Thursday, April 14, 2005

I finally saw Super Size Me last night. Talk about a movie to scare the shit outta you. Now, I'm a fat guy as it is. 5'10", probably at least 250 lb, with a gut, a fat ass, and big chunky legs. I might eat at a fast food joint twice a month, if that; it's just too expensive to eat out these days, even to a McDicks or a Wendy's. I'm fat mostly because
a) I don't exercise
b) I eat foods that tend to have more carbs/calories than I need
The first point is my own fault, and I take full responsibility for that. But the second point, I have to cry foul, because here's the thing: eating healthy is fucking expensive. The cheapest foods are also the least healthy, but if we've got a budget to stick to, and the price of fruits and vegetables keeps going up, of course we're going to lean on the potatoes and the pasta and the breads. It'll be easier once the boy has grown up and moved out, but until then, we've got three mouths to feed and not a lot of money to spread around. If Western governments want to help, how about looking at ways to make healthier foods more affordable. A bag of oranges costs seven bucks. That's like seventy cents per orange, and a kick in the ass if your food budget is only a few dollars over a hundred. Lettuce is two bucks a head, and it's the rattiest, shittiest lettuce you ever saw. I know, we just got through winter, but still...
The other thing is, and I'll be honest here, I love the taste of meat. When I eat a meal, I like to have something that I can savor and enjoy. A salad is nice, but when I get finished with a salad, I'm already thinking about how good a burger would taste. I love steak, chicken, pork chops, meat loaf, ham, bacon... What kind of message is God sending us when the best-tasting foods are also the ones that will kill us faster? Thanks, God. I don't care if you're trying to teach us something about willpower and self-restraint, that's still an asshole move right there.

98 Comments:

Anonymous Bron said...

Rob,

You raise an excellent point.

My comment here is a somewhat lengthy and I hope that you take the time to read it.

One thing that you have to consider is relative costs of the types of produce, from planting, to growth, to distribution. As we discussed it (http://p223.ezboard.com/fwheeloftimefrm14.showMessage?topicID=1613.topic) here there really is no real issues when it comes to dealing with the cheapest foods, grains, maize, etc...

I wrote there in reply to IronMaiden’s point,

Iron: 1) Get the R&D guys to do something to help feed the world's hungry. I know several efforts are underway, but these are mostly privately funded charity organizations. Get the government to pour tax revenues into a sustained development program to engineer crops that will grow in the hardest hit regions of the planet. That way, we can get rid of the depressing commercials on late night TV for Christian Children's fund etc..

Bron: This is not the point. It has never been the point since the 1900’s. Moreover, it is not a solution. The point is that we have the means to feed to the world’s hungry. We have the crops that will grow, we have the means to plant them, we have the means harvest them, and the means to do it all cheaply in almost any region in the world. What’s more, when there is in fact a calamity, like Somalia or Ethiopia for example, the world community gets behind helping pretty damn fast and very effectively. However, if you think back to Somalia, you will remember that when our troops got to Mogadishu, and when we seized all the port cities, they were all crammed with food. The warehouses were bursting at the seams with grain and rice, and corn oil. But people were starving. Why? Because there was no fucking internal government in place, there was no internal stability in place, there was no means of safely distributing the food to the interior where people were starving. No one was starving in the cities. What you had was war lords with their private and well fed armies trying to carve out fiefdoms for themselves while the peasants in the country side starved to death.

You will find that THIS is the issue we are facing around the world: lack of strong institutions, stable governments, and methods of safe food distribution.

****

However, and this is a point that is often missed by everyone who talks about crops in this context, the cost of doing this is negligible in comparison to the amount produced, distributed, and sold (or given away) world wide. Why? Because food production is cheap and has been cheap and will remain to be cheap thanks to the industrial revolution. We have made it so cheap and so efficient that we (Western industrialized nations) are constantly and consistently over-producing. This is one of the reasons our government needs to come up with neat ways every year of buying up surplus produce from farmers with our tax dollars, so that the farmers have some sort of income from their harvests. (The issue is not that there are bountiful harvests at this point, the issue is that there are too many farmers. But try telling this to the Iowa farmers when you are running for office.) This is why we often simply give away portions of our grain surpluses to needy nations. We have too much and the market cost is so low that even selling does little good. So more often than not, we simply give the stuff away.

