Saturday, September 03, 2011

On Food and Our Future

WSJ's "Weekend Interview" is always a must read. Today's is especially so.

Nestle's chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe holds forth on global macroeconomics regarding food, agriculture, fuel, and the food industry. Too, too many insights abound in his discourse to summarize here, but we'll summarize a few:

  • Food and fuel are linked by the calorie. Because we always use many more calories for fuel than for food, we can never replace our use of fossil fuels with biofuels.
  • Using biofuels always drives food prices upward. That has little impact on the West, but lots on the South.
  • Certainly we can feed the number of people projected to live in the world in 2050, but not without the ongoing "Green Revolution" propelled by advances in agricultural production. Those are now propelled by genetically engineered crops, for which the powerful Europeans have such an irrational hatred that they are stifling the growth of agriculture in the developing world.
  • Organic farming is unproductive and so a burden on the world's poor imposed by the world's rich who imagine falsely that organic means healthy.
  • Putting a cost on water may be the best way to ensure that it's used efficiently, so as to boost global food production over time.
  • Without a food industry, we'd all either starve or become subsistence farmers, meaning we'd mostly starve.
Compassionate folk, including those of Christian faith but not only such folk, often imagine that the world is hungry because of a shortage of compassion. Indeed, if we all shared more, people would be better off.

But perhaps the most potent solution is to make use of the agricultural and marcoeconomic forces that lie ready to hand, that don't depend on ideally selfless donors, that allow more people to pursue their aspirations for physical health and economic self-sufficiency, including having some healthy meat proteins in their diets now and then.

Give for sure, gentle readers. But back policies that really boost the production of food globally and so deliver more people from hunger and toward dignity.


Jones said...

Is it in fact the case that pesticides do not harm people when consumed?

Is it true that corn-fed beef is problematic to consumers and perhaps why red meat has been linked to so many health problems down the line while grass-fed organic beef does not?

The movie Food Inc posits that the diet of humans in the west has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000 do to macro-level food industry with heavily processed foods. They give reasons why this is dangerous and unhealthy. Does this pose no concern to you?

I am very confused by all of this. Doubtless, I'd prefer to see it your way and therefore not feel unhealthy by not eating organic and by consuming boxed/packaged foods, but there are lots of articles, books, movies, and documentaries that seem to suggest otherwise.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

If you drink pesticides from the csn, you may well die. We know of no evidence that pesticides currently used in this country on foodstuffs are harmful to humans who eat the food. Most break down into harmless organic (in the chemical sense) compounds long before foods are processed. One can name the names of people who died in Europe because of e coli in organic foods, but one can't name a single person who died because of eating foods grown with agricultural chemicals in ordinary, prescribed use.

Corn-fed beef has more fat in it. Some people need to limit their fat. Others don't so much. See your doctor. But if more people are going to eat meat--still the most reliable source of protein in the human diet--we'll need more animals to slaughter. And we will run out of pastureland on which to bring them to market weight on grass alone. So grains are efficient as a source of animal feed, and environmentally beneficial because they keep land out of agricultural use by their efficiency. Remember that if you insist on grass-fed beef, you're committing more land to the human activity that most impacts the environment: agriculture. (No discussion here of hogs, chickens, catfish or salmon, all of which are more efficient protein factories than cattle.)

Yes, the human diet has changed massively in the last fifty years, and massively before that in the 200 years prior. So has everything else about our material lives, yes? That means we need discretion and self-control about what we do with all these mod cons, not that we're poisoning ourselves every time we ingest high fructose corn syrup or factory-farmed eggs. By the way, life expectancies have risen as our diets have changed, yes? Fully aware of the post hoc fallacy, one can't help but temper certain enthusiasms with that observation.

With the agricultural revolution come packaged and processed foods, but also the availability of a wider range of fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, wholesome grains and lean meats, affordable for more people. In the end, we eat what we choose to eat, but more have the opportunity to eat better, by which we mean in a way that will sustain them to old age, than ever before.

But some can't afford that as reliably as others. And if we who can insist that the rest of the world reduce its food supply so that we can grow foods without "chemicals" (what's in composted manure if not chemicals?) or genetic modification (as if everything we eat hasn't been genetically modified by generations of selective breeding) and use food products to drive our flex-fuel vehicles (for no rational reason), then the food supply will be smaller, prices higher, and the world hungrier. It's inevitable.

So we name a real and present danger that ill-informed Western food and fuel fads will impoverish much of the rest of the world.

Anthony said...

Thanks for the response, Doc!

JB in CA said...

We know of no evidence that pesticides currently used in this country on foodstuffs are harmful to humans who eat the food.

