I'm A Drover: No Crystal Ball Needed

For Jayson Lusk, the call of agricultural economics was a perfectt. Coming from a background of food science and complex math, his first college agricultural economics class opened his eyes to answering real world questions with abstract math.

“It’s been a good mix of studying food and biology mirrored with the social science of how people interact in the physical world,” Lusk says.

After getting his undergraduate degree from Texas Tech University, Lusk followed scholarship dollars to a Ph.D. program at Kansas State University. In the years following, he turned research into valuable insight on food and consumer perceptions.

His first popular book, The Food Police, was published in 2013. “I wanted to reach a broader audience and make a greater impact. I had been studying consumer preferences for controversial technology, and it brought me into contact with people who had beliefs about our food system that don’t mesh well with science,” Lusk says.

“The more I studied, the more frustrated I became with reports,” he adds. “While there are a lot of books about food and ag, they’re always from a narrow and ‘naturalistic’ view.”

While those views might have worked in the 1940s, for today’s producers it’s no longer an option.

“I saw a need for somebody in the public debate who could present a perspective from the folks in modern agriculture—someone who was less hostile toward agricultural technology,” Lusk says.

“In writing popular books, there is a cultural mindset well-ingrained that is hostile toward the idea our food lives are better today than they were 20 to 60 years ago,” he says.

It’s a challenge when you have information that goes against the grain. “We think people change their minds, and I’ve come to learn that’s not how people make decisions,” he adds. “If you want to make a persuasive case, you have to have relationships with people, and you have to communicate in a way that’s based in science but not only science. Tell the story through innovators, not just technology.”

As an agricultural economist, Lusk was able to highlight the benefits of agricultural technology innovations and the advances they have allowed in production agriculture. He says, The Food Police, was a more aggressive take on agriculture’s side of the story.

“It’s not easy to have a voice in elite media circles. You have to be fairly provocative or have the right connections,” Lusk says.

For his second book, Unnaturally Delicious, published in 2016, he had the connections to work with so he was able to present a more nuanced viewpoint on modern agriculture.

“One of the most important things we can do as economists is provide perspective on the trade-offs we make. In food debates, you can’t have natural, no antibiotics, safe, great taste, pro table and sustainable all in one product. You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” Lusk says. “Economics teaches there are no solutions, only trade-offs. We’re information providers.”

While Lusk says he doesn’t have a crystal ball, he and other economists are working to gure out what markets might do and explain why certain things are happening.

One way he tries to explain changes is by gathering information with a food demand survey. For the past four years, Lusk has collected data with the hope of tracking consumer preferences over time and being able to sort out where consumers’ money is going and why.

“One thing we found is that negative stories don’t seem to be affecting the demand for beef. Without having a measure of demand, we’d think consumers aren’t willing to pay as much. But our data shows that isn’t true,” he says.

The survey could help provide information for producers looking at niche markets and their potential return. Marketers can also use the data to decipher what messages and lines of communication consumers use and understand. 


Editor's Note: This article orginally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Drovers.