So back to the R&D point.

Food production is one of those necessities in life, much like clean water, and sanitation in any civilized society. Just because someone may derive a profit from it that does not mean that by default they get to have an absolute and insoluble hold on it for all time, or a span of time. Human survival, or so we like to believe these days, should not depend on the whims and the profit margins of corporate agencies. But what does that mean? In reality it means that if one company holds an absolute grip on a given agricultural product and it wants to ratchet up its prices to the point where no one can pay, you can bet that that company will soon be in competition with others that will offer either an identical or similar product at a lower cost. This is especially true when it comes to food production, due to the fact that it is so fucking simple for us. Another thing that might happen, and if there is a compelling enough reason to do it, the state may simply break that company’s hold on it patent, provided of course there was a real emergency and they (the company) were not willing to drop prices and/or increase production. Which if you note is exactly what happened with Bayer and its drug Cipro during the Anthrax attacks in the United States.

Incidentally this was what caused African nations, India, and China, to ask us (Western nations), how it was that we could do that with a straight face and yet use the same worn out argument of R&D costs when it comes to HIV/AIDS drugs. All that Bayer faced was a binary choice: face having its patent broken and make no money in the face of an emergency, or simply increase production to astronomical levels and on top of it make a lot of money.


The issue of cheap food production is no-existent. But we have to qualify that statement. There is no issue in producing and overproducing cheap foods. Why? Because we have gotten so good at it over the years that we literally doing all that we can to flood the market with them to have them be used up somehow. Grains are remarkably resilient these days and remarkably cheap. What you are experiencing is an overflow in the availability of grains, cereal and other grasses that we have domesticated (wheat, barley, millet, rice, corn/maize, sorghum, sugar cane), as well as pulses (pea, lentil, chickpea, soybean, common bean, peanuts), edible/usable roots and tubers (flax, hemp, cotton, jicama, sweet potato, potatoes, yams, taro) and their byproducts, particularly sugars that are over produced from cane and when mixed with corn syrup or molasses or beet syrup and creates the backbone for every soft drink out there, not to mention every junk food. Why do you think that everything has so much damn sugar in it these days? We have more sugar than we know what to with, so we put it into virtually everything these days.

And as our lives have gotten progressively easier, physically, we do not burn that sugar by physical activity. Ergo, we get fat.

Remember, some things are easier to burn than others, sugars are easy, under ordinary circumstances, but think of the super saturation that you have in your system from everything in that you consume. Look for the “high fructose corn syrup” in the ingredients label or some derivative of that on the foods that you consume and you will quickly get an idea as to why people are so fat here.

However, you are quite correct. Cost is a huge issue. Politically it makes sense to keep the farmers happy and subsidized. After all, they are the food producers. The point however is that what they are making is ALWAYS going to be cheaper because the costs of production, harvesting, and distribution have been lowered. Think about it, back in the day the average Pepsi-Cola was 8 oz, then it became 12 oz, then 16 oz, and now 20 oz is what most vending machines distribute. Why? Did we get thirstier? No. The cost of producing the sugar necessary dropped and they need to get us to drink more of their product to get rid of what they are overproducing.

It is not that the cheapest foods are the least healthy. It’s simply that we overindulge in them. And sure, it makes sense financially. Why by a small soda when the “big gulp” is so much more inviting and the price differential makes buying that more attractive than the small soda? You buy it, you drink it, you get three times the sugar in your system. You get fatter faster. Nice, eh?

So what is my point here? Well, you say that Western governments should work towards making healthier food more affordable. Here you need to consider the eating patterns of our civilization and the actual costs of growing particular types of foods. I have covered the issues of what we overproduce already. So let us look at what is apparently under produced…(And thus more expensive)

Your example of oranges is interesting. Oranges require a particular climate, tons of sunshine. As such they become pretty finicky when you have bad summers or bad winters. Considering where our oranges are grown – Florida/California – we only have to look at the weather to see that their costs were going to be pretty high this year. Overall, this was a pretty bad winter for produce. Vegetables and fruits that ordinarily yield multiple crops throughout the year were not doing so well because of the weather, so their costs went up.

