You Eat What You Are, Part 1 (Ep. 76)

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(Photo: dailyjoe)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “You Eat What You Are, Part 1″ (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)

It’s about how American food got so bad, how it’s begun to get much better in recent years, and who has the answers for further improvement.

We begin at Union Square Green Market in New York City, a rustic oasis in the heart of the city, where Berkshire Berries has wonderful jams, Windfall Farms offers a cornucopia of greens, and Hudson Valley Duck Farm does all kinds of things with the modest duck. We also channel John McPhee and his wonderful essay “Giving Good Weight.”

But how much can the farmer’s market solve America’s food problems?

We talk to Tyler Cowen, whom you’ve heard from before. He’s a professor of economics at George Mason University, a blogger at Marginal Revolution, a food blogger at Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide, and the author, most recently, of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies. He argues that economists were historically very concerned with food, and describes the current “crisis”:

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. The food world is getting a lot worse and a lot better at the same time. That’s one way to think about the crisis.

In fact, 15 percent of Americans are said to be “food insecure,” while 35 percent are obese. Cowen argues that the typical finger-pointing is often directed at the wrong people:

COWEN: 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 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.

We also speak with food philosopher Michael Pollan, who has been thinking and writing about food for years, perhaps most notably in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals:

POLLAN: The phrase “the omnivore’s dilemma” is an anthropological terms for an omnivore that can eat so many different things, some of which are 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. They eat that one thing, and if it’s not that one thing, it’s not lunch. And things are pretty simple. You don’t need a big brain; you just need a big stomach to digest all those leaves. So it’s part of our existential predicament to worry first do we have enough food and second do we have the right food.

You’ll hear from slow-food godmother Alice Waters (who has appeared on Freakonomics Radio before). She owns the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse (where Pollan happened to be heading for dinner the evening we interviewed him). To Waters, the priorities for the food future are clear:

WATERS: I think that the work of the farmer needs to be elevated to a very important and vital place, and we need to consider the people that take that on as precious as the people who educate us in 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.   

Along the way, you’ll also get to hear some World War II-era tape of New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia talking about how to stretch the meat budget. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, WNYC has a massive archive of historical tape; furthermore, it also maintains a Mayor LaGuardia Twitter feed.

And that’s all just Part 1 of “You Eat What You Are.” In two weeks, we’ll release Part 2, which focuses on the local-food movement.

Hope you enjoy.


seriously, tho- monsanto is a great villain- they'd sue their grandmother in her garden if she broke one of their "patents"


Of course those patents are the reason crops that will grow in the third world in sufficient quantity to feed the population exist. But I suppose you have to decide whether to give in on your anti-business principles or let those brown people who talk funny starve. Which has been more beneficial to mankind: anti-business collectivism, or large scale agribusiness?

Peter of Brooklyn

Naïveté can be really cute sometimes! Golly gee Monsanto is so neat-o making wholesome food to feed those people in those poor countries. You must be real anti-business if you even find or mention the fact that there are serious harms associated with big agribusiness policy and products.

It's so simple, Monsanto/largescale commercial agribusiness = good, don't bother to think further. Here's a story that might be of interest:

"Far from being 'magic seeds', GM pest-proof 'breeds' of cotton have been devastated by bollworms, a voracious parasite.
Nor were the farmers told that these seeds require double the amount of water. This has proved a matter of life and death."

"When crops failed in the past, farmers could still save seeds and replant them the following year.
But with GM seeds they cannot do this. That's because GM seeds contain so- called 'terminator technology', meaning that they have been genetically modified so that the resulting crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.
As a result, farmers have to buy new seeds each year at the same punitive prices. For some, that means the difference between life and death."

Read more:

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"It doesn’t afflict the cow or the koala. They eat that one thing, and if it’s not that one thing, it’s not lunch."

Not true of cows (unless of course they're in a feedlot). Grazing in pasture or open range, they have a choice of many plants, some of which can sicken or kill them.

Jay Sames

This seems like a repeat. Is it? If it is, please say so, and do it openly, including when it originally came out. I THINK this is a repeat, and I resent the loss of the time I spent hearing it again.


"...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."
The question is, has agribusinees and consumerism forced the seven billion people into having to purchase food as opposed to producing their own? Remember the whole fishing proverb? Many populations have had their fishing poles taken away as a result of rampant agribusiness and consumerism.

