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For hungry readers, here’s some thoughts on food

It sometimes makes me wonder why so few people seem to draw the connections between stories in the media that cry out to be connected. Here is one example, to do with food:

The price of basic food items could rise by as much as five per cent this year because of miserable weather last autumn, the managing director of Waitrose has warned.

Mark Price said food price inflation is already hovering at three to three and a half per cent, but this is just “the tip of the iceberg” and prices could increase even more dramatically over the coming months.

Produce such as bread and vegetables will become up to five per cent more expensive because of poor crop yields leading to a shortage of supply, he warned.

Many farmers are reporting that they still have not planted crops for 2013 because of the torrential rainfall which caused flooding across parts of Britain late last year.

From the Daily Telegraph.

Then there is this item about the waste of food in some countries:

Today, we produce about four billion metric tonnes of food per annum. Yet due to poor practices in harvesting, storage and transportation, as well as market and consumer wastage, it is estimated that 30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach. Furthermore, this figure does not reflect the fact that large amounts of land, energy, fertilisers and water have also been lost in the production of foodstuffs which simply end up as waste. This level of wastage is a tragedy that cannot continue if we are to succeed in the challenge of sustainably meeting our future food demands.

Something is wrong with this picture. On the one hand, we are warned that food could be in much more scarce supply, hence the risk of skyrocketing prices; on the other, we produce oodles of the stuff and yet are wasting it, in various ways (poor storage, silly bureaucratic rules about sell-by dates, lack of basic knowledge about cooking, the ease of throwing out food rubbish.) It seems to me that inasmuch as there is a genuine problem, it is that we don’t have a full free market in food. If those who talk in horror about rich Westerners chucking out half-eaten meals really are disgusted by this, how much more disgusting are policies such as EU payments to farmers not to produce food under what is called “set aside”? (This is a policy pioneered by that champion of bad economic ideas, FDR, in the 1930s). And tax-subsidies for “biofuels” that distort agriculture markets are another glaring form of waste, surely. (It is also worth bearing in mind that state-subsidised farming is often also the most destructive from a sustainability point of view; the European Common Agricultural Policy saw the use of modern fertilisers and pesticides increase significantly).

If food prices rise due to a natural shift in the supply-demand imbalance, rather than due to the distortions of the State, then we wasteful Westerners will have to relearn some old habits, whether it be never leaving food on a plate and wise storage of our food. And just to finish on this thought: how much more severe would our shortages be, if, instead of being able to tap into a global supply of food, we had to rely on purely “local” produce, as the “locavores” would have us do?

On slightly tangential point, I read that a once-prominent opponent of GM foods has changed his mind and now admits that much of the opposition was not based on honest science and reasoning.

16 comments to For hungry readers, here’s some thoughts on food

  • Ernie G

    One of the most shameful things driving up food prices globally is the diversion of grain to produce ethanol-based fuel. I say shameful because the Greens’ pretense at saving the earth is causing hunger by driving up the cost of mealies and tortillas. This does not concern people whose tastes are so refined that they would never stoop to eating mealies or tortillas.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Johnathan, excellent piece in “The New Yorker.” Even better, some of the commenters Get It: The policies of BOTH the anti-GM-foods people AND the CAGW doom-mongers are enabling the starvation of millions of people (not to mention devastating the economies of the countries that take that sort of thing seriously).

  • veryretired

    Death and malnutrition don’t matter. Only ideological purity is important. Just ask the Ukrainians, or the Chinese, or the NK’s.

    All good men must starve for the sake of the party.

  • Sam Duncan

    Much of the wastage is caused by poor packaging: i.e., the sort of packaging the “sustainability” merchants would like us all to use. Note that the 30-50% figure is worldwide. It’s much lower in developed countries that use canning, vacuum or protective atmosphere packages, refrigeration and freezing.

    Mind you, chucking perfectly good food out because of a bureacratic sell-by date is a problem. But not that much of a problem. The real waste comes from genuine spoilage.

  • Rob

    Ernie: I think many Greens are now denying they ever wanted biofuels, which is of course absurdly dishonest but does not undermine their credibility in the media on other issues.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    RE: the parting shot about GM, I’d be willing to pay a premium for food that does not contain GM.

    I don’t think it should be banned or anything like that, I just have no desire to eat it. It seems to me there may well be unforeseen consequences of our genetic gerrymandering in the longer term.

    I’m afraid I don’t agree with the people who say GM is essentially the same as 5000 years of cultivation and controlled plant breeding. These methods only allow crossing plants with things that they are naturally capable of being crossed with.

    GM allows you to cross a plant with a fish, so to speak. No thank you.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Jaded Voluntaryist
    January 14, 2013 at 10:14 am

    GM allows you to cross a plant with a fish, so to speak. No thank you.

    So does a fish sandwich.

  • I agree with JV: I’d pay premium for non-GM – and never mind my reasons (call me a Luddite, if you like, it’s my own damn business). Like JV, I’m not for banning Genetic Modification of plants in and of itself – so long as it can be done in a manner containing said modifications within the confines of the modifiers’ own property – IOW, if they (the modifiers) can practically ensure the prevention of cross-pollination of plants outside their property. I’m not sure that is the case as things stand now.