But then you have to figure in distribution costs. Getting oranges from Florida to Kitchener is not all that easy, but yet the expectation is that you will have access to all forms of fruits and vegetables at all times anywhere in the world. If one is to expect this one has to also accept the costs that such expectations entails. Why? Because while modern strains of grains, pulses and cattle can be industrially grown pretty much anywhere bellow the tundra line provided there is enough water and sun, fruits and vegetables are much more labor intensive and climate specific. This naturally makes growing and harvesting their produce more expensive.

There is one more point.

Eating habits. This is something that comes from education I think. It is always going to cost more to eat healthy. But eating “healthy” is a relatively new idea for humans. We have been farming for the past 14-16 thousand years but what we ate was limited. Think about what people traditionally had to eat: you had domesticated cattle, fowl, fish, grains, pulses, tubers, vegetables, fruits, berries, and funguses. If you want to go out there, consider some species of lizard. Add in a bit of game meats and birds and that’s about it. But then think about what people would eat – depending on where they lived – when it came to seasonal and climate changes. Vegetables and fruits, unless they were preserved, were not available to Europeans in late fall, winter, and early spring. But this was not the case elsewhere. So the paradigm changes culture by culture, circumstance by circumstance. Then consider refrigeration. In a fairly short span of time we have changed not only what we eat but when we eat it by our ability to preserve our foods for much longer periods of time, were in prior years the only way to do it, particularly with meat and fish, was to either dry it, salt it, or smoke it. Yet now we have available to us fresh food at all times and in all seasons, irrespective of when it would “naturally” be available and irrespective of what two of three hundred years ago we would have considered “wild delicacies.” Don’t you think that this would cause some imbalances in our gastric and cultural discipline?

I am not saying that foods should not be available. All that I am saying is that we have to consider what our expectations are and then balance them against the costs of meeting those expectations and what it means to have those expectations met. Think back to what your ancestors considered their “staple foods” and how they were limited seasonally by what they could consume.

Today this is a bit different for you, yes? But you can’t reasonably expect costs of “non-staple foods” to be lower. These foods were always more expensive to harvest and for a while (another couple of hundred years) this will remain the case. What has changed is that since the industrial revolution we have made “staple foods” cheap and accessible to everyone. This has had the secondary effect of also flooding the market with cheap food and the byproducts of this food, like the massive quantities of sugars that we consume. However, as we progress forward, we are more and more demanding what you call “healthy food.” As demand goes up so does production, and costs will drop. This is a natural tendency of the market. Will there exist some degree of variance in costs? Yes. Moreover, there will always be fluctuations in costs when you figure in intangibles like weather, transportation and energy costs associated with production and distribution of the food stuffs.

Anyway…

Back in 2003 there was a fairly detailed piece published by the Times on this issue.

I include it here for you so that you can have a frame of reference to what I am talking about.

Yours,

Bron

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The New York Times
October 12, 2003
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 10-12-03;
The (Agri)Cultural Contradictions Of Obesity
By Michael Pollan


Sometimes even complicated social problems turn out to be simpler than they look. Take America's ''obesity epidemic,'' arguably the most serious public-health problem facing the country. Three of every five Americans are now overweight, and some researchers predict that today's children will be the first generation of Americans whose life expectancy will actually be shorter than that of their parents. The culprit, they say, is the health problems associated with obesity.

You hear several explanations. Big food companies are pushing supersize portions of unhealthful foods on us and our children. We have devolved into a torpid nation of couch potatoes. The family dinner has succumbed to the fast-food outlet. All these explanations are true, as far as they go. But it pays to go a little further, to look for the cause behind the causes. Which, very simply, is this: when food is abundant and cheap, people will eat more of it and get fat. Since 1977, an American's average daily intake of calories has jumped by more than 10 percent. Those 200 or so extra calories have to go somewhere. But the interesting question is, Where, exactly, did all those extra calories come from in the first place? And the answer takes us back to the source of all calories: the farm.

It turns out that we have been here before, sort of, though the last great American binge involved not food, but alcohol. It came during the first decades of the 19th century, when Americans suddenly began drinking more than they ever had before or have since, going on a collective bender that confronted the young republic with its first major public-health crisis -- the obesity epidemic of its day. Corn whiskey, suddenly superabundant and cheap, was the drink of choice, and in the 1820's the typical American man was putting away half a pint of the stuff every day. That works out to more than five gallons of spirits a year for every American. The figure today is less than a gallon.

