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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rice Riots; Or Why Michael Pollan is Wrong

posted by on April 9 at 16:04 PM

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.

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I'd love to hear that "with go that third pair of shoes" logic to all those who haven't even one pair to begin with. Ivory towers come crashing down.

Posted by orangekrush | April 9, 2008 4:11 PM

i have three pairs of nikes. at least.

Posted by infrequent | April 9, 2008 4:21 PM

And they are rioting in Egypt because of bread shortages. The basic staples of a human diet are being priced out of the reach of the poorest people around the world. This could become a global crisis and I don't think we're going to avoid it here in America either.

But sure, Ms. Waters go on thinking the way you do, since we all know the higher cost of food won't be a problem for you. And we'll be sure to pass your message on to those poor people about using their cell phones less and buying fewer pairs of Nikes.

Hey, I've got an idea--Soylent Green. A perfect way to solve both the hunger problem and the overpopulation problem.

Posted by PopTart | April 9, 2008 4:26 PM

OK, Erica. If you know all the answers, solve the problem.

Prices aren't going up because some fat robber-baron decided that he wanted rice to be more expensive. Attacking Michael Pollan is therefore a non-sequitur.

(incidentally, perhaps you should start thinking crticially about how this hobby-horse relates to your other favorite source of hysteria: energy policy.)

Posted by A Non Imus | April 9, 2008 4:27 PM

Ah, yes, let's blame everything on biofuels. Here's a little tidbit you may not know: the absolutely best source of ethanol known to man is sugar cane. So why isn't more of it being used to produce ethanol? Because sugar prices are so artificially inflated that it would be impractical. Who's behind those inflated prices? A company named Archer-Daniels-Midland. But here's the real pisser: Why would ADM, which produces no sugar, care about sugar prices? Because they're the world's largest producer of high-fructose corn syrup. Are things starting to fall into place yet for you?

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 9, 2008 4:28 PM

Again, this POV is biased almost entirely towards the rich western world. I doubt the Thai who can't afford rice at current prices can forgo his third pair of Nikes and make up the difference.

For most of human history, only the elites could hope for reliable, quality available food. Everybody else was at the mercy of mother nature. The green revolution of the 50s and 60s, with all of those nasty petro inputs, is what made reliable sources of food available to billions.

Posted by Westside forever | April 9, 2008 4:29 PM

Simple solution (at least in the US): end farm subsidies on the one hand to stop putting more sustainable practices at an even greater disadvantage. Then if that means more hardship at the low-income end of the spectrum, give more assistance.
The problem with subsidies is that they are a very poor way to handle the problem of affordable food. They bias the whole market toward using the subsidized commodities. The lower prices help those with low incomes afford food, but it's an inefficient way to do so. The main direct beneficiaries of these transfer payments are agribusiness firms, a few of which are privately held goldmines for a very small number of people.

It's the specifics of the US economy that make higher prices (as a side effect of a more rational farm policy) desirable. That's not generally the case. It really depends on the extent to which individual nations have their own market distorting patterns of subsidization.

Posted by kinaidos | April 9, 2008 4:29 PM

ECB, you really are more delusional than anyone could have predicted.

Posted by JD | April 9, 2008 4:35 PM

You misunderstood what Pollen was talking about, Erica. His point is that if junk food costs as much as good food, good food will have a better chance of being eaten. He's not saying all food should cost more, only the crap they serve as fast food joints. If organic, locally produced food received the same government subsidy that Big Food gets now, then it would be as cheap as the crap they serve at McDonalds.

Posted by crazycatguy | April 9, 2008 4:43 PM

$70/ton for rice! Hah! I paid $25 for the omakase at lunch today. And I quit my job! Being rich is awesome.

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

I really do like to buy organic and locally sourced food. But, with our population's current level and with the current rate of growth, is it even possible to have sustainable food sources for everybody? I really don't see how.

Posted by El Seven | April 9, 2008 4:52 PM

Let them eat celery root.


And you're right, it's not. Organic, sustainable agriculture is too inefficient to feed 7 billion people.

Posted by keshmeshi | April 9, 2008 4:56 PM

@9 but that's not the arguement in many parts of the world its not junk food vs good food but food vs no food. more malnutrition in developing countries will have a impede their development and progress, leading to a more insecure world.

Posted by Jiberish | April 9, 2008 4:57 PM

@5 is correct.

If we got rid of the corn lobby (ethanol), oil/gas lobby, and all the perverse incentives, a lot of this would be fixed by the Invisible Hand of the markets.

Of course, to do that, we need to elect a President who is not beholden to PACs ... which ain't WalMart director Hillary "One Of Us" Clinton ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 5:07 PM

erica is on to something our farm policies support the big farms and big crops like soy, corn etc. which turns into a glut of cheap corn syrup which then gets placed into everything. i have property in south dakota and we get paid to leave it as prairie if we wanted to plant it, it would have to be one of the big crops.

Posted by Jiberish | April 9, 2008 5:18 PM

I'm investing in Archer Daniels Midland because I'm pretty sure they are researching the possibilities of Soylent Green right now. The high fructose corn syrup is part of their nefarious plans...

Posted by PopTart | April 9, 2008 5:22 PM

Good plan, PopTart.

Remember, though, eat local ...

Posted by Will in Seattle | April 9, 2008 6:05 PM

@12, unless we completely change our farming methods and employ many many more farmers then we currently do. Then organic, sustainable farming might have a chance.

Posted by arduous | April 9, 2008 6:06 PM

I don't think Pollan was thinking about 3rd world poverty much when he talked about the declining price of food and obesity. IIRC, he did write about the % share of household income devoted to food in the US, and how it's been dropping for decades. And other research showing that for many folks, at some psychological level, lower price = jam more into gullet.

(We really are hard wired in several ways to survive future famines...)

So, I was sympathetic to Pollan's writing on this before, but, er...

They're eating mud in Haiti.

Posted by CP | April 9, 2008 7:45 PM

Well, this should help the food shortage problem! We can all get drunk and forget our hunger pangs!

The problem is MEAT. Too much MEAT eating going on. And DAIRY. We don't need so much fucking dairy. I'm no biologist or whoever studies this stuff but how many other mammals drink milk past their infancy? What a load of crap.

Posted by El Seven | April 9, 2008 8:41 PM

None. But lots and lots of them eat meat.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | April 9, 2008 9:38 PM

Who cares what other animals do?

But, almost any omnivore will eat dairy if you feed it to them. Yum, it's all full of fat and protein!
It's not really the fault of other animals that they don't have opposable thumbs.

Though, if we're only going to eat things that other animals eat, maybe that means that we can stop with the tofu, soy milk, "protein bars", and other factory produced faux-food, too.

Posted by Thisbe | April 9, 2008 10:45 PM

You have to have food to have people. There are too many people. That is why we are having this problem to begin with. I don't see why it escapes absolutely EVERYONE'S logic that for us to survive as a species we need to have dramatically less human beings VERY SOON.

Posted by Zak | April 10, 2008 1:06 AM

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