Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Everybody's favorite argument...

Whether it's food vs. fuel, good food vs. bad food, science food vs. nature food - more and more our minds are operating like a sophomore boy a hour before supper. We can't NOT think about food, it seems.

For example, food is now - by popular demand (literally!) - in crisis.
Rising food prices are creating the biggest challenge the World Food Programme has faced in its 45- year history, ``a silent tsunami threatening to plunge more than 100 million people on every continent into hunger,'' the United Nations agency said.

About 100 million people have been pushed deeper into poverty by the higher cost of food, the Rome-based agency said in a statement on its Web site today. The organization plans to release new estimates next week of how many people have urgent hunger needs, according to the statement. [More]
The economics of food has undergone such a violent transient consumer minds are reeling with the possible consequences. And if shortages of staples like rice and wheat cause wide-spread hunger, I'm not sure we know how governments will respond.

It's all very well for corn growers to point out how little corn prices affect food prices here in the US, but the story is quite different when your diet is mostly grain - like rice.
“We are the canary in the mine,” says Josette Sheeran, the head of the UN's World Food Programme, the largest distributor of food aid. Usually, a food crisis is clear and localised. The harvest fails, often because of war or strife, and the burden in the affected region falls heavily on the poorest. This crisis is different. It is occurring in many countries simultaneously, the first time that has happened since the early 1970s. And it is affecting people not usually hit by famines. “For the middle classes,” says Ms Sheeran, “it means cutting out medical care. For those on $2 a day, it means cutting out meat and taking the children out of school. For those on $1 a day, it means cutting out meat and vegetables and eating only cereals. And for those on 50 cents a day, it means total disaster.” The poorest are selling their animals, tools, the tin roof over their heads—making recovery, when it comes, much harder.

Because the problem is not yet reflected in national statistics, its scale is hard to judge. The effect on the poor will depend on whether they are net buyers of food or net sellers (see article); for some net buyers, the price rises may be enough to turn them into sellers. But by almost any measure, the human suffering is likely to be vast. In El Salvador the poor are eating only half as much food as they were a year ago. Afghans are now spending half their income on food, up from a tenth in 2006.

On a conservative estimate, food-price rises may reduce the spending power of the urban poor and country people who buy their own food by 20% (in some regions, prices are rising by far more). Just over 1 billion people live on $1 a day, the benchmark of absolute poverty; 1.5 billion live on $1 to $2 a day. Bob Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, reckons that food inflation could push at least 100m people into poverty, wiping out all the gains the poorest billion have made during almost a decade of economic growth. [More]
Perversely, here in the US and other wealthy nations, the abundance of calories has created the oddest health threat mankind has seen. After millions of years learning to survive on very little food, we have at hand copious helpings of energy-dense comestibles that we can't handle. Indeed, some of our most treasured national dishes are sadly inappropriate for modern living.
Hash-browns are dismissed as “ghastly manifestations of American imperialism” (damned uppity colonials), and Sir Winston Churchill himself might as well be playing Elgar in his Union Jack underpants as we read that: “A good English breakfast never lets you down.” No, it kills you. That's what an English breakfast does. The current £7.25 “Olympic” breakfast at Little Chef comprises: “two rashers of crisp backbacon, British outdoor-reared pork sausage, two griddled eggs, whole-cup mushrooms, crispy sauté potatoes, fresh griddled tomato, Heinz baked beans and toasted or fried extra-thick bloomer bread”.

Olympic? What the hell event do they have in mind, the 3,000m casualty dash? The Triple Barf (also called the hop, skip and vomit)? The Synchronised Massive Coronary? Ye Gods, if that's what our young athletes are going to be packing down daily in advance of 2012 then we'll win even fewer gold medals than the, er, none, which I believe is currently predicted for this whey-faced generation of feckless British fatties.

