Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Global Food Crisis Memo: Point-Counterpoint: Is the Soaring Cost of Food Good or Bad For American Consumers? And What About the Rest of the World?

In a recent New York Times article by writer Kim Severson, two intellectual leaders of the organic, healthy and local foods' movement, writer and Journalism professor Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, the food writer and restaurateur, told the writer that essentially what we've called the "end of the era of cheap food" is good for American and Western consumers and society.

Basically, the Pollan and Waters argument is that because the diet of most Americans and many others in the developed, western world is based on refined, processed foods and grain-fed meats, the costs of which are soaring, these consumers might turn to more healthy, less-refined whole grain-based, fresh and local foods like breads, cereals, fruits and vegetables and grass fed animals, since the costs of both the highly-refined processed foods and grain-based meats and the healthier alternatives will eventually become about equal.

In the Times' piece, Anna Lappe, founder of the Small Planet Institute, which studies food and public policy issues, disagrees with the Pollan and Waters' thesis, arguing that to equate cheap food with bad food is an oversimplification, because food pricing is a complex process.

Ms. Severson's article (nor do Pollan or Waters in the piece) doesn't address the myriad global issues and consequences involved in the soaring costs of basic food commodities such as rice, wheat, corn and soybeans and all the food products, meats and dairy items produced from them.

These consequences have been playing themselves out daily throughout the world in the form of food shortages and food riots in Haiti, Egypt and parts of Africa.

Additionally, as we reported here last week, dozens of countries that normally rely on food exports for income have either temporarily froze their food exports or cut back on the quantity of foodstuffs they export for fear of shortages and dramatic price hikes at home.

Further, even in the developed western world, the soaring costs of basic food items like eggs, milk, bread, rice and other staples are causing problems.

In Italy, consumers are cutting back on pasta--and even staged a one-day pasta boycott recently--because of the national foods' rising cost. The French staged a similar one-day boycott recently to protest the double-digit price increases of the baguette, that nation's bread staple.

In the U.S., lower-income and middle-income shoppers are being seriously pinched by the soaring costs of food, such as the 25% increase in the price of milk, the near 20% rise in the cost of eggs, and the double-digit price hikes in nearly every food product made from corn, wheat rice or soybeans, not to mention meat and poultry due to the soaring cost of grain which is the primary feed for chickens, hogs and cattle.


Tom Philpott, a staff writer for the environmental publication Grist.org, as well as a professional farmer and cook, agrees with Anna Lappe's anti-Pollan and Waters thesis in a piece he wrote that's published today.

In his piece, "Why Michael Pollan and Alice Waters Should Quit Celebrating Food-Price Hikes," Philpott says Pollan and Waters are grossly simplifying matters when it comes to arguing that the current food-price hikes have a silver lining.

Philpott says in his piece he has a "hard time imagining people who are already struggling to put food on the table rambling off to the farmers' market to fill cloth bags with the sort of fresh, local, organic produce so beloved by Pollan and Waters (and me)." He adds: "Higher food prices are likely to send many time--and cash--strapped people in quite the opposite direction.

We invite you to first read Kim Severson's April 2, 2008 New York Times' piece with Michael Pollan and Alice Waters here. Then read Tom Philpott's counterpoint piece in today's Grist.org here.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Analysis and View

It's our analysis and view that any discussion of rising food prices and health and diet can't be properly conducted unless it's in a global context.

Sure, it's possible that if the cost of grain-fed meat, fast food burgers and fries, processed packaged foods and high-fructose sweetened soft drinks, equal the cost of whole grain-based healthier foods and fresh produce, American and other wealthy nation consumers could find it an economic incentive to make a switch to a more healthier diet.

However, its also just as probable this won't be the case. Further, education should be the prime motivator for eating healthier in our opinion, not forced economic choice--which is just as likely to not work as to work anyway.

For example, rather than eat healthy foods, the growing middle class in fast-developing countries like China and India are eating more like westerners, which is one of the reasons for the soaring prices of foods like meat and dairy products. They are going backwards from a dietary standpoint with their new wealth--from a grain and fruit and vegetable-based diet to a higher-fat animal protein and processed foods diet. Is one reason they are doing so because they have increased economic choice, which they do?

Additionally, although we have much respect for the work of both Pollan and Waters, we think it's myopic to talk about American consumers, food price hikes and eating healthier in isolation from the rest of the world. This way be more because the U.S was the focus of Ms. Severson's article however, in fairness to Pollan and Waters.

After all, it is the price of some of the healthiest foodstuffs that are soaring the most. Rice (in its unrefined state) is one of the healthiest of all grains, yet its cost to consumers globally has increased by over 50% since just January of this year.

Wheat--the stuff that produces whole grain bread--has increased by 30% in just the first four months of this year.

Further, the cost to consumers of organic and locally-produced fresh fruits and vegetables is rising as fast as the less-healthy, processed foods. This is do to such factors as the soaring price of oil, gasoline and energy sources, increased labor costs, and a marketplace in which organic producers, middle men and retailers make a far higher gross margin on organic foods than they do on conventionally produced ones.

Even prices of fresh produce at farmers' markets is soaring. This is do to many of the same factors--especially the increased costs of fuel and energy.

Therefore, in our analysis, any discussion of food price hikes and healthier eating must be discussed in a global context. For example, when China and Japan decide to buy up as much rice as they can globally--which is happening presently--that effects the supply and price of rice throughout the world. It's kind of like oil in that way, isn't it.

Also, when farmers in the USA decide to grow organic produce instead of conventional crops because they can sell it for a higher premium (which we don't object too), that means there's less "cheaper" conventional produce to ship overseas, where many consumers have a budget of less than $1 a day for food.

As we've argued in Natural~Specialty Foods Memo before, we do believe the "era of cheap food" as we've known it in the U.S. and other western nation's is coming to an end. However, the issues of world hunger, diet and health are far from over--including in the U.S. where more people are receiving food stamps at present than at any time in the history of the program.

We have absolutely no argument with the fact that Americans and others in the world need to eat better, healthier foods. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease--these are all illness which can be avoided in many ways by eating a better diet. We also agree with the environmental benefits to global society by increasingly employing sustainable farming methods.

However, lets also not forget that even in this "era of cheap food" billions of people throughout the world have gone hungry and billions more lack food security. Of course, there are political and distribution problems which cause this condition as well as economic ones.

The "era of cheap food" is coming to an end in our analysis. But the issue of domestic hunger in the U.S. and throughout the globe is far from over. The discussion is just beginning on what to do.

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