Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Food Prices: Is There Really Anything to Debate?

Got an e-mail from a PR type today wanting me to post something about a debate over on the Economist magazine's website, the proposition being: "There is an upside for humanity in the rise of food prices."

To which my initial response would have to be, YOU'RE BLEEPING KIDDING, RIGHT?

Only a group of over-fed economists with too much time on their hands could actually consider this a question worthy of debate. We can't take them seriously, otherwise we'd have to charge them with crimes against humanity. But this is precisely the kind of question that the Economist--which views an ever- expanding economy as a kind of white man's birthright--can actually discuss with a straight face.

I suppose you could say that rising food prices are a good thing, just as you could say the end of subsistence farming is a good thing, or that the end of family farms is a good thing, or that the commoditization of basic food stuffs is a good thing, or that putting the world's supply of food into a handful of huge international corporations is a good thing, or that fouling the air and water with artificial fertilizers and feedlot runoff is a good thing, or that denying farmers the right to save seeds is a good thing, or that replacing natural foods with industrially processed foods is a good thing, or that turning food crops into motor fuel is a good thing, or that allowing agribusiness to dictate government policy is a good thing, or that bankrupting Third World nations and turning them into food importers instead of self-sufficient food growers is a good thing.

All this and more has come to pass under the guise of freeing world trade, growing the international economy and improving the global standard of living. Increasingly it becomes clear that the only people who really stand to benefit are the ones who think the question is worthy of debate.

So I guess that would be a, No.

Photo: Woman making mud pies in Haiti in response to skyrocketing food prices.

7 comments:

Chris said...

Hi, Ed--I just found your blog today (after misplacing my copy of Wild Fermentation just as I was about to make sauerruben) and I have to say, I am seeing something of an upside to rising food costs. Lots of people I know here in Portland are responding by changing their eating habits, learning to eat more sustainably--more local, less meat (grassfed, though), more whole grains, home preserved, etc. The rising costs of conventionally raised food is making local, organic seem even more attractive. Personally, I've been making many changes over the last year and have seen my food costs drop. I wasn't driven to make changes out of financial concerns so much as concerns about my family's and our planet's health, but I am pleased nevertheless.

Although perhaps farfetched, could this not, in the long run, bode well for the poor of the world, if more Americans learned to eat with the seasons, chose to supported local farms, and got used to eating less meat?

Great blog! Thanks for the sauerruben recipe!

Ed Bruske said...

Chris, I would venture to say that the vast majority of people in Portland are not changing the eating habits, just as the vast majority of people in the U.S. are not changing their eating habits. They're eating the same old stuff. Many of them are eating less of it, or are even switching to poorer quality foods that they can afford. That's happening the world over. The issue is not whether better food is available, its the inequities that not only exist but are growing worse. My own feeling is that the free market system will not address this. The differences between the haves and the have-nots will only get worse. It will take a dramatic dislocation to force a complete change in where and how food is grown and distributed. That will mark an end to the corporate domination of the food system and a return to feeding everyone on a local level. A change like that would be traumatic and require a lot of work and cooperation. The good news is, everyone would be eating healthier.

FoodieTots said...

*If* the higher prices meant farmers were actually making enough to continue farming, wouldn't that be a positive? Of course, that's not where the price increase is currently going, so I'd have to agree that there is little upside to the current situation. Though I would agree with Chris that those who can afford it are choosing to shop markets more, but I would guess that's more to do with the salmonella cases and other factors.

Anonymous said...

Ed,

Well said. I gained a new level of respect for you after reading that post.

Thank you,
Aurash

Kevin said...

Ed,
Both the pro and con protagonists have their heads up their respective asses.

Tiffany said...

So, I wonder what the economists ideas were about "good" effects of rising food costs?
This question brings up a lot of issues: mainly- why do we eat what we eat? I think that the reality is that rising food costs will primarily impact people to buy lower quality foods (as Ed says)-- not to shop at farmers markets. As much as it saddens me to say, I agree that people are more likely to buy food that is simply cheaper and overprocessed. When I taught in the inner-city, my students (mostly lower income kids) were often sent to school with "meals" like a large bag of potato chips from the corner store. Until our government changes the way food is regulated, we may not see a large or positive change in people's eating habits.
While the local foods movement is certainly gaining steam, it's still a small percentage of the population that can afford the price of local food. Given that most farmers selling at farmers market are small operations, it's still difficult for them to compete cost-wise with larger operations like Walmart.
Finally, is it really realistic that we would all be eating healthier if we ate on the local level? I agree that food grown locally is fresher, picked at its peak, and less processed. However, living in the DC region, we are blessed with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and other products which make this a healthy choice. For someone living in a more arid climate or northern regions, it may be more difficult to achieve.

Ed Bruske said...

FT, I have know doubt that some farmers are benefiting from the higher prices. Local farmers kill to get into the Dupont Circle farmers market because of what the local yuppies are willing to pay for fresh produce. The question is, what happens to the other 99 percent of the population. I think for most people higher prices mean less food and poorer quality--until we get to the point where every green space has been converted over to food production.

Kevin, I did check out the website and I have to concur. Not much fire in the belly in that debate. But they have others waiting to weigh in.

Tiffany, you're right. People of means will always be able to afford good food and there will always be farmers ready to supply them. The question is what happens to everyone else, especially when we've paved over so much farmland to build our strip malls and mcmansions. We already seeing poor people in Third World countries eating less and choosing lesser quality substitutes.