The Food Police

By Jayson Lusk

Several years ago I asked just how much of a book you had to read before you were entitled to give up. I fear it is now necessary to re-visit this question, and so what I’ll offer by way of a review here is some explanation of why I only read the first chapter of Jayson Lusk’s The Food Police.

Something must be done.
Or so you would believe if you listened to the hysterics of an emerging elite who claim to know better what we should eat. I call them the food police to be polite, but a more accurate term might be food fascists or food socialists. They are totalitarians when it comes to food . . .

This is from page one. The argument to come, I take it, will be a political one. Fascism and socialism are casually elided as the Enemy. This seems a bit overdrawn to me, as the sentence goes on to claim that they seek to “control your refrigerator” only through “government regulation” and moral suasion. Indeed one might call it overdrawn to the point of hysteria. This is the familiar strategy of accusing others of your own level of extremism. Also worth noting is how the operation of government (any operation of government, one supposes) is explicitly identified with totalitarianism.

On pages four and five we are given the following example of “the food police in action”:

As if just now realizing that corn grows in the ground, the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to implement rules enabling it to fine farmers if their tractors kick up too much dust. Charlie Brown’s friend Pig-Pen had better watch his back.

No sources are cited for this claim (which I quote in its entirety), so I’m not sure what Lusk is talking about. I assume it has something to do with soil conservation and the encouragement of no-till planting. Which, I’m pretty sure, has been a tremendous boon to farmers (I did it voluntarily on my farm for over twenty years) while at the same time helping to stave off a very real environmental problem. But that stupid EPA! They don’t even know that corn grows in the ground! And just think of poor Pig-Pen!

I’m already wondering why I am wasting my time reading this.

Immediately after finishing a pointed list of the high crimes and misdemeanors of the food police we are given a summary:

These are but a few examples of the growing intrusions by the food police. Taken in isolation, any one of the regulations might not seem so bad and may even appear helpful. Therein lies the danger. You won’t yet find a single omnibus pieces of legislation restricting your food freedoms, but the planks in the road are slowly being replaced without the travelers even realizing construction is under way. And guess who is let to pay the toll at road’s end?

I’m lost. Truly lost. The regulations, in themselves, might not seem so bad and may even appear helpful. Is Lusk actually conceding something, or is the use of “seem” and “may appear” supposed to red flag that these regulations are not in fact helpful? I wish he’d come out and say. And if they do appear helpful, or are in fact helpful, why would there be some “danger” in their being taken together? Is positive legislation with regard to food somehow transformed into something malevolent if you manage to lump various provisions together? Why?

I know the people who run the farms and factories that are demonized by the food police. You’ve been shown but one small part of the picture. Bestselling authors and journalists tell the stories of the folks selling a few chickens at the local farmers’ market, but where are the people who actually feed America?

Here we go with the elites (you can tell what’s coming from the faux-folksy use of “folks,” which Lusk is very fond of). Apparently most of these pointy-headed devils are “city-dwelling journalists” who don’t know how real farmers live and work. And yet I’m lost again. When I think of “bestselling authors and journalists” who have written about the politics of food I don’t remember them telling stories about ” folks” selling a few chickens at the local farmers’ market. I think of Eric Schlosser’s reporting on what it’s like to work inside slaughterhouses in the U.S., or Chris Hedges spending time among the slaves (it is not too strong a word) working out of migrant agricultural labour camps. Is Lukas building a straw man?

I fondly ask. And we’re only up to page ten:

Food journalists like to talk about being one with the land and “nature’s logic,” but make no mistake about it, agriculture, by its very definition, is a struggle against nature. After all, there’s nothing more natural than death. Nature isn’t our friend. It’s trying to outcompete us.

Huh? Agriculture is by its very definition a struggle against nature? How so?

Because Nature = Death. Hm. I see. Nature is the enemy then, a force that is trying to “outcompete” us. I take it that means outcompete in some kind of evolutionary struggle for survival. Nature is trying to kill us. We will have to kill it first. Look out, nature!

There [that is, while working in a food processing plant near Dallas one summer] I discovered that the people working in agribusiness – both the owners in the corner offices and the factory-line workers screwing caps onto salsa jars – were regular people just like you and me. Neither was exploiting or being exploited, despite what I’d been taught in my history classes or read in books from ivory tower academics (of which, ironically, I am one).

Irony indeed. I guess the only people who aren’t “regular people just like you and me” are those ivory tower academics (even though they are like me, but not really, because they think they’re better than the rest of us and I’m saying I’m just like you). And you know where you can stuff all that shit about exploitation. Doesn’t happen. Uh-unh. Lukas has done his bit “in the shit” and he knows. He knows. Though I doubt he’s spent much time on the kill floor, or living in a tent-city labour camp picking tomatoes somewhere. Jobs that even anti-immigrant politicians now accept have to be filled with migrant workers because there is no way in hell “regular people just like you and me” would last a day in them.

Many of my colleagues had swallowed a story whole from the food elite when they could have gotten closer to the truth by simply talking to their neighbors.

Their neighbours, in Stillwater, Oklahoma, being sturdy rural yeoman and not those city-dwelling “elites.” Experts. Intellectuals. Know-it-alls.

Regular people like you and me know better than them anyway.

I lived on a farm for over forty years and I know the smell of bullshit. I don’t know any other farmers who think like this.

The very next paragraph:

Unlike the food police, I do not have an agenda to change what you eat. Nor am I defender of the status quo. One of the things I most like about being an economist is that we are generally agnostic about people’s preferences . . .

I’ve been reading this line a lot lately. Economics is a hard science and so rises above petty political squabbles. Or, reversing polarity, it is grounded in reality while ivory tower dreamers build their palaces in the air. Above all, economics is free of ideology. Ideology is one of Lusk’s enemies, as in his remark that today, “food policies are increasingly motivated by ideology rather than projected economic consequences.” Because, as we all know, projecting economic consequences is an activity free of all ideology. And of course Lusk’s heroes (Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand get cited approvingly) are figures without any ideological taint. They just told it the way it is.

Basically Lusk is a libertarian, free market fundamentalist. Consumer choice trumps everything, with the market determining not just winners and losers but, by extension, good and evil, right and wrong. This isn’t an ideology?

And so the first chapter is all I read. I thought it was very stupid. I did, however, skim the rest. Does Lusk make some good points? None that I saw were original. The economics of the locavore movement, for example, have long been subject to debate, especially among locavores themselves. And most of what I’ve read suggests to me that the “food police” authors are very well aware of issues like the importance of consumer choice as a driver for the food economy (see, for example, Michael Moss’s Salt Sugar Fat), and of how important advanced food technology is to feeding a crowded planet whose environment is degrading daily. All Lusk has done is to attack a straw man with a barrage of flimsy rhetoric, ending up with a book that is less “a well-fed manifesto” than it is a dyspeptic screed.

Review first published online August 12, 2013.