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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rice Riots; Or, Why Michael Pollan Is Also Right

posted by on April 9 at 16:21 PM

OK, I’m not just picking a fight with ECB. I’m also linking to Paul Krugman, who for the first time in forever is not making up specious reasons why Hillary’s policies are kind of sort of better than Obama’s.

One reason why grain prices are skyrocketing, according to Krugman:

First, there’s the march of the meat-eating Chinese — that is, the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains.

Pollan’s mantra: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. Cut down on meat, and grain prices should respond.

RSS icon Comments


Michael Pollan can suck my ass.

Posted by Mr. Poe | April 9, 2008 4:23 PM

not just grain prices. the price of palm oil in indonesia and malaysia is beyond many ordinary people. the oil is mostly going to europe for biofuel. in the us corn is increasingly being planted for biofuel, replacing other crops.

Posted by Jiberish | April 9, 2008 4:28 PM

@2: That's in the rest of the column--click the links! But it has nothing to do with Michael Pollan.

Posted by annie | April 9, 2008 4:33 PM

Thank god there is a voice of reason on the slog

Posted by JD | April 9, 2008 4:33 PM

This has more to do with conversion to biofuel resulting in less planted wheat than it does with eating meat. It goes back to oil (see post above).

Posted by STJA | April 9, 2008 4:34 PM

@5: No, see the link, above. Seriously people, do you think I exhaust every variable when I point out one contribution? Krugman addresses biofuels in detail.

Posted by annie | April 9, 2008 4:37 PM

Yeah, my bad - I scrolled down just now... dammit.

Posted by STJA | April 9, 2008 4:39 PM

I was trampled in a race riot once. True story.

Posted by nbc | April 9, 2008 4:40 PM

But what's wrong with high grain prices? Farmers in Eastern Washington have seen their commodity shoot from $3 to $12 per bushel in 3 years, without production costs rising substantially. Cut off the federal subsidies those farmers no longer need, and let them reap their windfall.

Who's is losing here? Slightly higher beef prices? OK, we'll buy slightly less beef, wasn't that what they wanted anyhow?

Posted by Dougsf | April 9, 2008 4:42 PM

nbc, you mean you were trampled in a rice riot?

Posted by infrequent | April 9, 2008 4:44 PM

This is why the CRP article from this morning was so disheartening. So much food production capacity going to more meat and the biofuel scam.

Posted by laterite | April 9, 2008 4:47 PM


Really poor people, who eat very little meat.

Posted by keshmeshi | April 9, 2008 4:51 PM

Cut down on meat? But then what are we supposed to eat? Oh. Yeah. PIZZA!

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 9, 2008 4:57 PM

I blame low-energy biofuels. That and the increase in rice prices in India due to global warming.

Which along with other such things that Paul K points out in his article, we knew were happening last year but did nothing about.

Algae - that's the ticket.

Or we could stop whining and switch over to wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and other sources of energy NOW instead of whining about how that means we'd have to end the NUTSO war in Iraq to pay for it (ok, so it would cost one-tenth what Iraq does ... but we can't afford it anyway).

Oh, and Fnarf - I saw him speculating in hog futures - he might be involved ... check him for signs of curly mustache growing ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 5:02 PM

@2 biofuel is part of the reason why prices are rising which does relate to pollan. even if we do eat less meat, some foods like palm oil, which is an important source of fat calories for many who can't afford meat, will remain out of reach. less meat is not just the answer to high food prices.

Posted by Jiberish | April 9, 2008 5:10 PM

@12 - unless you're talking about "the really, really poor" in China, I disagree. Small farming towns in the US are starting to finally do pretty well, or at least break even. At the very worst, in the case of cattle and pig farmers facing rising feed costs, then the balance is just shifting. (yes, there is grass fed livestock, but it's far less popular for a few reasons) Overall I think there's more good to the poor coming from the rising value in grain - IMO - than harm.

If you're talking about the proverbial urban "poor", then MAYBE, but besides the fact that we're basically all on the same food chain, the issues there are a somewhat different beast. The nature of these stories all just feel more like a fresh take on the hysterical "pain at the pump!" crap we see every night at 11 o'clock than anything actually newsworthy.

Talk about what soy bean farming in Brazil is doing to the planet, then let's come back to this one.

Posted by Dougsf | April 9, 2008 5:10 PM

no no no no don't you remember, the rising price of corn is all due to NAFTA. There's no connection between corn, land, soybeans or other things, it's all due to NAFTA.

Posted by unPC | April 9, 2008 5:31 PM

Hasn't anyone outsourced unPC's job yet?

