sweet and pungent smells of strawberries and manure. And so you must be, you know, from what you’re telling me so far I would think you’re living at like, you know ground zero locavore central. Was that your assumption as well?
CLEVELAND: Yeah, it was like wow, this is so, let’s just see what we’re really doing because certainly the potential’s there, because I knew before we started the research that Santa Barbara was producing somewhere around 2.3 billion pounds of fruits and vegetables a year.
DUBNER: So David Cleveland, along with about 10 students, worked for a year to track that 2.3 billion pounds of produce, specifically, to see how much of it was being exported and how much was being consumed locally:
CLEVELAND: Well this is what really shocked us, is we found that when you added up all these different ways in which locally grown produce got to people in Santa Barbara County we found that less than five percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Santa Barbara County were actually grown in Santa Barbara County, and the other ninety-five percent were imported.
DUBNER: It’s hard to even understand how that could come to pass. I mean, even if one believes in the ultimate efficiency of the most efficient markets -- you’re growing the stuff right there, and then people are eating it right there, but the stuff that they’re eating is not the stuff that they’re growing. I don’t even get it.
CLEVELAND: I don’t either. Yeah, this is something…I mean, part of it is the way the market is structured.
DUBNER: Now, you’re not an economist, you’re an environmental scientist correct?
CLEVELAND: No. I’m an anthropologist.
DUBNER: Okay so because you’re not an economist I’m guessing, and forgive me I really am just guessing, I’m guessing you’re thinking well if this is the way the economy works in this case, then it’s dumb. It doesn’t make sense, right, to take food that we grow locally here, ship it off to a warehouse and then ship it back to here. So you know what, in some twisted configuration of incentives that has come to pass, but it’s stupid. Was that your thought?
CLEVELAND: Yeah, and my thought was that somehow this economic system, people are being rewarded economically for this kind of behavior one assumes, but somehow the reward system for economic behavior is totally out of sync with the reward system for good nutrition, for community, for environment. There’s this disconnect between economics and the reason that we grow food.
DUBNER: What Cleveland is saying certainly seems to make sense: that when it comes to food, the modern economy conspires against three very important factors: good nutrition, the environment, and community, meaning local farmers and the people who support them. But Cleveland’s research was showing something different. We’ll start with the local farmers. It looked as if things were working out okay for them. Why else would they sell most of their produce for export, rather than keep it local? And what about nutrition? Here’s another surprising fact that Cleveland found: a 100% local diet wouldn’t improve nutrition within the county. Higher income might; but a dearth of local produce wasn’t the problem. Still, what about the environment? As David Cleveland puts it: “Most of what’s grown in Santa Barbara is shipped out. And most of what’s eaten in Santa Barbara is shipped in. This seems crazy,” he says. Surely that is crazy, isn’t it? Coming up on Freakonomics Radio: the math behind carbon emissions and local food.
DUBNER: When your eyes saw that number what did you think?
CLEVELAND: We went back and redid our calculations.
DUBNER: And, is there a moral upside to not eating local food?
GLAESER: I just keep coming back to feeling a certain amount of satisfaction that I’m eating grapes that are keeping up the standard of living in Chile.
DUBNER: And whether you’re in Chile or Santa Barbara or New Jersey we love hearing from you. So if you’ve got something to say, or a question to ask, or a strange fact to share, visit us at Freakonomics.com or drop us a line at email@example.com. Thanks.
ANNOUNCER: From WNYC and APM, American Public Media, this is Freakonomics. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: Okay, so David Cleveland, who teaches environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that 95 percent of the produce consumed in Santa Barbara County, which grows $1.2 billion worth a year, is imported, some of it from the other side of the world. Whereas ninety-nine percent of the produce grown there is exported. Now that sounds, on the surface, like an environmental travesty. So he began looking into those numbers too. What would happen, for instance, if Santa Barbara County went totally locavore, if all the produce eaten in Santa Barbara were also grown there?
CLEVELAND: Yeah, we wanted to look at, at what effect one hundred percent localization of the Santa Barbara County system, which is a physically, biologically very feasible thing to do, what effect would that have on greenhouse gas emissions? And we found that it wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Our savings in greenhouse gas emissions per household as a proportion of the total food system greenhouse gas emissions was less than one percent.
DUBNER: Wow. When your eyes saw that number what did you think?
CLEVELAND: We went back and redid our calculations.
DUBNER: I don’t blame you. You thought, How can this possibly be true?
