Ask Cowen Anything: Should We Fear Genetically Modified Foods?

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 30 2012 @ 12:00pm

Follow Tyler Cowen‘s work at Marginal Revolution, and buy his new book, An Economist Gets Lunch. Cowen has taken some flack for his anti-foodie take on agribusiness. An excerpt from his book:

For all the lofty rhetoric about “locavores” and “slow food,” this food snobbery is pessimistic, paternalistic, and most of all it is anti-innovation. Neither the consumer nor the businessperson is trusted to innovate; there is a false nostalgia for primitive agriculture, based on limited transportation and the arduous conversion of raw materials into comestible commodities. Rarely is it admitted, much less emphasized, that cheap, quick food — including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations — is the single most important advance in human history.

Tim Carman rebuts Cowen’s claim that food snobs are “anti-innovation”:

Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not just talking about chefs and their ubiquitous circulators and vacuum sealers, either. I’m talking about Local Ocean in upstate New York, a massive indoor fish farm that specializes in “zero-discharge 100% recirculating aquaculture system.” I’m talking about the Vertical Farm, the forward-thinking idea to transform urban areas into indoor farms. I’m talking about solar farms that are working to reduce their reliance on fossils fuels. Food snobs can, and do, embrace all these.

In fact, these are the ideas and people who will help feed the planet’s billions of inhabitants in the years to come, not the large agricultural companies that continue to rely on systems that deplete topsoil, pollute waterways and require vast amounts of water and energy to produce meat and vegetables. These systems are not sustainable, and Tyler Cowen knows it.

But Adam Ozimek defends Cowen’s unusual approach to the economics of food:

For example, if you live in an area where it takes a lot of energy and resources to grow food — like the desert — the most environmentally friendly way may be to grow it somewhere else and ship it. An apple grown locally may be refrigerated for months, which consumes a lot of energy, whereas it may be both fresher and better for the environment to grow it elsewhere and ship it in from afar by boat. He also defends genetically modified crops as the likely cures to the biggest food problem we have today, which is not obesity but malnutrition.

But Cowen is not an apologist, and he doesn’t argue that we can just deregulate our way to a better food system. In fact he has many words of support for policies and values often supported by progressives. To help improve both the long-term budget gap and the growing environmental problem, he advocates ending subsidies for big agriculture, and argues for a carbon tax. In addition, he believes that meat should be “taxed” for environmental reasons, and that one easy way to do this is to enforce more strict animal welfare laws.

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