Please, do it now.

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 6:03 PM

Then there's the *teriyaki effect*: when being served meat, the teriyaki stand will give you four times the rice that any human would ever eat to make it look like you are getting more.

Posted by kinaidos | April 9, 2008 6:55 PM

unPC is a jackass...

Posted by KeeKee | April 9, 2008 7:12 PM

the price of grain wouldn't decrease unless there was a shift in demand, that is a shift in the demand curve along the x axis. you can't just look at the amount of grain that is being used for meat production to say "prices would be lower" you also have to look at what alternatives exist in marketplace and how much increase in demand there would be in that alternative.

ill provide a theoretical example later

Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 9, 2008 7:35 PM

short example; if farmers primarily use corn to feed livestock, the decrease in demand in meat might slightly lower the price of corn but only if the supply of corn is not captured by another demand such as ethanol. or if the price of corn is still higher than staple grain alternatives after a price reduction.

Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 9, 2008 7:40 PM

Dougsf @9:

But what's wrong with high grain prices? Farmers in Eastern Washington have seen their commodity shoot from $3 to $12 per bushel in 3 years, without production costs rising substantially. Cut off the federal subsidies those farmers no longer need, and let them reap their windfall. Who's is losing here? Slightly higher beef prices? OK, we'll buy slightly less beef, wasn't that what they wanted anyhow?

Dougsf, congratulations. You've just won the "Never Bother to Think before Posting" award. Let's see what the downsides of skyrocketing grain prices are:

  1. Millions of people will starve to death worldwide.
  2. Riots and political instability across the global.
  3. Hundreds, if not thousands, of species ultimately being driven extinct because their habitats are getting plowed over for agriculture.
  4. A rapid acceleration of the factors contributing to climate change, thanks to wild land being converted to agriculture. Time Magazine was all over this with their recent cover story.
  5. All of us regular consumers paying higher prices for food.
  6. Mom-and-pop restaurants potentially being driven out of business because their customer base can no longer sustain the higher prices.

Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera.

Sure, one upside is that farmers in Eastern Washington will rake it in thanks to higher grain prices. Doug, pal, do you actually believe this outweighs any of the harm done by high food prices?

I'm sure every terrible event in human history had some favorable side effect. Should we say the Holocaust wasn't such a bad thing because if it weren't for the Holocaust we wouldn't have such wonderful movies like Schindler's List or The Pianist?

Doug, I know you're trying to come across as cleverer-than-thou with your cute-little, counterintuitive contrarianism, but all you do is come across as a moron.

Posted by cressona | April 9, 2008 7:53 PM

That may just be the best column Krugman has ever written. There's a complex web of factors contributing to high food prices. Krugman does a great job of tying it all together — without oversimplifying. He does a great job of placing the blame where it lies — without picking a scapegoat.

I have a friend who's deeply troubled by the cost of food these days. She's convinced this is a sign that the world is going to hell. But she couldn't quite understand why food prices were so high. I passed the Krugman column along to her and she got it.

Oh, about the link between meat-eating and climate change: Skip the Steak.

And: Trying to Connect the Dinner Plate to Climate Change.

BTW, the point is not to go vegan for the sake of fighting global warming, any more than it is to sell your car and give up driving for the sake of fighting global warming. There's a profound difference between absolute abstinence and moderation.

And even then, the consumer choices of individuals and families are not going to be enough to solve climate change on their own.

Posted by cressona | April 9, 2008 8:15 PM

Plus this...

Meat is murder

Posted by elenchos | April 9, 2008 8:17 PM

justifiable homicide tastes good

Posted by Bellevue ave | April 9, 2008 8:40 PM
Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 9, 2008 9:19 PM

dougsf ... you are bit a niave on this one. Americans are one of the few countries that have such a heavily meat based diet. The only other diets that come to my mind are north of the artic circle. Peasent food has been mostly grain fed, with embelished bits of meat. So yes, the poor people loose when the price of grain goes up.

I'm a humanist. I don't believe meat is murder, but meat is a LUXURY. A luxury Americans have taken for grantid for way too along especially having an abundance of piss poor quality "meat" products.

I mean there is some scary literature out there about what the USFDA did in the 1950's to try to boost meat consumption and make it cheaper and cheaper. (including mafia involvment of all things). Eating meat at every meal was considered high class, elitist, and was to be the status symbol that it was an American standard.

Should I even mention the environmental catastrophes called "lagoons" in North/South Carolina the result of blatant governmental corruption and denial of the effects of pig farm waste just stored in underground canasters.

Still ... the more imediate reason why wheat is expensive is the push for biofuels taking up space for wheat crop.

