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

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.