Sunday, April 13, 2008

Manufactured foodscape

For many in North America food has become essentially a manufactured item, carefully packaged in colorful plastic and cardboard wrappers. The packages list the ingredients in small type as if they were elements from the periodic table rearranged by some present-day equivalent of the Star Trek replicator.

Few consumers realize the remarkable chemistry that does, in fact, take place in the farm field and in the ocean that transforms carbon from the air into the myriad compounds we recognize as food. And, except in those rare North American households where it remains an economic necessity, cooking itself has become something of the domain of wannabe gourmets with Martha Stewart fetishes.

The food manufacturing process has created effortless meals that often require nothing more than a little boiling or heating in the microwave to make them palatable. The cost is in nutrition and overall health, costs which often don't show up for decades when they are detected in the physician's office or on the operating table--usually without any recognition of the link. But even the immediate economic costs of food seem virtually hidden from the public which in the United States pays less than 10 percent of its income for food both inside and outside the home. Only recently have rises in food prices began to appear on the radar of the average food buyer in America; still, don't look for any food riots soon.

Not so with the rest of the world. According to The New York Times Indonesians spend half their income on food, Vietnamese spend 65 percent and Nigerians spend 73 percent. A doubling of grain prices in the last three years is not something that can easily be shrugged off by families living in these and so many other countries. Unrest related to food prices has already been seen in Haiti, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mozambique and Senegal.

There are the usual suspects: demand for meat in places with huge and growing middle class populations such as India and China, drought in Australia (one of the four remaining major grain exporters in the world), and demand for biofuels made from food crops. But it is the pricey manufactured foodscape invented by wealthy countries that has helped to create what is fast becoming a food crisis in the rest of the world. It is the industrial mentality itself which regards food as if it were just another input into the industrial system. One obvious result is that we treat food and fuel now as if they were simply interchangeable. Another is that we have streamlined agricultural and food processes by employing the same just-in-time manufacturing principles used to make steel or plastics. The result has been a reduction of world cereal stocks that are expected to fall to 25-year lows this year. As of the end of 2007 we have a 75-day supply of grain and that is expected to fall to around 69 days by the end of this year.

Michael Boskin, chairman of the first President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, is reputed to have said, "It doesn't make any difference whether a country makes potato chips or computer chips." At the time he was pilloried for having suggested such a thing when it was accepted wisdom that a high-tech economy was the desired goal. But Boskin may actually have been wrong for reasons of basic food security. A country held hostage to the food exports of another may find itself without needed food just at the time when supplies are shortest. Witness the banning of rice exports from Vietnam, Thailand, the Phillipines, Egypt and now India as rice prices have rocketed to new highs. In Argentina the government has attempted to keep domestic soybean and sunflower seed prices down by enacting huge new export tariffs that would effectively curtail exports of the crops. Farmers reacted by bringing the country to a halt.

Cereals are obviously not interchangeable with computer chips. Some 80 percent of all our calories come directly and indirectly (primarily in the form of meat and dairy products) from grain. People prefer to eat first and compute later, but only if there is time and money left over. No government or people seems to believe that strictly market forces ought to govern the price of staples. And, no one is actually willing to say in public that if you can outbid me for basic foodstuffs, then I have no right to complain even if it means my family and I starve.

It has been a truism from the beginning of civilization that cities require stocks of grain, surpluses that can last a year or even two to sustain them through drought or war. In the last two decades, the champions of the globalized trade system have turned that truism on its head and foolishly convinced governments and their leaders that food production and storage can be largely left to the marketplace.

All that is changing rather quickly. Governments are now temporizing as they try to address brewing revolts in the streets. At the World Bank there is talk of trying to raise yields over the long term. But that hardly matters to governments with hungry populations on their hands now. And the long-term yield raisers are assuming a growing supply of petrochemicals which are integral to our current farm productivity. Such a plan is called into question even by the most optimistic forecasts for oil supplies.

What then of the manufactured foodscape that has become such an important feature of North American life? It will likely succumb to the realities of food and the limits of the biosphere. There will be less manufacturing and more home preparation as the manufactured foodscape becomes too expensive to maintain. The limits we face in arable lands, in fossil fuels, and in the ability of the atmosphere to absorb greenhouse gasses will compel more people to grow and harvest some of the food they eat. These limits will compel us to eat less meat for no other reason than it will become prohibitively wasteful to feed valuable grain to livestock instead of eating it.

We will be forced to listen to the landscape once again and follow its dictates on how to raise food. And, we will be obliged to abandon much of the giant industrial food system that provides a freakish cartoon-like foodscape made up of "fun" foods, fast foods and frozen meals designed to cater to our most childish cornucopian fantasies.

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