Cowen on Pollan on Food

by F.

I really enjoy Michael Pollan’s writing and The Omnivore’s Dilemma sounds quite interesting, but I haven’t checked it out from the library because I suspected that Pollan, while an excellent writer, will ultimately be mugged by the facts. Tyler Cowen’s review suggests this may be right.

Pollan apparently thinks eating food produced far away is bad. But

Global trade does involve transportation costs, but it also puts food production where it is cheapest, again saving energy by economizing on costs of labor, irrigation, and fertilization, relative to the alternatives.


[i]t is difficult for a central planner (or for that matter a food commentator) to identify what is waste, relative to the costs of eliminating it.

We should rely on higher market prices, if need be with the assistance of taxes, to increase conservation. If fuel becomes more expensive, we’ll likely adopt peak-load energy pricing, and drivers may scrap their SUVs for hybrids. But we probably won’t plant grapes in our backyards. While we must conserve energy, we cut back where it makes the most sense; grape-shipping is not the place to start.

Pollan opts for transparent accounting so consumers can see the true costs of food production. But Pollan’s own food production—a pig hunt with a high-powered rifle and a GPS—isn’t accounted for (tu quoque):

Pollan’s hunt is far from transparent. For one, the reader suspects that Pollan created the meal, in part, so he could create a best-selling book. A true accounting of the pig hunt should tally up the petroleum used to ship The Omnivore’s Dilemma around the country and send Pollan on a speaker’s tour. (We could add the energy consumed by Slate’s servers, which of course make it possible to post this piece.)

More important, Pollan neglects another cost of his “perfect” meal: Our author’s time is gone forever. There are plenty of “cheap” ways to procure food if we do not measure our time and trouble as relevant costs.

Such an accounting for the consumer is not trivial, either:

Often the best ways to solve environmental problems are invisible and not available to the consumer in the supermarket aisle. We can tax or regulate offending activities, such as fertilizer runoff or the bad treatment of animals. But we cannot always tell how much environmental evil any given foodstuff contains.

In other words, get the tax as close to the bad activity as possible. Pollan apparently like protectionism. But there does seem to be something like consensus that

farm protectionism, as practiced in the EU and elsewhere, costs billions and damages economic development in poorer countries that might otherwise ship foodstuffs to the wealthier West.

At the end of the day, though, Pollan’s book is entertainment so perhaps it shouldn’t be judged as anything but that. Unfortunately, entertainment—whether its The OC or Leave it to Beaver or Saw III—tends to affect preferences. It would have been nice if Pollan had been more Pigouvian about our dilemma. Edutainment is fine—like An Inconvenient Truth—but it’s important to be right about the facts the comprise the “edu” portion of the meal.