Toward an Ethical Economics of Food Policy

William A. Masters, an agricultural economist who has turned up on this blog before, recently gave an interesting farewell speech at Purdue University (he is moving to Tufts).?Masters offers a vision for both “unified fields in the social sciences” and “an ethical economics of agriculture and food policy.” “What if organic, local, traditional and artisanal products don’t actually deliver a healthier, more secure and sustainable food system?” Masters asks. “This is not a hypothetical question. Right now, the preponderance of evidence is pointing in that direction.” [%comments]

Eric M. Jones

"What if organic, local, traditional and artisanal products don't actually deliver a healthier, more secure and sustainable food system?"

Grrrrrr......So who designed the food distrubution system of NYC?

The real issue here is that the imposition of some "plan" is viewed as the solution to the "problem" whereas we actually should be looking at why a person's best efforts doesn't usually lead to a reward in many places.--Or in plain terms, why isn't market capitalism working in many places?

...e.g. like Haiti, Afghanistan, North Korea and Zimbabwe?


Anyone have a clue what this evidence of which he speaks is?

A speech is not the place for footnotes, but perhaps the author of this post ought to have provided some context and support when choosing to highlight a rather provocative statement.


Provocative statements get people to read blogs...


I want to know who funds his research.


well, we already know the answer to the converse: What if genetically engineered/patented, multinational corporate, artificial, and monoculture products don't actually deliver a healthier, more secure, and sustainable food system (he left out to whom)?- it don't matta, cuz u aint got the power to stop Monsanto


After reading his speech one of two things must be at play

1) he is a robot and doesn't required actual food that humans eat (or hasn't ever actually tasted food, local or industrial)

2) is paid by Monsanto / Cargill / etc....

I'm an urban farmer and the food I grow tastes better. That is my single marketing tool, not that it's from just down the street, not that is better than organic, not that we are saving the planet ... but simply my food is better, and that is why people buy it, at least that's what they tell me.

If the industrial food complex can make food as good as I do, I'd be glad to go back to programming computers, but I doubt that is going to happen.


@Ed You confuse "tastes better" with "is better".

I think the point of this speech was to shake things up a bit considering the trend towards organic and local food. What if the industrial food complex could be reformed to make food that "is better"? Wouldn't that start to chip away at world hunger and health issues? Isn't that the right or ethical thing to do?


I have no idea what evidence Masters is referring to. I wish he'd elaborate. The "preponderance of evidence" I've seen in my own reading is exactly the opposite. In our quest to produce better yields and better shelf life, we've managed to produce far more calories than we need, with fewer nutrients than the foods had in the past. The people who pay for this tend to be poor, because they buy the cheapest calories without regard to the quality of the calories. We end up at the extreme with kids who are both obese and malnourished at the same time.


Why knock the guy when you know nothing of his research. For 20 years he has been trying to improve the lives of the poorest people on the planet. Your "taste better" tomatoes aren't doing much toward that end.

We all eat everyday, there are more than 6 1/2 million people on the planet. It is not the little organic movement here that is what is helping the poorest people around the globe.

It may make you feel better, but it isn't helping the starving children in India the way Golden rice did.

Will Masters

For readers who might be curious enough to follow up, here is some of the evidence that Dave and Ann have asked for...

But before getting to that, anyone who clicked through to the actual talk would see that it fully endorses our search for more organic, local, traditional and artisanal foods. These are not bad ideas. The question is what can these particular things really deliver, and what else do we need from the food system?

It turns out that the evidence base is building only slowly, in part because research of this type is woefully underfunded. On the question of health effects from organic foods, a nice new review just appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:
On the question of environmental effects of local foods, interesting studies appear here:
and here:
Regarding economic-development effects, try this:

As to the funding of my own research (and an explanation for why this kind of work is generally underfunded!), a full list of sources for my own work appears on my website (click on CV). You'll see support comes from public agencies and philanthropic donors; I have never been funded by Monsanto or any other for-profit company. If they knocked on my door with a check it wouldn't bother me or change what I do, but the reason they don't fund my research is not that I'd refuse -- it's that my work is too unpredictable and unlikely to help them in particular.


Jim Purdy

From Masters' talk:
" In economics the remedies involve changing incentives or institutions, not changing people."

That is a very important distinction, with huge consequences for social policies.

Jim Purdy
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Eric M. Jones

@9--Ginger: "... there are more than 6 1/2 million people on the planet..."

True. In fact, there are 1000X that many.


Agreed with Ginger....He's no corporate hack. Constantly working to improve access to food and nutritional outcomes in Africa. Was a great farewell lecture with a pertinent message.

Robert Marqusee

You know we are in trouble when sophistry is used to convince the public that what we all know is true from first hand experience is, actually, false. War is peace, hate is love, and if you just look deeper you are told that only highly concentrated industrial agriculture holds the key to health, happiness, economic prosperity, and the salvation of all mankind. Just eliminate common sense - and you will know the truth? I think Monsanto should spray our air with chemicals - since their air will be safer than the natural air we breathe. Then charge us for it.