CLEVELAND: Right, we didn’t think it was going to be a huge number, but we were still a bit surprised that it was less than one percent. And when you look at that in terms of what the EPA estimated for example in 2008 for greenhouse gas emissions per person in the United States in 2008, it’s point one percent. So, I guess the point that began to dawn on me and on the others was that even though our food system accounts for a huge amount of our impact on the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions, and localization is being promoted as a major cure to all that’s wrong with our current food system, in terms of one of the focal impacts it doesn’t necessarily have a great deal of effect.
DUBNER: How can this be? As Cleveland says, producing food requires a lot of energy. So wouldn’t it make sense that we could use a lot less energy by transporting food shorter distances?
Christopher WEBER: Well, I mean, the take home message that we learned is that basically transportation is really only about seven percent of the greenhouse gas footprint associated with the overall average American diet.
DUBNER: That’s Christopher Weber, he’s a researcher at the Science and Technology Policy Institute in Washington. Back in 2008, he and a colleague, H. Scott Matthews, analyzed the U.S. food network and found that the energy used in the transportation of food represents a relatively trivial amount of the overall energy used. Their paper made a bit of noise…
DUBNER: So this paper that you wrote, I understand that you’ve said no matter what you do…You’re a young guy, right you’re…
WEBER: Relatively, sure.
DUBNER: In your early thirties maybe, mid thirties?
WEBER: Yeah. Yeah.
DUBNER: Okay, and so you’ve got a long career ahead of you, and I’ve heard you say no matter what you do, unless maybe barring a Nobel or Pulitzer Prize that what’s going to be on your gravestone is this paper that you wrote as your graduate thesis, yes?
WEBER: Yeah, it certainly seems that way.
DUBNER: One person who found the Weber-Matthews research interesting was Ed Glaeser. He’s an economist at Harvard who spends a lot of time thinking about where and how people live—urban density vs. suburban sprawl, things like that.
GLAESER: There’s a 2008 article by Weber and Matthews who actually go through the various environmental costs involved with food production, particularly carbon dioxide emissions. And they found that there’s about 8.9 tons of carbon dioxide per household per year from food consumption in the United States. Out of that 8.9 tons only 0.4 tons, so about five percent, less than five percent came from food delivery to you. And all agricultural transportation up and down the food chain that delivers only about one ton of carbon dioxide per household annually. So there’s a lot of carbon emissions involved in food, but you want to think about it as being in the very heart of food production which is going to go on wherever you eat it or not. And there you’re going to, you know, you will make choices about what you’re eating. And obviously animals tend to be more energy intensive than grains for example. Those choices are going to matter a lot more as to whether the food is shipped long distances because it just doesn’t require that much energy to ship food fairly long distances in this world.
DUBNER: So in keeping with that argument, the idea is that a bigger farm, whether it’s a sheep farm or a produce farm is going to be more efficient in its production per pound of food, let’s say, than a smaller local farm, in that the transportation is just not a big enough piece of the equation to really tip the scale?
GLAESER: That’s the usual argument. I find it fairly compelling. The second argument that’s made, and this has been particularly done comparing food production in England with other areas, so English researchers for some reason have been particularly aggressive on this. But food production in the U.K., and I think it must be the same thing in New England for our climate isn’t that different, finds that the greenhouse gas emissions involved in eating English tomatoes are about three times as high as eating Spanish tomatoes because you require hothouses to grow these things, and you just have a better climate for food production. So, at the heart of economics, right, is this notion of comparative advantage. And if you think about David Ricardo two hundred years ago talking about what a great thing it is that the English could export textiles and import wine from Portugal, when you’re giving up on the global system of trade, you’re giving up on all that. And that’s not just about economic productivity, it’s also about energy intensivity, because the places that are naturally productive at growing food are also places where you can do it with less artificial energy, with less artificial water and so forth.
DUBNER: Now, let’s say I believe you, and I have no reason not to believe you. In fact, I do believe you. But, it seems as though there’s a certain, maybe it’s a pretty small quadrant of our population, but they’re pretty noisy, who just seem to make a very compelling argument that it’s just a bad idea to live in a world where we’re shipping food from across the planet to eat here, that we should be better than that. So I guess what I’m saying is I hear your economist argument, but then I think from my personal moral perspective, I don’t like the idea. I don’t like the idea of a big sheep farm in New Zealand, or a big grape produce farm in Chile bundling up all these tons, and tons, and tons of stuff, putting it on a big ship, getting it all the way over to me, and then it trucks to my supermarket or market and I buy it there. I just don’t…I hate that idea. Why is there more hatred for food and the complexity of the production and transportation of food than there is for let’s say a t-shirt or an iPad?