The fried English breakfast was conceived during the Industrial Revolution (probably) as a form of fast fuel for a working class that actually worked. They ate 3,000 calories in the morning, then they burnt 3,000 calories by lunchtime. Or died when the mine collapsed. But you don't burn 3,000 calories driving a forklift truck, or answering the phone at Argos, or fiddling your disability benefit. The work dies, but the breakfast lives on. Result: obesity crisis. (Knowing this, and fearing the backlash, Little Chef recently moved to slim down “Fat Charlie”, the obese chef who features in its logo, but nothing came of it - presumably because the porky little scrote just wouldn't stop eating.) [More]
But wait - there are even more arguments you can have over dinner. Like GM-food. Sadly, as I suspected, proponents of GM are using the food crisis to ram this science down reluctant consumers. While the science may be correct, even my long-standing support dwindles in the face of this kind of charmless taunting.
Do you hear that? It’s the sound of the organic food fad squealing for mercy!

As the saying goes, the marketplace is always right. With food prices getting unbelievably high, it looks like the world is starting to come around to the idea that not everyone can afford to be such picky eaters. For so very long, GMOs have endured the stigma of being dangerous or unhealthy (ever heard of the term Frakenfoods? Not exactly an endearing name for foods derived from GMOs). But according to this morning’s New York Times piece called “In Lean Times, BioTech Grains are Less Taboo,” high food prices and historically tight grain stocks are making consumers rethink those opinions.

The people who have been able to afford to shop at places like Whole Foods (a.k.a. Whole Paycheck) and label GMOs as dangerous to the human population are now finding that their knees are getting a little shaky under the weight of food prices. While they are far from reaching the point of being worried about where their next meal will come from, the luxury of being able purchase food on a “feel-good” basis is starting to fade. [More]
(All that's missing is the sing-song, "Ha-ha-ha-ha-Ha-ha".)

Yeah - that'll make it easier for folks to choose rationally.

The production cycle time is pretty long for livestock, so the effect of high grain prices on consumer meat choice is still a guess, but my thinking is coupled with relentless news of food shortages and world hunger, the response might be different than we have seen before. The inefficiencies of eating meat for calories vs. grain may alter many diets by choice (and saving money will ease the switch).
What's responsible for this crisis? Many things. Mistaken global trade policies and national mismanagement. The petering out of the Green Revolution. The diversion of crops to fuel. Famine profiteering. None of these are easily addressed by you or me -- but one thing that is in our power is our own diet. It takes an estimated five pounds of grain to produce a single pound of beef.

Even before this crisis, food experts said the world could not feed itself in coming decades if growing populations in developing countries insisted on a meat-rich western diet. That time may already have arrived -- and largely without climate-change induced agricultural disruption. Add droughts and years of failing harvests, and things get seriously scary.

So maybe it's time for taste to take a back seat to conscience. I know that sacrificing meat for veggies won't solve the problem on its own, but it's certainly just as meaningful as using compact fluorescent bulbs or cloth shopping bags, and I do that without hesitation. And it might take a while to reduce my meat consumption to zero, but at the very least I can start cutting back. Starting tonight.

What do you think, Wired Science readers? Will you go vegetarian, too? [More]
The upshot of the food turmoil is the odds of a quiet dinner without controversy, confrontation or attacks of conscience has now diminished for all of us who eat well and regularly.


Ol James said...

..this reminds me of the bumper sticker.. "Don't fuss about a farmer with your mouth full"
I guess we could make it read now.."Don't fuss about the Markets and Wall Street with your mouth full".
On another note, I wrote my Congressman about the Farm Bill..and he replied with a letter, and not a form letter as to the going's on in D.C.!! He actually answered it. I learned a lot about the actual progress. And like the President said today in New Orleans it seems to be a big...well...peeing contest, and the Speaker of the House, along with her allies, is doing her best to win.

Anonymous said...

John I have read what you said withinterest for some time now. I wonder if livestock producers will suffer immensly now with the paradigm shift in agfriculture we are seeing. THe reality is do we need livestock? Many of my friends are saying that they are cutting back on milk consumption for there children. This is greatly distressing to me as a dairy farmer! I keep wondering do they really need me? Or will they bring me out only when they want cheese sauce on thier rice cakes for the superbowl? JR