By Ezra Klein
It’s a shade over a week old now, but I liked Mark Bittman’s piece arguing that the word “organic” has become increasingly misleading. There’s mounting evidence that consumers think organic means all sorts of things — healthy, local, sustainable, safe — that have nothing to do with the label. An organic Oreo, sadly, is still an Oreo.
You can sympathize with consumers aching for some simplification. The problem is that the food industry is pretty good at gaming our rudimentary nutritional knowledge. A friend likes to tell of the time she saw an avocado advertised as “low-carb.” Organic Oreos, I fear, are a real thing. Many more foods now advertise the absence of trans fats than ever had trans fats in them in the first place. Consumers are semi-informed. Marketers are very informed about the precise gaps in consumer information and the best research on consumer decision-making. The asymmetry presents some obvious problems.
At the end of the day, the best information a consumer has is always the price of a good. And we hope that prices include the relevant information. That’s been the goal of the environmental movement’s effort to build the cost of carbon emissions into the price of goods. Rather than asking each consumer to act as a climate scientist when wandering through Costco, the climate change community is trying to let them act as a consumer. The point of cap and trade is to align the decisions we know how to make with the information we have about the long-term impacts of carbon emissions. It will help consumers make good decisions using the tools they have rather than asking them to acquire a whole new skill set.
I’m increasingly coming to the view that the food movement, if indeed such a discrete campaign emerges, should work towards a similar goal. We currently funnel massive subsidies to corn, to meat, to soy products. (Before you leave a comment saying that government intervention into food prices is socialism, please read that last sentence again.) If that mix changed such that the subsidies were now directed at making whole foods cheaper — if we built the information we have about the long-term externalities of food into the initial price, in other words — we’d be aligning consumption decisions with nutritional information, which is an altogether wiser approach than asking consumers to pretend they’re nutritionists.