  • llamas

    A point which has been tangentially covered by other commenters is that several technologies which make the wastage of food much less in developed countries are resisted and condemned by the ‘Green’ movement. I’m thinking specifically of things like refrigeration, irradiation of food, the use of biocides and chemical cleansers, and the improvements offered by GM technologies.

    The loss of food resources, and the added illness and misery caused by consumption of poorly-preserved foods, disproportionately affect poor brown people in lands far away. Western ‘Greens’ are quite happy to sacrifice those PBPILFA on the altar of their ideological purities.

    I still well-recall working on a not-for-profit project to design a cookstove for Third World nations that would free PBPILFA from the dangers of cooking with animal manure as fuel, and the resistance we got for ‘tampering with their ancient folkways’ and ‘enslaving the people under the yoke of fossil fuels’, as though dying of cholera or dysentery is somehow culturally-authentic and a positive act of resistance to Big Oil. Another team was working on the possibility of an absorbtion refrigerator that would put ice and food refrigeration into the most remote locations at trivial cost – this was in the days of R12 and the ‘ozone hole’, and the howls of outrage about that concept have remained with me to this day.



  • Paul Marks

    In the West most of the food gets to the people. If people mess it up then – that is their own fault (it really is).

    Sadly in nations like Egypt and India the state controlled (nationalised and regulated) distribution system means that most of the food does not even reach the people (it rots before they can get it).

    But we can not have the evil “corporations” involved in food distribution now can we…….

    By the way a lot of this “food inflation” is not due to the bad weather.

    Not all the money the government has been creating has gone to propping up house prices (either here or in the United States) – bad though that is.

    The money has also gone into food prices.

  • Julie near Chicago

    I think I recently posted a comment containing a URL for a video by Bill Whittle in which he pointed out that lives of both pilots and bystanders have been lost in the time since Man took to the air…but that we’ve learned so much about what the risks are, and how to deal with them effectively, that the safety record for commercial aviation is now awesome, to the point that we go for many years with no loss of life.

    (Admin–hint,hint–I wish that, as in Mark II, I could search within the comments as well as the main posting, for both the commenter and phrases….)

    My libertarian rationale goes along with that of many: I would prefer that Nature so organize herself that the bloody GM crops would stay on their own bloody side of the fence. (Although from the safety angle I don’t personally worry about it much. However, the patent problem would seem also to require strict containment, if one holds with the idea of intellectual property, which I do. Perhaps a change in IP law, there.)

    The same goes for smoke from smokestacks in, say, New York (roughly 800 mi. away) or exhaust from the neighbors’ junkers. And the racket from their foul so-called “music,” which I happen to find physically irritating. And from airplanes falling out of the sky onto my house, as Mr. Whittle mentions in his video. But without the smoke and the falling airplanes, we would still be back in the 17th century. With far more difficult and dangerous lives, and far greater mortality rates–especially among the unborn and the infants.

    Alas, all that we do affects others to a great or small (sometimes vanishingly small, it’s true) extent, which is one reason why pure Utopian Libertarianism can never happen in real life. In fact, it’s why I think that the degree of Libertarianism a society can maintain is inversely proportional to its geographical population density — at least, in principle.

    I suppose one could accomplish virtual restriction of GMO pollen to a bounded geographic area by growing GMO crops strictly within the confines of a Biosafety Level 4 room, complete with stripping and showering every time on the way out. It seems to me this would be so expensive that, at least in the early years, more PBPILFA (thanks, Laird! *g*) would starve. And the upshot would be yet another bureaucratic boondoggle like the FDA, only in the extreme case (perfection tends to be extreme) here, proving the GMO food 100% safe (and nutritious as non-GMO food) would take as long as searching for a vaccine 100% guaranteed to have no (no) deleterious side-effects — not to anyone.

    And as with horrible viruses, anthrax spores, and whatnot, sooner or later the boundaries would be breached anyway.

    Everything has a downside. (TM)

  • Julie, Google can do that.

    As to the actual sub-topic at hand, I believe that eliminating the subsidies for Big Agri would in turn eliminate many of the (very real) problems with the cultivation of GM plants, as well as a host of many other food-supply-related problems.

  • Alex McKee

    Julie, Alisa’s example with Google is good but to restrict the search to Samizdata you can use site:samizdata.net in your query.

    I’m a locavore, sans environmental hysteria, insofar as I don’t mind paying a small premium for local produce. It tends to be fresher. I also think it is just good common sense to grow locally what we can grow well, rather than an endless sea of oilseed rape / canola. Alisa, I completely agree about subsidies. The EU Common Agricultural Policy has been devastating to British farming and I think the policy of subsidies has a lot to answer for.

  • Ernie G

    I like to eat locally produced food, and I’m fortunate enough to live in Florida. The enthusiasm for general Locavore policies, though, is an example of the Composition Fallacy. Just because a strategy is a good one for a few, does not mean that it will work if everyone follows it.

  • The “locavores” that I knew back in the 60s and 70s were communists. I was recruited by one of them – Peter Berg. Fortunately I was uncontrollable. It didn’t stick.

    For further reading look up “Peter Berg Planet Drum” and “Peter Berg Diggers” and for amusement “Peter Coyote San Francisco Mime Troop”.

  • “GM allows you to cross a plant with a fish, so to speak. No thank you.”

    If you can do that in a lab, nature can do it too. Although I admit it is much rarer.