Saturday, August 2, 2008


I couple of things have contributed to this idea over the last few months. First, the recently skyrocketing price of commodities -- oil obviously, but also food. Second, the cyclically popular idea that there will soon be more people than the earth can sustain. And third, I've started reading Jared Diamond's "Collapse," which analyzes how societies can succeed or fail to overcome environmental challenges, and the consequences of that success or failure. The overall themes leading to this post are thus increasing demand for limited resources, especially food.

Now, something I've been thinking of increasingly over the last few weeks is that, while rich people can afford a doubling of food prices, poor people cannot. For example, while Tara and I are not overly wealthy, food accounts for only 5% of our monthly spending (rent and daycare are exorbitant in Boston). If that doubled to 10%, we would hardly notice. However, in poor countries many people spend the majority of their income on food. What happens to them when food prices double?

Unfortunately, while the poor suffer most from rising food prices, they also have the least control over them -- I think that rich countries essentially set the price of food. For, one of the greatest expenses involved in growing food is the fuel necessary to plant, harvest, and transport it to market. And it is rich and developing countries, with our ever-increasing demand for energy, that are driving the rapid rise in the cost of fuel, and hence, in the cost of food as well. (Note that I'm a fairly confident believer in efficient markets -- that is, for example, that the price of oil and food is more or less determined by supply and demand, rather than any conspiracy among oil companies.)

So the problem sounds depressingly complicated. But as I was doing the dishes the other day, I was convicted by the very simple fact that, in scraping some leftover food into the garbage, I was wasting food. And in cleaning out spoiled leftovers from the fridge, I realized that these, too, were wasted meals that could have been eaten. And what about meat? It's oh-so-tasty, I agree, but we eat far more than we really need, and it takes dozens of pounds of grain to grow 1 pound of meat (great article). Over time, these small acts add up, causing our contribution to global food demand to be higher than it otherwise might be. This undoubtedly increases prices by some not-insignificant amount, and we already saw that the poor suffer most for this.

So what can we do? Of course, in a nation where overconsumption of food is becoming a huge medical problem, it would be silly to advocate "cleaning your plate" if you're already full. But what if we simply put less food on our plates -- eating more, smaller helpings just until full, instead of piling the food on high initially (are you listening, Cheesecake Factory)? What if we diligently ate all of the leftovers in the fridge instead of letting them go bad? And while I have no desire to give up burgers and bratwurst, I could probably live with smaller ones.

Think about it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yup - reduce, ruse, recycle. Simple sounding but difficult in practice, at least at first. I'm about to start "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan - I'm sure he has quite a bit to say about all this!

Also, I highly recommend Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life." She and her family only eat what they can grow or obtain locally (within an hour from home) for an entire year. It's fascinating. I never realized how costly it is to eat food out of season!

-Janie White