But we do know that there's a 30% higher incidence of birth defects among migrant workers who harvest crops treated with pesticides. What we don't know are the residual effects of pesticides downstream (though we have a pretty good idea of what some of them are). The problem is real, and there's no immediate solution in sight. But that shouldn't keep us from pushing the powers that be for a solution as soon as possible.

... as if everything we eat hasn't been genetically modified by generations of selective breeding ...

The prime example is wheat. For well over a century, we've been selectively breeding it to increase its (tasty) gluten content. As a result, there's virtually no low-gluten wheat left anywhere in the world. And to make matters worse, gluten is added to just about every kind of processed food there is. The problem? Well, celiacs will die if they eat gluten, and millions of others have developed moderate to severe mental and physical reactions to it as a result of increased exposure. (One recent study concluded that about 6% of the US population—around eighteen million people—is unable to tolerate gluten.) That wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, if we had an adequate subsitute for wheat. But the only viable substitute that lacks gluten is rice, and it has very little nutritional value. So, yes, we've been selectively breeding our food sources for generations, but that's not exactly a sterling recommendation for the expansion of genetic modification into other, uncharted, areas.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Part 1:

JB, we think that the points you raise actually support our argument.

First, the effects of pesticides. Yes, migrant workers, subject to many vicissitudes, show various health issues as a population, like what you mention. They apply poisonous chemicals to plants, and it's reasonable to think that their exposure to such toxins plays a role in their statistically poor health. However, it is precisely because they are exposed to these chemicals in their application that they may be affected in this way. They contact the chemicals in greater concentration, and even more relevantly, prior to the chemicals' natural and relatively rapid breakdown through exposure to oxygen and ultraviolet light which render the current generation of pesticides into harmless compounds. This has been the case since long before the infamous Senate testimony of expert witness Meryl Streep, who nobly refused to feed her children apples treated with the pesticide alar, a pesticide specifically designed to break down in days and restricted in its application to a period long before its toxic effects would endure to the market.

As to genetic modification and gluten, while wheat has been selectively bred to increase gluten content as well as other qualities, wheat has always contained gluten. Celiac disease is dangerous if unaddressed and a royal pain for those who have it, but celiac sufferers can do quite well despite our wheat-dominated diet in this country. They have many alternative ways to get calories, unlike many of their ancestors who lived in places and times when folks relied on wheat flour as their main source of nutrition and had no alternatives available. Rice is less nutritionally rich than wheat, but it remains an excellent source of energy that feeds more of the world's people than other grains and is perfectly fine if balanced with other sources of nutrition. Beans and potatoes also provide carbs without gluten, and they're also cheap and tasty. So the challenge for the modern celiac is not that foods have been massed produced but that their dietary needs are not in line with most people's dietary desires. Celiacs have to be smarter-than-average shoppers and eaters, rather like diabetics, folks with heart disease, the lactose intolerant, and others whose bodies tolerate some foods but not others.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Part 2:

Then there's the genetically engineered rice varieties that boost the grain's minimal protein content so that rice can provide a significant source of that precious nutrient. When rice-eating cultures accept the new grain, we'll see another boost in the world's nutritional health.

These two lines converge with the observation that genetic engineering has introduced crops that require still less of the pesticides that harm agricultural workers, if not consumers. So-called Roundup-Ready crops enable farmers to control weeds with enormous efficiency using a herbicide demonstrated to be less toxic than most alternatives, consistently breaking down into harmless compounds in a matter of days after it extinguishes the un-genetically modified plants that compete with the foodstuffs.

Finally, we doubt that pressure on the powers that be will yield any difference on this, save the kinds of ineffectual and counterproductive political moves that Brabeck-Letmathe decries. We draw a parallel with the recent demise of the "green" companies manufacturing products for solar and wind energy so vaunted in 2009. All the tax subsidies in the world won't conjure solutions to problems for which technology doesn't exist, or which face such economic realities that they lie beyond the reach of technology.

A final word, for now. Obviously some--maybe many--modifications to human diet and the foodstuffs that comprise it have had deleterious effects on at least some people. But just as obviously, higher yields and higher nutritional value have an enormously positive impact on general human health and well being. If obesity and diabetes are on the rise globally, we can only say that such problems are easier for individuals to solve for themselves than rickets, scurvy, beriberi, pellagra, malnutrition or starvation. What we Westerners don't see (always the challenge of economics) when we enact food policies that retard production is that in other parts of the world, people suffer these things in greater numbers.

Saint Jamie said...

I think all people with a food ethic in place agree that biofuels are just as bad for the environment as are fossil fuels and also have the added problem of increasing foodncosts around the world.

