I am often asked how an economist can be a professor of Food Studies. The answer – given below – should provide insight into how I think, and the general approach I adopt in my research.
The types of societal problems associated with the dominant methods of production, distribution and consumption of food in most developed countries can be considered “wicked problems.” The general problems mentioned in the last post (eg, obesity, environmental degradation) are wicked problems. A quick definition of a wicked problem is one that does not have a clear right or wrong answer. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem for more detail, as well as references to the research that coined the phrase. In the language of economics, a first best solution does not exist.
Most policy is an attempt to address a wicked problem. Thus, there really is no “right” answer or one that is sure to solve the problems society faces (more on this topic will follow in the coming posts). This also means there is no “right” policy. But there can be “better” and “not so good” policies.
If policies are designed to address wicked problems, reliance on a systematic way of viewing wicked problems should improve policies (let’s forget about the political realities of how policies are implemented for now). I believe that economic analysis can provide useful insights into wicked problems.
Economics – in its most basic form – is about trade-offs. Every ECON101 student learns this in the first two classes, when the notions of scarcity and opportunity cost are introduced. Each choice we make means we necessarily exclude all other options. By using my limited time to write this blog entry tonight, I cannot prepare for tomorrow’s class or unpack the boxes on the floor of my apartment. Another example: the dominant method of producing low priced milk is by raising dairy cows in a confinement operation. The low milk prices come with reduced animal welfare and increased environmental degradation. This also implies that increasing animal well-being or minimizing environmental degradation will require that the price of milk rises.
It seems to me that greater understanding of the role trade-offs play in the food system can strengthen the position of those who seek to make changes. We need to keep trade-offs clearly in our minds, and consider both benefits and costs in our conversations (more on costs and benefits will be coming in future posts).
As I tell my MA students, while the right answers are nonexistent, using a set of tools that incorporates even the most basic economic concepts will allow them to assess which policy proposals are “better” and which are “not so good.”