GLAESER: Well, food is so personal, right? It is our most basic of needs, right? And the idea of something wrong being with our food cuts to the very heart of our stomachs, of our souls almost. So it’s not so surprising that people have these deep emotional reactions to food. And we certainly are right to worry a lot about whether or not our food is fresh, and good, and tasty. But I just keep coming back to feeling a certain amount of satisfaction that I’m eating grapes that are keeping up the standard of living in Chile.
DUBNER: Let me ask you this, Ed, you wrote a little bit about Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House and her pretty constant efforts to talk about the value of nutrition generally, but also local agriculture. And you wrote this, “If the First Lady wants to help the environment she should campaign for high-rise apartments rather than plant vegetables.” Ouch, first of all, but explain.
GLAESER: Well I certainly meant no disrespect for the First Lady.
DUBNER: I’m sure.
GLAESER: But local gardens are unlikely to be any particularly great environmental benefit. And one way to think about this is it really is much more energy efficient to move food rather than moving people. Any time we put space between us as human beings we are increasing our own difficulties in transportation, any time we build at lower densities, meaning we are driving longer distances. And that’s a tremendous potential environmental cost, whereas moving the food around is a very small cost relative to that. So, I think really if we want to be focused on how we live and how it impacts our environmental footprints we really do want to be thinking about how is it that we bring ourselves together, how is it that we eliminate space between us, not how is it that we insert extra space that are buffers between humanity.
DUBNER: So, would your view of Michelle Obama’s position on local agriculture be that, well it’s mostly benign. She’s preaching that people should have more local gardens and they may or they may not, and it really doesn’t make that much of a difference? Or is your view of her stance that it’s actually not a good stance because it may be counterproductive as it kind of steals mindshare for what would be smarter ideas for how to be more efficient and effective for more people?
GLAESER: I think its basically benign. The truth of the matter is I think she’s really just pushing for greater awareness of food and greater attention to nutrition. And that’s basically benign. What I do wish, is I do wish both her and the president would start talking about the virtues of urban America. I mean in some sense President Obama is the most urban president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt. And yet we’ve heard very little about how critical America’s cities are to our future. I mean, the fact that the three largest metropolitan areas in this country produce eighteen percent of our GDP while including only thirteen percent of our population. And they’re also important environmentally, so it’s also a frustration that…It’s fine for her to grow gardens but I would love it if we just heard a strong message about what a great thing living in dense areas, living in high-rise apartments can also be for the environment. And indeed, we’re far more likely to get significant environmental benefits from those than we are from eating locally or from urban gardens.
DUBNER: Back at the Union Square Greenmarket, in the heart of Manhattan, the idea of buying local is pretty much gospel. I asked a few people, shoppers and vendors, to wrap their heads around the notion that going local isn’t saving the world.
KELLY: I would find that really hard to believe...
EDLAND: I may not 100 percent be able to argue against that, but what I will argue for is why not buy it if it is grown nearby?
RUBY: And for me, smaller is better, for me, local is better.
DUBNER: The responses were interesting and diverse: some denial, some rationalization, some switching over to the other ways in which local food is superior, like it tastes better. When you make decisions about something as important as the environment, and as personal, as emotionally charged as food, it’s hard to hear that the factual foundation of your decision is a bit wobbly. It can be easier just to stick to your beliefs, your intuitive beliefs, than it is to deal with the weird complexities of the modern world. But here’s one piece of good news. That research paper by Christopher Weber about food miles, it didn’t stop there.
WEBER: There are a few types of food that are very greenhouse-gas intensive, per calorie, per kilogram, however you want to measure them, and red meat and dairy are the especially bad players here. And if you are the average consumer and again we were always looking at the average consumer, one of the big, you know, take home messages that we tried to get out to people is that you can do more for your carbon footprint by just cutting those two things out of your diet for one day a week than you can by buying every single thing locally all the time.
DUBNER: So there you go. If you really want to help the environment, lay off cow products. The cow is particularly greenhouse-gas-intensive in part because, like all ruminants, it naturally emits methane, its manure, its exhalation, its farts. And methane is more than twenty times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. What’s that, you say? You can’t imagine cutting back on burgers? Well, perhaps you’d consider a substitute. The kangaroo, for instance, doesn’t emit methane. Its meat? A little rubbery but tasty. So if you really want to help, what you’ve got to do is learn to love the ‘roo.