Food Economist: Consumers Are Not the Enemy

Farmers need to be aware of the culture in which they operate, and know all is not lost.

Published on: Jan 14, 2014

If what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, should what happens on the farm, stay on the farm? Not anymore, says Jayson Lusk, Oklahoma State University food and agricultural economist.

Lusk addressed farmers and ranchers during a workshop at the 2014 American Farm Bureau Federation Convention, held this week in San Antonio, Texas. Lusk is the author of "The Food Police," and participated in last summer's U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Association Food Dialogues.

Citing the need for farmers to understand the culture in which they operate, Lusk laid out a reasonably bleak scenario regarding what people outside agriculture are saying about agriculture:

Jayson Lusk, OSU economist (pictured here third from right at last summers Food Dialogues) says farmers need to be aware of the culture in which they operate, and know all is not lost.
Jayson Lusk, OSU economist (pictured here third from right at last summer's Food Dialogues) says farmers need to be aware of the culture in which they operate, and know all is not lost.

  - "We all live in a toxic food environment." Kelly D. Brownell, "Food Fight"

  - "Americans have a national eating disorder." Michael Pollan, "Omnivore's Dilemma," often required reading on college campuses

  - "Modern agriculture is leading to a holocaust of a different kind." Mark Bittman, blogger and New York Times columnist.

  - "All animals have the same parts," says Pamela Anderson in a PETA advertisement (Lusk: "I don't know about you, but I've never seen a heifer with silicone breast implants.")

Given their exposure to extreme and often distorted views, Lusk summarizes much of the reaction to agriculture: "Too much sugar, too much meat, too much processed food, too many pesticides; we're too fat, spending too much on health care. Agriculture is too corporate, too monoculture, too subsided, unsustainable."

Further, he believes those consumers would like to see a move to, "Local, organic, slow, natural, unprocessed. A return to nature. Let's give up all this technology. Taxes, subsidies, regulation, social pressure needed to make this happen."

He is quick to add, however, that he's not against local food. "I'm against bad arguments for local food. Particularly bad economics arguments."

Much of the problem, Lusk adds, is that certain issues become distorted in consumers' minds. The average consumer is 15 times more likely to drown in the bathtub than to die of pesticide-related causes, and they are 1,500 times more likely to die in a car wreck than die of pesticide-related causes.

"But people still get in their cars and drive," Lusk pointed out, adding that relative cancer risks and hormones are also blown out of proportion.

"And when it requires a crisis to sell a book or a product, the natural tendency to slam the facts on the ground. I get distracted about little snake in the grass, when I should be concerned about my kids running out in the street," he shared.

Most alarming to Lusk is the movement that suggests agriculture should go back to the "good old days" of the 1940s and '50s. "That's romantic foolishness," Lusk explained. "The real 1940s don't look anything like that Chipotle video. They had houses without plumbing or electricity."

Lusk pointed out that technology has benefited consumers in that food is cheaper. We have more food, more choices and spend less income on it, even if we won't admit it. "We have 842 million hungry people in the world," Lusk shared. "Ask Africans about their experience with local and natural – they have a lot of experience with that."

WHAT TO DO?

Lusk bolstered the crowd when he said, "I don't think all hope is lost." Farmers need to understand the consumer. They need to understand that bad news counts more than good – it's a psychological phenomenon. And it is the news that sells. Loss aversion is a reality of human nature. And, consumers overstate the likelihood of low-probability events.

The implications, of course, are that one downer cow video or one pink slime story will weigh more heavily in the mind than ten videos painting the industry in a good light. Lusk believes agriculture needs to adjust the way they frame an issue.

"Instead of 'what good have we done', it needs to be 'what bad did we prevent?'" he suggested. Consider, too, that humans are wired to pay attention to stories and not statistics: one story of a child dying from e. Coli counts more than citing the fact that the incidences of foodborne illnesses are falling.

Above all, Lusk says agriculture would do well to not consider consumers as their enemy. "It's not helpful to bemoan lack of knowledge or connection to agriculture," he said. "Be sympathetic that they don't know much."

What else can a farmer do? Lusk says:

  - Get in the game: tell your story. "It's all find and good for somebody like me to get up and talk about the benefits of ag but it's a bit more powerful for you to get up and talk about why you use GMO soybeans. Stories matter."

  - Talk about tangible benefits of technology to you. Conflate benefits and risks. Technologies are coming on the market with obvious benefit to consumers: apples that don't brown. Florida citrus to avoid virus/disease.

  - Make tradeoffs are salient and available: less technology equals higher prices, more hunger, more imports

  - Develop technologies that directly benefit the consumer. Don't be dogmatic

  - Offer choice, be transparent, give consumers control

CONSIDER THE FACTS

Lusk reminded farmers of a variety of factual food changes, too.

  - Consumers spend 40% less time in food preparation, compared to 1950, and 81% less time on meal clean up.

  - Less than 10% of disposable income is spent on food today in the U.S. Food doesn't consume our budget like it once did. "Now we can spend money taking kids to ballgames, and doing other fun things."

  - Consumption of fruits and vegetables are up 20% since 1970.

"It's not a perfect system; I've never argued that. There are problems. But agricultural technology has led to the greatest time in history. Think about it: at one point, our goal was not starving," Lusk explained.

"My hope lies in the innovation of farmers, food processors and more in creating products we don't even know yet that we want. And I say, let's get out of their way."