Enviro Rice Riots; Or Why Michael Pollan is Wrong
posted by April 9 at 16:04 PMon
According to the UK Guardian, “A global rice shortage that has seen prices of one of the world’s most important staple foods increase by 50 per cent in the past two weeks alone is triggering an international crisis, with countries banning export and threatening serious punishment for hoarders.”
In Thailand, lower-quality rice has risen between $70 and $100 a ton this week alone. In the Phillipines, agricultural secretary Arthur Yap has ordered fast-food restaurants to halve the amount of rice they supply with each purchase. And in China, the government is paying subsidies to farmers who switch to rice production. Prices, already at record highs, are expected to soar even higher in the coming months, as rice production — a staple food for three billion of the world’s people — fails to keep up with population, a consequence, in part, of a worldwide shift from food to biofuel production.
All of which provides a chilling context for eat-simple guru Michael Pollan’s blithe statement in the New York Times that “higher food prices level the playing field for sustainable food that doesn’t rely on fossil fuels.” Grist’s Tom Philpott had a great post on Pollan’s pricier-is-better argument a few days ago, arguing that Pollan (and sustainable-food icon Alice Waters, who suggested in the same Times article that people who can’t afford their higher food bills “make a sacrifice on the cell phone or the third pair of Nike shoes”) are “grossly simplifying” the issue of rising food prices. He argues that, in fact,
Rising costs may end up increasing the allure of large entities with economies of scale, cutthroat buying practices, and experience in transforming low-quality ag inputs into stuff people like to eat. I’m talking about fast-food companies, which can likely absorb higher input prices and still churn out crap — and rake in profits. If that’s true, prices at the drive-thru won’t rise quite as steeply as those in the supermarket line, giving people yet more incentive to abandon their home kitchens and flock to the Golden Arches.
Fortunately, Philpott writes,
there’s another way. Just as public policy can be used to consolidate the grip of industrial agriculture, it can also be used to increase the accessibility of sustainable agriculture. Admittedly, the 2007 farm bill, still belatedly knocking around Washington waiting for agreement between the president and Congress, probably can’t be counted on for much relief.
Sustainable agriculture shouldn’t be something available only to elites; poor people don’t eat junk food because they don’t want good food, they eat it because our food system makes such foods affordable while making sustainable food expensive. What will change that is not an increase in prices (and I’m not talking about the optional 20-cent charge for plastic bags here; I’m talking about suddenly having to pay twice as much for food) but systemic shifts in the programs and policies that make bad food cheap and good food unaffordable.