"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."
Is productivity really slowing down? Or is it just shifting? 50% of food produced in the US ends up in landfills, not to mention the vast amounts of food that has to be discarded as a result of some type of contamination, courtesy factory farming. Thus if supply and demand is not the problem, logistics may be, and if so we need to get back to supplying communities with food grown locally and accept the fact that we don't have a right to strawberries in December.


Mike B

Too much food is far more of a problem than too little. In the west cheap food is making everyone fat and in the rest of the world it is part of the reason we have 7 billion people to begin with. Rising costs of food will help offset both problems.


Dont worry folks. Half of America will be obese in 15 years

Mike B

A technical solution to the problem is inevetable. These solutions actually exist today in the form of several invasive surgical interventions, however as soon as people can take a pill which allows their bodies to burn off all the excess calories they are taking in the problem will simply vanish. Of course I'm sure that having a super-sized metabolism will result in a whole other set of problems, but hopefully they will be less costly and less impactful than being fat.

Marie Rose

Farmers' market (not farmer's market) unless there is only one farmer at your market.


part-2 is not published yet as of today (5/29/2012), but the question to ask Alice Waters is this:

How do you think the movement you started can be transplanted to countries like India (where a third of the population lives in poverty) or to sub-Saharan Africa, where harsh climates drastically affect crop yields?

Striving for a pie in the sky is one thing for the country with one of the highest per-capita GDP in the world, it's another to think of the food problem as it affects the world population.

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us '0 which is not a hashcash value.


I've worked for 30+ years in the ad business. Figuring out ways to get rid of stuff we have too much of is the basis of all marketing. When you have a shortage of something, people are beating your door down to get it. So apparently this overabundance of HFCS and soy oil has created an overabundance of crack cocaine-like fast foods which has in turn created an glut of of gluttons. So how can we market this overabundance of obese people? Any thoughts?

The Aggie

For me, all this does is reaffirm how little 'general' economists understand the agriculural branch of the profession. Cowan's book has one - ONE! - reference from the USDA. Many of the policy prescriptions would be more credible if some of these folks had lunch at a Land Grant University as well as a food cart, or if they'd read a copy of 'Choices' from the AAEA or 'Amber Waves' from USDA ERS. There is much more knowledge out there than is being recognized.

Peter of Brooklyn

Good job interviewing someone who brought up topic of subsidies, and economic policy in the United States.

Leslie Witherspoon

In 2008, when the cost of gas went up to $4+ per gallon, we had NO fresh fruits or vegetables in our home. We were thankful to get frozen , but most of it was canned. We couldn't even afford produce at Aldi or Savers because we were pouring all our money into the gas tank so that we could get back and forth to work everyday. My son, at the time was 2.5, a kind of pivotal time for teaching children about food. We were part of the food insecure. January of the next year when I got my income tax return I caught up on my bills, paid my property tax, and invested in a shovel, fork, trowel, hand weeder, and about five 30 gallon bags full of local compost. I dug the yard in the house I was renting and by that summer was producing all my own salads and greens. The next year I added corn, beans, tomatoes and peppers, and this year raspberries, mulberries, cucumbers, squash, root crops and specialty greens (amaranth, mache, arugula, sorrel, and malabar spinach) not to mention all the wild purslane and lambs quarters. Three years ago I never heard of mache or lambs quarters.
I have two sons now, and my youngest, who is now 2.5 regularly goes outside and picks and eats from the various herbs I have growing in pots, and almost never turns his nose up when I pick a fruit or veggie and feed it to him in the garden. I am a locavore. Because of my garden I weather the storms of high food prices just fine and I don't have to worry so much about my gas tank. When I hear folks like Cowan talk about how locavores aren't going to fix this country's food crisis I can't help but think how ignorant he actually is of food and people. I learned how to garden from folks in the locavore movement and without them, we'd still be eating canned spinach and green beans from the grocery store.


Evan Schoepke

First of all, I'd like to say as permaculture nerd and local foods advocate but I loved this episode but I felt it was a little simplistic in regards to some issue around localization. It didn't bring up issues such as the creation of local jobs and the economic marginalization of countries that are too export dependent.

Those are my two cents keep up the great work.


Aron Quist, CAIS

I congratulate the team at Freaonomics for a first rate, informative podcast!

Be wary of posts from those who speak from authority. What Peter of Brooklyn says tickles the ear and sounds authentic. However, I can tell you, from professional experience that GM cotton and corn crops require no more irrigation water than non-GMO crops. Not the "double the amount" he asserts.