Man I'm routing for them, but the engineering isn't sound and the number don't add up yet.

Posted by OR Matt | April 9, 2008 9:19 PM

OR Matt, that still doesnt resolve the fact that the demand for meat has to shift before there is a tangible result in the price of grain. and if another demand is present to take up the excess supply of grain at current market prices then the price of grain remains constant.

summed up, aggregate demand of grain must decrease or the aggregate supply of increase. when the government mandates the consumption of grain, and also gives money to farmers money to grow grain, and then also buys grain to keep off the market to limit supply and increase prices at demand levels then yeah, there are going to be problems

Posted by Bellevue Ave | April 9, 2008 9:50 PM

I'm not disagreeing with you there about not resolving the shift in demand for meat. Like I said, the most imediate reason for why the price of grain is up is due to the new demand for biofuels.

I'm still in favor of grain subsidies because it is the lesser of two evils, but I'm strongly against meat subsidies. I want to see what would happen to our diet if the consumer had to pay the FULL price for meat.

And as for biofuel. Anyone who has brewed beer knows how little ethanol you get for the process. How much processing and water waste you get for such little amounts of fuel. The numbers don't add up, at least on the scale on which they are being done.

Posted by OR Matt | April 10, 2008 9:25 AM

"Governor Santini is brought to you today by Soylent Red, and Soylent Yellow. And, new, delicious, Soylent Green: The "miracle food" of high energy plankton, gathered from the oceans of the world. Due to its enormous popularity, Soylent Green is in short supply, so remember — Tuesday is Soylent Green day!"

Posted by COMTE | April 10, 2008 9:50 AM

I thought red algae was bad for you?
I'm not getting something

Posted by OR Matt | April 10, 2008 9:52 AM

OR Matt @ 30, Ethanol is not the only biofuel. Biodiesel has many significant superior qualities, including yield and efficiency of processing. The issue of feedstock and agricultural displacement is still there *for now*, but as Will in Seattle said - 'Algae - that's the ticket'

And everyone here has missed one of the other main reasons that agricultural prices have skyrocketed - the cost of crude oil has also skyrocketed. Every step in producing food is oil intensive, from fertilizing the land to delivering the packaged product.

Another reason, and one that is infuriatingly murky - is that most food is made from commodities that are traded, and are therefore at the whims of a fickle market. I watch the Chicago Board of Trade daily and there are some fishy goings-on there. It's like agroEnron these days. As other financial markets soften, commodities like silver, gold, and corn are seen as safer bets, and speculative trading pushes their prices up.

What I would like to see is a proper analysis of the weighting of each of the following factors in the rise of food prices:

1) Changing diets in developing nations
2) Biofuels
3) Price of oil
4) Speculative trading

Anyone seen anything like that?

Posted by boyd main | April 10, 2008 10:23 AM

@31, EXACTLY! Solves hunger and overpopulation in one easy step.

For better or worse (mostly worse) America has changed the diets of a lot of the world. We've done such a *lovely* job of exporting our values that status in rising capitalistic countries is associated with those values--consumer goods, automobiles, steak dinners. I'm simplifying here, but my point is that the problem is global and must be solved with that in mind. It's also a whole systems problem not just an "eat less meat, problem solved" equation.

And before anyone jumps on me for thinking I don't support doing stuff locally--I do, but we also need to push for bigger picture solutions. If we solve it here but not in China then it isn't really solved, only postponed.

Posted by PopTart | April 10, 2008 10:25 AM

EXACTLY with respect to biodiesel. It is a better fuel with respect to processing and availability but it's not totally innoscent. A lot of engineering is required to make the engines available to the general public ... it's much hotter to burn which means you get more bang for your buck, but you still need to issolate the bang.

There are reports of processes using switchgrass and cellulose feed stock to reap out bioethanol, but scaling up these processes have been unsuccessful so far.

It's no wonder that 260 plus million years of biologically stored energy is being used to sustain our lifestyle and being burned out in roughly 200 to 600 years.

Posted by OR Matt | April 10, 2008 10:44 AM

Cressona - Holy fuck, I was seriously just sharing my opinion. I appreciate any info you can give to the contrary, but you paint yourself as pretty insufferable. I'm not sure I'm quite ready to hand you one of this years coveted "Seattle Snarkie", but you are definately in the running.

Going forward, yeah, my posts aren't entirely that thoughtful, or spelled correctly, etc. - I'M AT FUCKING WORK! I'm not gonna steal THAT much time from my employer for this shit, but it's a nice diversion.

Posted by Dougsf | April 10, 2008 12:52 PM

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