by Marion Nestle
Dec 12 2007

The Economist on “the end of cheap food”

Here’s something worth reading: The Economist‘s take on food prices. This business magazine minces no words. The rise in prices is the result of “America’s reckless ethanol subsidies.” Higher food prices, it says, can do good or harm depending on how governments deal with them. The issues are complicated. This is one way to look at them. Are there others?

  • I’m disappointed (but not particularly surprised) to not see any discussion of relocalized food sources. As I understand it, most cultures could be food secure if they were encouraged (and in some cases, aided) in starting up local-economy based farming. Instead, they are encouraged to plant cash crops for export, on the argument that they can then use the profits from their sales to buy whatever goods they need (doubtlessly imported). But with all of the whacked out food subsidies, trade barriers, and other inefficiencies in the global market, I have trouble seeing how playing this game could be preferable. Which is better, growing a field of rice and exporting it at a profit of $2/acre, or growing a collection of local crops and selling them to your neighbor (not to mention eating them yourself) at a profit of $5/acre (which is, incidentally, less than the neighbor would be spending on imported goods)?

  • I love this…and I am normally confused when I read the economist. Seems like they are stating something that is obvious to me, but now can they get the who benefit so much (and who are so few) to realize there might be a better, sustainable, and perhaps even better way to do things.

    It makes you think that just like in nature, if we don’t address the issue ourselves ‘nature’ will fix it for us and be much less forgiving in the solution.

    Interesting stuff.

  • One statistic in that article jumped out at me: that it takes 8 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of beef. Since this came up in the context of increased beef consumption in China, it raises the obvious question: since such a large percentage of China is grassland, and grass is cattle’s natural, inexpensive food, why is China producing grain to feed to cattle?

  • I suspect producing grain for cattle is seen as a duel-purpose crop and grassland is not. Short-sighted? Yes. But no different that our own US propensity to support short sighted ideas.

    Strangely, probably a similar question was going through the minds of native americans as immigrants started moving west and setting up farms and using the land for what seemed very odd it their eyes. Question is, do we learn and not repeat the same mistake? Or is profit and our relatively short live-span going to frame our expectations and actions?

  • What the saying? Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it?

    Grain fed cattle fatten and go to market much, much faster than pastured cattle and grain/soy has been very cheap, that is why cattle anywhere (not just China) are fed corn and soy instead of being fed on grassland. It’s profit, pure and simple.

    Now they have everyone convinced the taste and tenderness of grainfed is superior, but that is a huge marketing myth. Grainfed cattle just fits the all year round markes instead of being seasonal and produces a more standardized (bland) flavor that people have come to expect. People don’t even know what traditionally produced real food tastes like anymore.

  • I also agree 100% with Robyn. I looked at this article in the latest Economist while in line at the bookstore and decided there wasn’t enough “meat” in it to bother.