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Posted at 03:30 PM ET, 04/26/2012

Professor Cowen and those who want to school him on food


George Mason economics professor Tyler Cowen has devised a set a rules on how to find a good, cheap meal. (Evy Mages for The Washington Post)
Since the release of his latest book, “An Economist Gets Lunch” (Dutton, $26.95) on April 12, Tyler Cowen has been poked at more than a plate of room-temperature Dan Dan noodles. His ideas and theories on restaurants, trends and agri-business have been debated, debunked and dissected.

Likewise, the ethnic eater and George Mason economic professor’s book has been lauded (“If one’s goal is to eat well, Mr. Cowen’s rules are golden”) and laughed at (“Reading Mr. Cowen. . . is like watching a middle-aged man in a blue blazer play Hacky Sack at a My Morning Jacket concert”).

Personally, I’ve been dipping in and out of Cowen’s book for a couple of weeks now, engaging the professor in a fevered debate in my head over a few of his claims — which is, I suspect, the whole point of the book: to get us to think more about our food and how to select it and where it comes from.

The section that has yanked my chain the most is, naturally enough, the one subtitled, “Food Snobbery,” no doubt because Cowen sticks his dweeby professorial nose right into my business. Writes Cowen:

For all the lofty rhetoric about “locavores” and “slow food,” this food snobbery is pessimistic, paternalistic, and most of all it is anti-innovation. Neither the consumer nor the businessperson is trusted to innovate; there is a false nostalgia for primitive agriculture, based on limited transportation and the arduous conversion of raw materials into comestible commodities. Rarely is it admitted, much less emphasized, that cheap, quick food — including its embodiment through our sometimes obnoxious agribusiness corporations — is the single most important advance in human history.

I’ll ignore the gratuitous paternalistic dig from a man who thinks consumers need rules for dining out, and instead focus on the idea that food snobs are “anti-innovation.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not just talking about chefs and their ubiquitous circulators and vacuum sealers, either. I’m talking about Local Ocean in upstate New York, a massive indoor fish farm that specializes in “zero-discharge 100% recirculating aquaculture system.” I’m talking about the Vertical Farm, the forward-thinking idea to transform urban areas into indoor farms. I’m talking about solar farms that are working to reduce their reliance on fossils fuels. Food snobs can, and do, embrace all these.

In fact, these are the ideas and people who will help feed the planet’s billions of inhabitants in the years to come, not the large agricultural companies that continue to rely on systems that deplete topsoil, pollute waterways and require vast amounts of water and energy to produce meat and vegetables. These systems are not sustainable, and Tyler Cowen knows it.

For more thoughts from the good professor, check out Tom Jackman’s dinnertime interview with Cowen over on The Post’s State of NoVa blog.

By  |  03:30 PM ET, 04/26/2012

Categories:  Food Politics | Tags:  Tim Carman

 
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