There are a lot of people today who are unhappy with what the American food production system is turning out. Some are unhappy with the fat content, some with the sugar content, some with the salt level, and some with the taste. Others are unhappy with how the food is produced; they are against the use of GMO techniques, antibiotics, the pesticides used, or the kind of housing the animal has. There are also those who are unhappy about what is produced as well as where it is produced. Finally, there are those special people who are unhappy about all of the above and more, and who want us to go back to eating roots and berries we find in the wild. All these people are using a variety of techniques to try to achieve a change in the American diet and a change in the US agricultural production system. What they are missing is the one simple obvious way they achieve their goal.
Until now, most of these groups have tried a variety of techniques to get Americans to stop eating what they think is bad and to get farmers to stop growing what they think is wrong. They use government regulation, legislation, and condemnation to try to change behavior. They use science and public opinion to try to scare or shame people into doing what they want. They have tried taxation and litigation, but all with dismal results. While it is true they have had some successes — you can’t find chocolate milk or potato chips in schools today — for the most part, their efforts have had very little impact on American eating habits. My local Kroger store, while phasing out pork raised with gestation crates, still has two aisles dedicated to soft drinks and a liquor section that is 3 times as large as the health food section.
Ironically, there is a way that these groups could change the food system overnight: it is called incentives. If provided with a meaningful and tangible incentive, farmers would change what they produce and consumers would change what they eat. Psychological and sociological research has shown that, with the right incentive, people will do almost anything. If Kroger, McDonalds, and others would pay pork producers more money for hogs not raised with crates, the industry would convert immediately. If HSUS wants more room for egg-laying chickens, pay more for those eggs and the problem will be solved. If consumers really want GMO-free breakfast cereal, let them ante up a bit more for the box, and every variety will be GMO free.
That is the elitist factor behind many of these consumer activist groups. They expect someone else to make the change and pay the cost just because they say it is a good idea. Never to do they offer an economic incentive to the producer to make the change. Farmers have shown over and over that, if there is a market, they will produce for it. Most times the changes that are being demanded involve investments by producers or the adoption of less efficient production techniques. Yet, rarely does anyone offer to pay for the changes necessary.
Consumers have already demonstrated that, if they feel a food product is more desirable, they will pay more for it. Organic produce has a higher price tag but, if a consumer wants it, they will pay that higher price. Cage-free or
“vegetarian” eggs have a much higher price, and consumers can make that choice each time they buy eggs. If enough consumers want grass-fed, hormone-free beef from steers with black fur who were raised by left handed farmers in the northern third of the county and are willing to pay a premium price for it, you can bet some left-handed cowboys will be putting some angus cattle on grass in the northern part of the county.
Another basic fact of human nature is that people respond better to positive incentives than negative ones. For example, a fat tax or sugar tax world work about as well on changing eating habits as higher cigarette taxes have reduced smoking… and that is not well. What has lowered smoking rates more than the higher cost of a pack of smokes is the fact that people live longer and have lower insurance rates, a positive incentive.
So, the next time some pompous windbag is demanding changes in the way food is produced or consumed, unless they offer a positive incentive, don’t take them seriously. And, the next time you hear an elected official suggest a negative incentive like taxes or regulations to limit what we can eat or how it can be raised, consider sending them a negative incentive, like not being re-elected.
by Gary Truitt