Jayson Lusk, professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of Oklahoma State, told FoodProductionDaily the food industry is light years beyond where it was 100 years ago. Back then, people paid little attention to the edibles they put on the dinner table.
“Farmers and consumers didn’t give a whole lot of thought to where their food came from, as long as they had enough food, and it wasn’t too expensive,” he said. “Those days are gone.”
Today, Lusk pointed out, consumers are much more conscious about the big food picture—where it comes from, how it’s made, if it’s top quality, how good it tastes, and if it’s safe. They also have a great deal of influence in the international food system.
“Consumers are using their wallets to get things out of the food system to get what they want,” he said.
A possible downside to the increased consumer-based democracy of the world food supply, Lusk said, is the increased volume of voices speaking out against what they see as problems with the food system. Such detractors shout about the danger of GMOs being harmful, the evils of modern meat production, and the potential dangers of consuming processed foods are inherently bad.
According to Lusk, the “fear market” created by these concerned consumers ignores the benefits of a modern food system, focusing on unfounded alarm and failing to see the progress the food industry has made in feeding the globe.
“Some of these problems they talk about may be rooted in truth, but they vastly under appreciate the power and benefits the food industry offers,” he said. “Their beliefs about the food system aren’t rooted in science and practicality.”
The spectre of GMOs, for example, looms large in the imagination of these food activists, Lusk told FPD. However, they fail to realize GMOs can actually promote the welfare of the food system by improving yield, quality, shelf life and other benefits.
What’s more, Lusk added, scientific evidence holds genetically modified foods can bring about all these benefits safely.
“Biotech varieties are no more risky or harmful than crops produced traditionally,” he said.
Lusk shared a poll that asked consumers if a product would still be considered “natural” if particular ingredients were added. About 65% indicated they would still view a food as natural if salt were added; when asked, however, if a food would still be safe after adding sodium chloride (the chemical name for table salt), that figure dropped to around 32%.
There is a lot of good news to share about the modern food system, Lusk said. People spend 40% less time on food preparation, and 80% less time on meal clean-up than they did a few years ago.
Additionally, the food system is much less vulnerable to pathogens than before. Lusk reported since 1996, Listeria incidents are down 42%, E. coli 30% and Campylobacter 22%.
Lusk addressed attendees at the Global Food Safety Conference, an annual conference focusing on various aspects of food safety and security. The 2014 event was held in Anaheim, California, and is presented by the Global Food Safety Initiative and the Consumer Goods Forum.