The Oakland Institute has issued a short and useful policy brief on the social and political impact of rising food prices. I’m on the road this week and regularly reading USA Today delivered to hotel rooms. Its story yesterday about bread shortages in Egypt is surely an indication of the need for deep policy analysis followed up by immediate policy action.
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I live in a high-density fast food area of Manhattan and went out today to see how calorie labeling is coming along. Pretty well, I’d say, although not at McDonald’s. My local franchise must be waiting for the final court ruling. The delightful manager at Cold Stone handed me a calorie list and says the info will be up on menu boards as soon as the folks at headquarters in Arizona get to it. Brace yourself: the smallest serving is about 400 calories, and that’s before the extras. Calories are on the menu boards at Subway but they are for the 6-inch sandwiches. For just $2.00 you can upgrade to a 12-inch and double the calories. Chipotle is already posting calories, and why not? It lists ranges: a burrito is 420 to 918, and a burrito bowl is 130 to 628. Not helpful. But Cosi wins my prize for the biggest surprise. How about a tuna melt for 1012 calories or small, medium, and large blueberry-pomegranate fruit smoothies at 544, 725, and 1087, respectively? Will anyone pay attention to this? It’s going to be hard to tell, given that people are eating out less these days anyway, in this era of higher food costs.
Thanks to Eric Colchimaro for sending links to two stories about the effects of rising food prices. One is about the food riots occurring worldwide , a story continued in the New York Times on April 18: “the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years,” or what the Chicago Tribune calls a “crime against humanity.” And now The Economist (April 19-25) says the era of cheap food is over, reviews the political risks this entails – food riots, to begin with – and calls the current food crisis “the silent tsunami.”
Eric’s second link brings it home; it’s a Washington Post story about the awful problems higher food costs are causing for U.S. school lunch programs. They are hitting home in other ways. Restaurant sales are down and the costs of making pizza are rising. Dollar menus at fast food chains are up – they account for 15% of sales at Burger King and give so little return that they are putting some outlets into bankruptcy, according to Advertising Age (March 31). A story in today’s New York Times talks about the sticker shock in the organic aisles. The fallout from rising oil prices, rising grain demands, and use of grains for biofuels gets worse every day. How do we get reverse this? Extricating from Iraq might help as would more enlightened energy and farm policies. Ideas, anyone? In any case, I’m going to keeping an eye on the effects of rising food prices. My guess is they won’t be good. I hope I’m wrong.
So what’s going on with food prices? In the last year, milk is up 17%, dried beans 17%, cheese 15%, rice and pasta 13%, bread 12%–and eggs 25%. The last time I bought a quart of milk at my local anything-goes corner store, it was $2.40. Why? For eggs, it’s clear: growing corn for ethanol drives up corn prices and chicken feed. For eggs and everything else we have the perfect storm: increased demand (from China), decreased supply (ethanol), and higher fuel prices. I’m sure there are other reasons too, but these will do for a start. This is why food systems matter.
Today’s Observer (London) lays out the causes and consequences of what’s happening to global food prices. Not pretty. The bleak forecast: price increases of 10% to 50% leading to “a war between the 850 million chronically hungry of the world and the 800 million motorists – all fighting for the same food crop.”
It’s the end of the year and Reuters is making predictions about the top health stories of 2008. We must be on the same page. Most of them are issues discussed here. In order: the push for raw milk, melting fat (with injections of something supposed to get rid of body fat? I think I may have to miss that one), the farm bill, defining natural, problems with food labels, Michael Pollan (a story in himself!), the end of cheap food, and the need to fix the FDA and USDA. Sounds a lot like 2007…
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?