I personally am on the fence re GMO, mainly because the business ethics of the companies that produce them are despicable. E.g., Monsanto's soy bean is patented and cross pollination results in their designer seeds being planted by people who did not buy them and resulting in lawsuits aimed at those farmers who accidentally use the genetically manipulated soy. The bottom line here is that business are out to make money, not food, and while market forces ensure, for the moment, that such food is said to be as good as natural food, it's in the industry's interest to make it cheaper for more profit, not better. And one thing we know to be historically true in the US, is that Americans have long accepted a gradual decline in the quality of their food in favor of lower prices (or more sugar/salt).

Regarding e coli, I though this was the big scam of the article. To suggest that e coli is a product of organic farming is suspicious indeed. Mainly because e coli comes from meat, not vegetables. And as far as I know ALL e coli outbreaks have been a result of fecal matter from meat farms washing down into the vegetables. On top of all that, it has been the over production of corn that has been the main culprit in this, since the corn industry somehow convinced farmers it was good for cattle to eat corn, which they are not really designed to do, and as a result produce more hardy strains of e coli that have been behind the bulk of the outbreaks.

So yes, get rid of biofuels, and, with the author, stop eating so much meat for the reasons he mentioned, but also because of it's impact on the environment and other food stuffs, and start taking water more seriously. Against the author, I would say GMO companies ought to be eyed with suspicion since they have already demonstrated insidious and unethical behavior. And blaming e coli on organic foods seems contrary to nature.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

We stipulate that Monsanto is governed by greed. Who, then, are the ethical people who will run things then? Politicians?

Hence we SWNIDishly said that people must regulate their own diets. No one will ever care as much as you do about what you eat. But be smart about it, for everyone's sake, not just cast about by post-Luddite anti-industrialism.

So really, who rationally cares whether GMO genes sweep into non-GMO fields? Should one care about that as much as whether yields are strong enough to feed the world's hungry?

The waste from meat farms that washes onto organic vegetables was placed there by organic farmers using manure as fertilizer, yes? We don't find that disingenuous; we find it an honest assessment of relative health risks of different kinds of farming, none of which addresses the key matter of yield per acre that's crucial to human and environmental health.

And among the risks of closing feedlots is the dedication of many acres of marginal land to pasture, with the consequent environmental impact.

It's all Bastiat's observation that the trick in economics is to know what you're not seeing. Every time someone says, "Close down industrial farming for the sake of food safety and environmental safety," he's in effect saying macroeconomically, "Let the poor starve."

Tim said...

I don't think the choice is between industrial farming and feeding the poor.

I do think, however, there's quite a bit of money tied to industrial farming, combined with most consumers being apathetic enough it never occurs to them to question things could be better.

JB in CA said...

Hence we SWNIDishly said that people must regulate their own diets.

That's the problem. It's becoming increasingly difficult to do so without growing/raising your own food. And even then, your choices are increasingly limited. E.g., even if you wanted to grow your own non-super-glutenized wheat, you wouldn't be able to. It has been selectively bred and cross-polinated out of existence. How long will it be until other staple foods suffer the same fate? I'm not against feeding more people, but I prefer that we take a more conservative approach in doing so.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

If there were enough people who really wanted less gluten in wheat, someone would supply it. Industrialized foods make it possible for people in industrialized countries to eat fresh fruits and vegetables year round, even when they're nowhere near the places where such can be grown. That enhances choices positively.

Realistically, it's easier now than ever before for someone with specific dietary needs or exotic dietary tastes to pursue such things. Aside from self-inflicted ailments like obesity, we have less incidence of food-caused illness than in earlier periods.

And a political decision to shut down aspects of industrialized food production will inevitably constrict supply that will make the most vulnerable people more likely to suffer from malnutrition and die of starvation. The point of the article from which this post began is that point. Caution to rich Westerners: before you indulge what may be irrational fears about your foods, consider how such indulgence will affect people without your advantages.

So, as far as local foods feeding the world, why not local industry supplying the world too? Why not require everyone to grow his or her own food, forge his or her own iron, etc.? The advantages of division of labor have been worked out in Econ 101 (Adam Smith yet again), and they apply most critically to food. We SWINDishly tire of those imagine that the world would be better if people around the world couldn't trade with each other to the betterment of all. Tom, note well that the article you cite demands that acreage devoted to agriculture be radically expanded. The environment doesn't fare well in this scenario either.

As far as we can tell, nothing that y'all have said so far really addresses the main point. Saying that we're for the poor having more food and then asking government to curtail production is a kind sentiment that won't feed anyone and might starve several.