As W.J. Rorabaugh tells the story in ''The Alcoholic Republic,'' we drank the hard stuff at breakfast, lunch and dinner, before work and after and very often during. Employers were expected to supply spirits over the course of the workday; in fact, the modern coffee break began as a late-morning whiskey break called ''the elevenses.'' (Just to pronounce it makes you sound tipsy.) Except for a brief respite Sunday mornings in church, Americans simply did not gather -- whether for a barn raising or quilting bee, corn husking or political campaign -- without passing the jug. Visitors from Europe -- hardly models of sobriety themselves -- marveled at the free flow of American spirits. ''Come on then, if you love toping,'' the journalist William Cobbett wrote his fellow Englishmen in a dispatch from America. ''For here you may drink yourself blind at the price of sixpence.''

The results of all this toping were entirely predictable: a rising tide of public drunkenness, violence and family abandonment and a spike in alcohol-related diseases. Several of the founding fathers -- including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams -- denounced the excesses of the ''alcoholic republic,'' inaugurating the American quarrel over drinking that would culminate a century later in Prohibition.

But the outcome of our national drinking binge is not nearly as relevant to our present predicament as its underlying cause. Which, put simply, was this: American farmers were producing way too much corn, especially in the newly settled areas west of the Appalachians, where fertile soil yielded one bumper crop after another. Much as it has today, the astounding productivity of American farmers proved to be their own worst enemy, as well as a threat to the public health. For when yields rise, the market is flooded with grain, and its price collapses. As a result, there is a surfeit of cheap calories that clever marketers sooner or later will figure out a way to induce us to consume.

In those days, the easiest thing to do with all that grain was to distill it. The Appalachian range made it difficult and expensive to transport surplus corn from the lightly settled Ohio River Valley to the more populous markets of the East, so farmers turned their corn into whiskey -- a more compact and portable ''value-added commodity.'' In time, the price of whiskey plummeted, to the point that people could afford to drink it by the pint, which is precisely what they did.

Nowadays, for somewhat different reasons, corn (along with most other agricultural commodities) is again abundant and cheap, and once again the easiest thing to do with the surplus is to turn it into more compact and portable value-added commodities: corn sweeteners, cornfed meat and chicken and highly processed foods of every description. The Alcoholic Republic has given way to the Republic of Fat, but in both cases, before the clever marketing, before the change in lifestyle, stands a veritable mountain of cheap grain. Until we somehow deal with this surfeit of calories coming off the farm, it is unlikely that even the most well-intentioned food companies or public-health campaigns will have much success changing the way we eat.

The underlying problem is agricultural overproduction, and that problem (while it understandably never receives quite as much attention as underproduction) is almost as old as agriculture itself. Even in the Old Testament, there's talk about how to deal not only with the lean times but also with the fat: the Bible advises creation of a grain reserve to smooth out the swings of the market in food. The nature of farming has always made it difficult to synchronize supply and demand. For one thing, there are the vagaries of nature: farmers may decide how many acres they will plant, but precisely how much food they produce in any year is beyond their control.

The rules of classical economics just don't seem to operate very well on the farm. When prices fall, for example, it would make sense for farmers to cut back on production, shrinking the supply of food to drive up its price. But in reality, farmers do precisely the opposite, planting and harvesting more food to keep their total income from falling, a practice that of course depresses prices even further. What's rational for the individual farmer is disastrous for farmers as a group. Add to this logic the constant stream of improvements in agricultural technology (mechanization, hybrid seed, agrochemicals and now genetically modified crops -- innovations all eagerly seized on by farmers hoping to stay one step ahead of falling prices by boosting yield), and you have a sure-fire recipe for overproduction -- another word for way too much food.

All this would be bad enough if the government weren't doing its best to make matters even worse, by recklessly encouraging farmers to produce even more unneeded food. Absurdly, while one hand of the federal government is campaigning against the epidemic of obesity, the other hand is actually subsidizing it, by writing farmers a check for every bushel of corn they can grow. We have been hearing a lot lately about how our agricultural policy is undermining our foreign-policy goals, forcing third-world farmers to compete against a flood tide of cheap American grain. Well, those same policies are also undermining our public-health goals by loosing a tide of cheap calories at home.

While it is true that our farm policies are making a bad situation worse, adding mightily to the great mountain of grain, this hasn't always been the case with government support of farmers, and needn't be the case even now. For not all support programs are created equal, a fact that has been conveniently overlooked in the new free-market campaign to eliminate them.

In fact, farm programs in America were originally created as a way to shrink the great mountain of grain, and for many years they helped to do just that. The Roosevelt administration established the nation's first program of farm support during the Depression, though not, as many people seem to think, to feed a hungry nation. Then, as now, the problem was too much food, not too little; New Deal farm policy was designed to help farmers reeling from a farm depression caused by what usually causes a farm depression: collapsing prices due to overproduction. In Churdan, Iowa, recently, a corn farmer named George Naylor told me about the winter day in 1933 his father brought a load of corn to the grain elevator, where ''the price had been 10 cents a bushel the day before,'' and was told that suddenly, ''the elevator wasn't buying at any price.'' The price of corn had fallen to zero.

New Deal farm policy, quite unlike our own, set out to solve the problem of overproduction. It established a system of price supports, backed by a grain reserve, that worked to keep surplus grain off the market, thereby breaking the vicious cycle in which farmers have to produce more every year to stay even.

It is worth recalling how this system worked, since it suggests one possible path out of the current subsidy morass. Basically, the federal government set and supported a target price (based on the actual cost of production) for storable commodities like corn. When the market price dropped below the target, a farmer was given an option: rather than sell his harvest at the low price, he could take out what was called a ''nonrecourse loan,'' using his corn as collateral, for the full value of his crop. The farmer then stored his corn until the market improved, at which point he sold it and used the proceeds to repay the loan. If the market failed to improve that year, the farmer could discharge his debt simply by handing his corn over to the government, which would add it to something called, rather quaintly, the ''ever-normal granary.'' This was a grain reserve managed by the U.S.D.A., which would sell from it whenever prices spiked (during a bad harvest, say), thereby smoothing out the vicissitudes of the market and keeping the cost of food more or less steady -- or ''ever normal.''

This wasn't a perfect system by any means, but it did keep cheap grain from flooding the market and by doing so supported the prices farmers received. And it did this at a remarkably small cost to the government, since most of the loans were repaid. Even when they weren't, and the government was left holding the bag (i.e., all those bushels of collateral grain), the U.S.D.A. was eventually able to unload it, and often did so at a profit. The program actually made money in good years. Compare that with the current subsidy regime, which costs American taxpayers about $19 billion a year and does virtually nothing to control production.

So why did we ever abandon this comparatively sane sort of farm policy? Politics, in a word. The shift from an agricultural-support system designed to discourage overproduction to one that encourages it dates to the early 1970's -- to the last time food prices in America climbed high enough to generate significant political heat. That happened after news of Nixon's 1972 grain deal with the Soviet Union broke, a disclosure that coincided with a spell of bad weather in the farm belt. Commodity prices soared, and before long so did supermarket prices for meat, milk, bread and other staple foods tied to the cost of grain. Angry consumers took to the streets to protest food prices and staged a nationwide meat boycott to protest the high cost of hamburger, that American birthright. Recognizing the political peril, Nixon ordered his secretary of agriculture, Earl (Rusty) Butz, to do whatever was necessary to drive down the price of food.

Butz implored America's farmers to plant their fields ''fence row to fence row'' and set about dismantling 40 years of farm policy designed to prevent overproduction. He shuttered the ever-normal granary, dropped the target price for grain and inaugurated a new subsidy system, which eventually replaced nonrecourse loans with direct payments to farmers. The distinction may sound technical, but in effect it was revolutionary. For instead of lending farmers money so they could keep their grain off the market, the government offered to simply cut them a check, freeing them to dump their harvests on the market no matter what the price.

The new system achieved exactly what it was intended to: the price of food hasn't been a political problem for the government since the Nixon era. Commodity prices have steadily declined, and in the perverse logic of agricultural economics, production has increased, as farmers struggle to stay solvent. As you can imagine, the shift from supporting agricultural prices to subsidizing much lower prices has been a boon to agribusiness companies because it slashes the cost of their raw materials. That's why Big Food, working with the farm-state Congressional delegations it lavishly supports, consistently lobbies to maintain a farm policy geared to high production and cheap grain. (It doesn't hurt that those lightly populated farm states exert a disproportionate influence in Washington, since it takes far fewer votes to elect a senator in Kansas than in California. That means agribusiness can presumably ''buy'' a senator from one of these underpopulated states for a fraction of what a big-state senator costs.)

But as we're beginning to recognize, our cheap-food farm policy comes at a high price: first there's the $19 billion a year the government pays to keep the whole system afloat; then there's the economic misery that the dumping of cheap American grain inflicts on farmers in the developing world; and finally there's the obesity epidemic at home -- which most researchers date to the mid-70's, just when we switched to a farm policy consecrated to the overproduction of grain. Since that time, farmers in the United States have managed to produce 500 additional calories per person every day; each of us is, heroically, managing to pack away about 200 of those extra calories per day. Presumably the other 300 -- most of them in the form of surplus corn -- get dumped on overseas markets or turned into ethanol.

Cheap corn, the dubious legacy of Earl Butz, is truly the building block of the ''fast-food nation.'' Cheap corn, transformed into high-fructose corn syrup, is what allowed Coca-Cola to move from the svelte 8-ounce bottle of soda ubiquitous in the 70's to the chubby 20-ounce bottle of today. Cheap corn, transformed into cheap beef, is what allowed McDonald's to supersize its burgers and still sell many of them for no more than a dollar. Cheap corn gave us a whole raft of new highly processed foods, including the world-beating chicken nugget, which, if you study its ingredients, you discover is really a most ingenious transubstantiation of corn, from the cornfed chicken it contains to the bulking and binding agents that hold it together.

You would have thought that lower commodity prices would represent a boon to consumers, but it doesn't work out that way, not unless you believe a 32-ounce Big Gulp is a great deal. When the raw materials for food become so abundant and cheap, the clever strategy for a food company is not necessarily to lower prices -- to do that would only lower its revenues. It makes much more sense to compete for the consumer's dollar by increasing portion sizes -- and as Greg Critser points out in his recent book ''Fat Land,'' the bigger the portion, the more food people will eat. So McDonald's tempts us by taking a 600-calorie meal and jacking it up to 1,550 calories. Compared with that of the marketing, packaging and labor, the cost of the added ingredients is trivial.

Such cheap raw materials also argue for devising more and more highly processed food, because the real money will never be in selling cheap corn (or soybeans or rice) but in ''adding value'' to that commodity. Which is one reason that in the years since the nation moved to a cheap-food farm policy, the number and variety of new snack foods in the supermarket have ballooned. The game is in figuring out how to transform a penny's worth of corn and additives into a $3 bag of ginkgo biloba-fortified brain-function-enhancing puffs, or a dime's worth of milk and sweeteners into Swerve, a sugary new ''milk based'' soft drink to be sold in schools. It's no coincidence that Big Food has suddenly ''discovered'' how to turn milk into junk food: the government recently made deep cuts in the dairy-farm program, and as a result milk is nearly as cheap a raw material as water.

As public concern over obesity mounts, the focus of political pressure has settled on the food industry and its marketing strategies -- supersizing portions, selling junk food to children, lacing products with transfats and sugars. Certainly Big Food bears some measure of responsibility for our national eating disorder -- a reality that a growing number of food companies have publicly accepted. In recent months, Kraft, McDonald's and Coca-Cola have vowed to change marketing strategies and even recipes in an effort to help combat obesity and, no doubt, ward off the coming tide of litigation.

There is an understandable reluctance to let Big Food off the hook. Yet by devising ever more ingenious ways to induce us to consume the surplus calories our farmers are producing, the food industry is only playing by a set of rules written by our government. (And maintained, it is true, with the industry's political muscle.) The political challenge now is to rewrite those rules, to develop a new set of agricultural policies that don't subsidize overproduction -- and overeating. For unless we somehow deal with the mountain of cheap grain that makes the Happy Meal and the Double Stuf Oreo such ''bargains,'' the calories are guaranteed to keep coming.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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By the way, how does one do links in this thing?

1:14 PM  
Blogger stonedog said...

I think the obvious thing to do, then, is to give the finger to the subsidized farmers and scale back on the overproduction of grain & corn.

I expect the government to take that attitude right after handing over the keys to Air Force One to Bin Laden.

Is there no way to take all this extra grain and help developing countries, or are they well and truly fucked by our ability to dump this grain at cheap rates on world markets?

Oh, and as for linking, I'm not sure. Blogger isn't as good as it was back in '02, so I think I'll be looking for something better soon.

3:01 PM  
Anonymous Bron said...

Rob,

You ask: Is there no way to take all this extra grain and help developing countries, or are they well and truly fucked by our ability to dump this grain at cheap rates on world markets?

Rob, we help developing countries by deluging them with food. Cheap grain is not an issue. Grain should be cheap! The point is being able to get it to everyone in ample quantities. Like I wrote above, the issue of grains is not at issue. Anywhere. We can get tons and tons and tons of food anywhere in the world. Shit, when we can’t sell it we just give it away. Starvation is not about there not being enough food to eat. The usual causes are a lack of governmental stability, no infrastructure for distributing the food, no governmental institutions in place to make sure that price gouging and hoarding does not occur, and that everyone gets their share. The issue is institutional stability. “Staple foods” are plentiful and cheap and so overproduced that we give it away a lot.

I hate to do the copy post thing here and distract from your blog. Please, look at the discussion that we had in IronMaiden’s “The need for direction” thread in Hot Button on CRH.

I covered all the basics surrounding this issue there.

Thanks.

Yours,

Bron

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Algicide said...

I have mixed feelings on this subject.

One point that sticks out immediately to me is the fact that many cheap products harvested from grains just don't have the shelf life that fruits and vegetables do. I don't think there's any kind of conspiracy to drive up the price of healthy food or to cow (excuse the pun) poor people into eating like crap. Grains are easier to transport, easier to store, and last a hell of a lot longer.

That's just in general, though. I'm not talking about using high fructose corn syrup to save a few bucks over white sugar. I'm not sure if supply and demand for fruits/vegetables in this country have anything to do with it (if there were more demand, would farmers be more competitive about producing quality produce?), but I tend to doubt it plays much of a role.

As to food budgets and the cheap crap, food is kind of like any other industry. Undortunately, it does cost a lot of money (and getting more expensive) and it is a necessity, but I'm inclined to view it like anything else: you get what you pay for. I think that, in general, people choose a grocery budget that fits in comfortably with the things that they want to do (not necessarily generalizing to your circumstances, since I have no idea what they are). BUt, food and health have to be weighed as factors just like anything else, and they're more important than a lot of the things that they tend to take the back burner for in our society, IMO. If one feels forced into buying cheaper food but is also watching cable tv at night, then a choice has been made.

It seems sort of akin to buying clothes from Wal-Mart or generic electronics and complaining when they fray or die on you prematurely. You saved a few bucks, but where else did you pay for the money you saved?

Anyway, it's a bit oversimplified, but that's just the gist of what came to mind while reading.

Regards,
Brian

10:03 PM  
Anonymous Bron said...

Another thing to consider is what happens when eating particularly unhealthy foods is a cultural thing. Consider this piece by the Times on Dim Sum of all things:

The New York Times
April 28, 2005
HONG KONG JOURNAL
Dim Sum Under Assault, and Devotees Say 'Hands Off'
By KEITH BRADSHER

HONG KONG, April 26 - A report by the Hong Kong government suggesting that eating many kinds of dim sum regularly may be bad for your health is threatening to overshadow whatever else might be worrying the people of this city.

Practically every Chinese-language newspaper here has run a banner headline about it across its front page. Scrolling electronic displays in subway cars have flashed the news, and the report has become a topic of breakfast, lunch and dinner conversations at Chinese restaurants across the city.

Longtime dim sum lovers are indignant.

"The government is putting its thumb on every part of citizens' lives, and it shouldn't be telling anyone how dim sum should be served," said Wong Yuen, a retired mechanic and truck driver who says he has eaten dim sum every morning for the last two decades. "People can make their own decisions. If it's unhealthy, they can eat less. They don't need the government to tell them."

Dim sum, which means "touch of the heart," is usually eaten at breakfast or lunch and includes steamed or fried pastry dumplings stuffed with anything from pork and beef to shrimp and egg custard. Many other savories, like mango pudding and egg tarts, are also dim sum. The Cantonese restaurants of the local Maxim's chain serve 100 kinds of dim sum.

But based on laboratory analyses of 750 dim sum samples, Hong Kong's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department found high fat and salt and low calcium and fiber in everything from fried dumplings to marinated jellyfish. The report suggested that local residents eat these kinds of dim sum in moderation, and choose more dim sum like steamed buns and steamed rice rolls.

Regular dim sum diners should order plates of boiled vegetables to go with their meals, the report said, and should beware of some steamed dim sum for which the ingredients are fried, like bean curd sheets.

The report came as a shock here because dim sum is a part of the culture of Hong Kong in a way that few foods unite Americans.

Families gather every Sunday morning in dim sum shops across the city, grandparents showing grandchildren how to hold their chopsticks properly. Wealthy taitais, the fashionably dressed wives of powerful men, take breaks from their shopping marathons and spa visits to try costly varieties of tea and nibble the occasional har gau, a shrimp dumpling, or kwun tong gau, a shark's fin dumpling in a rich broth.

The mainstays of dim sum restaurants across Hong Kong are retired men like Mr. Wong who come every morning to socialize, sip tea and occasionally order a small freshly steamed bamboo basket with several delicacies inside. These are the avid dim sum consumers whom the government here is trying hardest to reach, and who are not enthusiastic about the government's warning.

The restaurants have large tables seating a half-dozen or more customers, and diners are routinely seated with strangers. Sitting on Tuesday morning in the Sun Chung Wah Restaurant, where the ham shui kok, or fried pork dumplings, leave little yellow lines of grease on a plate, Mr. Wong, who is 86, periodically gestured with his chopsticks as he explained how important these dim sum breakfasts were to him.

"I meet people here every day," he said. "We don't know each other at the beginning, but we talk."

Dr. Ho Yuk-yin, the community medicine specialist who oversaw the government report, said no one wanted to stop such meals, but older people in particular need to be aware of the risks of relying too much on dim sum.

Edmund T. S. Li, a nutritionist at Hong Kong University who was not involved in preparing the government report, said the findings were consistent with academic research on the nutritional content of dim sum and were especially important given recent studies on how people from this region absorb fat. Genetic tendencies toward long trunks and shorter legs mean that many people of southeast Asian descent may carry a higher proportion of fat relative to their height and weight than people of the same height and weight from northern China or Europe, he said.

There are some hints that even without the government warning a new health consciousness is starting to spread here. In the more expensive restaurants, working women and taitais alike can sometimes be seen dabbing their dim sum with tissues to soak up some of the grease and daintily pulling away the fried exteriors of some dumplings with their chopsticks before popping them into their mouths.

Some women - few men - even pour a little hot water, provided to dilute tea, into a small bowl and dip the dim sum in it to remove oil.

Perhaps proving the cynical adage that it is more expensive to eat healthy foods, the restaurants that are trying to reduce the fat and the salt in their dim sum are often not cheap. One of them is the Man Wah Restaurant at the top of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, with magnificent views of Hong Kong harbor and I. M. Pei's Bank of China tower.

The restaurant stopped using monosodium glutamate, or MSG, 15 years ago, and switched from lard to vegetable shortening five years ago. But Henry Ho, the restaurant's Chinese culinary adviser, said the renunciation of lard had cost the restaurant valuable points in the city's fiercely contested dim sum competitions.

"A high fat content adds to the flavor," said Kong Churk Tong, the chief dim sum chef.

A dim sum lunch at the Man Wah runs the equivalent of $25 a person with inexpensive tea and no wine. By contrast, Mr. Wong, the retired mechanic, paid just $2.82 for tea, a bowl of porridge with pork and preserved duck eggs and a plate of cheung fun, a steamed, folded sheet of wheat flour with pork inside.

He brushed aside the government warnings as he relished his food. "I'll just keep eating pork," he said, "the greasy kinds of pork even."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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