Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 08 July 2020


Abstract and Keywords

This introductory article starts by discussing the importance of food for human life, culture, and civilization. Although research on food demand and consumption has been active for a few decades, the article states, there are presently few resources to which someone can turn as a basic reference on the economics of food consumption and policy that covers specificities of theories and methods related to the study of food consumers and covers issues in food demand and policy. This book is meant to fill that gap. This article finally outlines the main parts in the book which are divided into theory and methods, food policy, and topics and applications.

Keywords: food, human life, culture, food demand, food consumption, food consumers, food policy

Throughout their history, humans' lives have been inextricably connected with the food they eat. All humans rely on food for sustenance and survival, but food has also shaped culture and civilization. Although much time was spent battling hunger and malnutrition, humans' proclivity for new and exotic goods such as spices or cane sugar made our ancestors willing to leave their homes seeking to trade with those in faraway lands. Given the historical importance of food and its link to culture, it is perhaps not surprising that food and agriculture are among the most regulated and romanticized industries in the modern world.

Historically, the challenge for humans has been to secure a sufficient supply of food to stave off hunger and starvation. As a result, much of the research on food and agriculture in the past century has focused on issues related to production efficiency, food supply, and farm profitability. While the problem of food availability has not been completely eradicated, people living in today's developed countries are as likely to suffer from problems of overconsumption as from hunger or malnutrition. Today's food consumers not only have access to more food than ever before, they can also choose between a much wider variety and quality of foods than ever in the past; so much so that some psychologists claim consumers suffer from “choice overload.”

As a result of these changes, farmers, agribusiness, policymakers, and academics have increasingly turned their attention away from the farm and toward the food consumer and to issues related to food consumption. Many recent developments have triggered greater interest in the economics of food consumption around the globe. Growing concerns about rising food prices and nutrition and have spurred speculation about the causes and consequences of expensive food. At the same time, consumer and environmental groups are demanding more from the food production system— sustainability, naturalness, reduced environmental impacts, and less use of genetic modification, growth hormones, pesticides, and so on. Technologies that have the potential to increase productivity and lower food prices are being spurned by some (p. 2) consumers and governments. Agricultural policies, which historically served to support farm incomes, are now being used to promote environmental objectives, protect consumers from unwanted food technologies, and identify origin of production. Perhaps at no time in the past has the food production system been confronted with such a confluence of challenges, and many, though not all, of the developments are a result of changes in consumer demand for food—demand for alternative production practices, increasing demand from developing countries, demand for new food products, demand for better nutrition, etc.

Although research on food demand and consumption has been active for several decades (e.g., see Unnevehr et al. 2010 for a historical account), there are presently few resources to which someone can turn as a basic reference on the economics of food consumption and policy that covers specificities of theories and methods related to the study of food consumers and covers issues in food demand and policy. This book is meant to fill that gap. Our hope is that it will serve as a useful reference guide to graduate students and academics working in the field of food economics and policy who are interested in the consumer end of the supply chain, and also to people employed in food and agricultural industries, special interest and activist groups, and policymakers.

The book is divided into three main parts: I, Theory and Methods; II, Food Policy; and III, Topics and Applications. The first section of the book contains eleven chapters covering the core theoretical and methodological approaches that are used in studying the economics of food consumption and policy. The focus of the chapters is on the application of the theories and methods to food consumption. There is no single unified theory of consumer demand. Rather, the literature consists of several competing and complementary theories, which are covered in Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6. The chapters show how food consumers can be conceptualized as choosing quantities of goods (Chapter 1) or purchasing inputs from the market to produce goods and services of value (Chapter 2). Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6 extend these foundational models to cases where consumers are uncertain about the quality or safety of food (Chapter 3), are less than perfectly rational (Chapter 4), and choose which good to buy given a good's characteristics (Chapters 5 and 6). While each of these chapters also discuss empirical implementation of the conceptual models, Chapters 7 and 8 delve more deeply into consumer research methods, focusing specifically on stated preference and experimental methods to determine product valuations of non-market goods or attributes. Chapters 9, 10, 11 cover topics related to the integration of models of consumer preference into market-level models involving interactions with firms and policymakers. Chapters 9 and 10 conceptualize consumer decision-making in light of the surge in product differentiation by firms. Chapter 11 provides a framework for assessing the economic effects of changes in consumer demand and food policy interventions on market prices and the welfare of food producers and consumers.

The second section of the book focuses specifically on policy issues related to food consumption. Several chapters in this section focus on the theory and conceptual issues relevant in food markets, such as product bans and labels, labeling, standards, political (p. 3) economy, and scientific uncertainty. Other chapters home in on policy issues of particular interest to the consumer end of the food supply chain such as food safety, nutrition, food security, and development.

The final section of the book turns attention to particular issues and topics related to the economics of food consumption and policy. These chapters are largely empirical and descriptive in nature, and are meant to serve as introductions to current topics. Several chapters discuss general trends in food consumption such as globalization, rising food prices, changes in away-from-home food consumption, and changes in food variety. The last section also contains chapters dealing with more specific food quality and food safety dimensions and with topics of emerging interest related to advertising, meat, environment, and ethics.


Unnevehr, L., J. Eales, H. Jensen, J. L. Lusk, J. McCluskey, and J. Kinsey. 2010. “Food and Consumer Economics.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics 92: 506–521. (p. 4) Find this resource: