Law For Food: The law affects what you eat. What you buy to eat affects the law.

Turf War
22 July 2008, 12:46 pm
Filed under: Energy Costs, Food and Energy, Regulation, Uncategorized

More on Raw Milk in Pennsylvania tomorrow. Today I found very interesting the Turf Wars article in this weeks’ New Yorker. It’s been my intuition that as energy and food costs rise, particularly if the economy begins to really slip, we’re going to see a great deal of suburban and urban yard converted into “victory garden” use, but my fear is that these will go the way of the original victory gardens: that is, they will exist until economic conditions enable our return to irresponsibility. Of course, the the emergency may wind up being rather longer than we think.

Tangential to this, Matt Yglesias has a good bit of writing about offshore drilling (which is intended to increase the supply of energy) as compared to high-density mixed-use zoning (which is intended to decrease the demand for energy).

Renewable Petrol
15 June 2008, 6:56 pm
Filed under: Corn-based Ethanol, Energy Costs, Food and Energy

No word on whether this process winds up being a net energy loss like corn-based ethanol, but it sounds promising:

“Ten years ago I could never have imagined I’d be doing this,” says Greg Pal, 33, a former software executive, as he squints into the late afternoon Californian sun. “I mean, this is essentially agriculture, right? But the people I talk to – especially the ones coming out of business school – this is the one hot area everyone wants to get into.”

He means bugs. To be more precise: the genetic alteration of bugs – very, very small ones – so that when they feed on agricultural waste such as woodchips or wheat straw, they do something extraordinary. They excrete crude oil.

Unbelievably, this is not science fiction. Mr Pal holds up a small beaker of bug excretion that could, theoretically, be poured into the tank of the giant Lexus SUV next to us.

I’m excited. Since it runs off of cellulose, it may be able to run off of “waste” cellulose, meaning that it won’t, or mightn’t, anyway, have such an impact on food prices.

The Road Less Traveled: Driving, Retail, and Energy Costs

Not that it’s anything new, but the New York Times has an article about how rising gas prices are affecting rural populations the most. From the article:

Mr. Clark and members of his work crew spoke of the big and little changes that higher gas prices have brought. The extra dollars spent at the pump mean electric bills are going unpaid and macaroni is replacing meat at supper. Donations to church are being put off, and video rentals are now unaffordable.

Cleveland Whiteside, who works with Mr. Clark and used to commute 30 miles a day, said his Jeep Cherokee was repossessed last month, because “I paid so much for gas to get to work I couldn’t pay my payments anymore.” His employer, Larry Clanton, has lent him a pickup truck so he can get to work.

Signs of pain and adaptation because of the cost of gas are everywhere. Local fried chicken restaurants are closing because people are eating out less. At the hardware store here, sales have plummeted to $30 a day from $250 a day a month ago.

I realize that this is only tangentially related to food policy, but it ties into other policy arrangements that have had an impact on the way we order our lives in the U.S., and relates to some of the same issues as food production and retail. Specifically, the rise of the strip mall and commuter culture. Author and researcher Stacey Mitchell, in her book Big-Box Swindle, notes that:

As corporate chains have come to dominate retauling, Americans are logging more road miles each year for shopping and errands…. It’s not that we’re taking more shopping trips, but rather that more of those trips are by automobile and the journeys are longer. As the chains build ever-bigger stores, each outlet depends on a greater number of households spread over a wider geographic area. Thus the distance between home and store continues to grow….

Driving has become less about choice and more about necessity. In much of America, walking or taking public transit to the store is no longer an option. Most families have moved into suburban subdivisions that, by virtue of both zoning codes and convention, are strictly residential and lack the small neighborhood shops common in older communities. Not surprisingly, families that live in the suburbs rely much more on their cars than those who live in traditional neighborhoods….

Corporate chains have a strong preference for locations and store designs that encourage and even necessitate traveling by car…. [T]he [very] nature of the shopping experience necessitates driving. Picking up a few things after work every day — which is fast and easy if you have a few good small stores in the neighborhood — is not at all convenient if you have to navigate a superstore the size of a football field and then wait in line behind families buying a week’s worth of supplies.

What does any of this have to do with food law? As I have said, very little, except that the rise of this driving culture and the consumer tendencies it fosters have contributed strongly to the conditions we face today. As big-box retailers cause smaller, independent stores to go out of business, consumers purchase more and more of their goods at the big-box stores. Since big-box stores save administrative costs by having a single purchaser buy an entire category or subcategory of products for a region of stores, it is really unrealistic for big-box retailers to buy locally produced goods such as food, even if they wanted to. (To say nothing of the fact that, if they did, they would quickly drive local producers out of business due to the concessions they are able to demand.)

The system is able to perpetuate itself because most people own cars and think little of driving 20 miles to grocery-shop. Thanks to the rising price of gas, all of that is about to change.

About that corn-based ethanol…
10 December 2007, 5:19 am
Filed under: Corn-based Ethanol, Eating Science, Food and Energy, Food Safety, Meat

Or maybe it’s bash-on-ethanol day here at Law for Food. According to the Food Law Profs Blog, some CAFOs are feeding cattle corn that is a by-product of ethanol production, and that this practice is leading to increased E.Coli presence in the cattle’s digestive tract. I don’t pretend to be a scientist, but my guess would be that the ethanol is produced by fermentation, and that the fermentation lowers the pH of the corn by-product, and that the corn by-product lowers the pH of the digestive tract so as to create an optimal environment for E.Coli to breed.

I don’t think I need to remind readers that quite a lot of meat has been recalled in the past tweve months.

Hops shortage in favor of subsidized corn
10 December 2007, 4:58 am
Filed under: Economics of Eating, Food and Energy, Subsidies

Craft beer connoisseurs will be facing higher prices due to a hops shortage driving prices up about 400% in a single year. According to the linked article, there had been a hops glut which made it difficult for individual growers to remain profitable, and a lot of farmers shifted from growing hops to growing subsidized corn for ethanol. Astute readers will recall that corn-based ethanol yeilds one sixth of the energy required to produce the ethanol in the first place. (Which reminds me, come to think of it, of the story, probaby apocryphal, that rabbit flesh requires more energy to digest than it yeilds in digestion, giving rise to the expression, again probably apocryphal, “starving to death on rabbit”.)

I want to say things about commmodity production, the various corn subsidies, and the way markets are supposed to operate, but I’m in the middle of studying for finals, so posting will be light.

Eating Well, Poorly

I was blessed in my childhood by having a mother who was very food-aware. We became farmers almost of necessity, as we were always very poor growing up: if we had not grown our own food, we would not have eaten. We never could afford health insurance, and because of this, my mother always sought to use food in place of medicine, and always sought prevention prior to illness rather than cure afterwards. “We can’t afford to get sick” she would joke, or half-joke anyway.

I never appreciated it at the time, because I saw our food as a mark of poverty and difference. Why should I have to suffer, i.e., not get to drink soda and eat fast food just because my parents were hippies and bad businesspeople? Field trips in school were particularly painful — other kids got to bring money and buy McDonald’s, I brought a big slab of homemade cornbread and a mason jar full of water.1 “Five dollars for lunch!” my mother would exclaim. “I can make lentil soup to feed all of us dinner and then lunch the next day for five dollars!”

My mother believes that food can replace medicine, that you could eat foods which kept up your immune system and avoid foods which depleted it. She had read studies on refined sugar, for instance, and always pointed out that not only does it rot one’s teeth, it apparently kills white blood cells. To my mother, it wasn’t that soda, for instance, or juice, was a pleasure which you should deny to avoid tooth decay and empty calories. It just didn’t make sense to drink it when water was free, for the same reason you wouldn’t pay somebody to hit you in the face with a shovel.

Naturally, I had a few years after I left home during which I ate all the foods that we kids weren’t supposed to eat. I think it’s interesting, though, how unintentionally I came back around to natural eating and food policy. I took a job at a deli in college and I loved it. It was down the street from my apartment and I was the opener; five, six days a week I would drag myself out of bed at six in the morning and run through the bitter cold (because it was always winter in those days, in my memory), and turn on the lights and make the coffee and set up the shops and do the preps and check in deliveries and try to make the morning cheerful for the early-birds and commuters. I loved it.

One thing led to another, I started working in food, and by the time I got to being a purchaser at Zingerman’s I had been cooking for a few years. I read Fast Food Nation and experienced two contradictory sensations. 1) During the act of reading the book I always really wanted a cheeseburger, and 2) every time I set the book down I didn’t want to eat anything that I hadn’t actually watched come up out of the ground. I kind of feel like that was a turning point for me. At the same time, I became very interested in the raw milk cheese ban and the science behind dairy production. What has struck me lately, thinking about this, is how holistic and connected all of these topics are. Raw milk takes you to e.coli takes you to grain feeding takes you to corn subsidy takes you to processed food and HFCS takes you to impending obesity crisis takes you to mediterranean diet takes you to local, seasonal eating and next thing you know you can’t. shut. up. about. food.

Which pretty much catches you up to the existence of Law for Food. Yesterday morning on my bike ride to school something else my mother used to say popped into my brain and stuck. Her friends used to ask how she managed to cook for all of us (and anybody else who happened by) the way she did (from scratch, often beginning with an armful from the garden or a quick trip to the root cellar) and she would explain that it was because didn’t work outside of the home. Then she would say how she believed that the peasant diet was the healthiest, most balanced diet you could eat. She would talk about how poor people can’t afford to get sick, so they don’t have the luxury of eating things that are bad for them, and she would also talk about the importance of the table, about how food builds community and how poor people have a better sense of community than the wealthy. Then she would say, and this always kind of confused me, “of course, nowadays you have to be rich to eat like a peasant.”

And it struck me how far I had come back around to seeing food the way my mother did, all those years ago when I was embarrassed to eat home-made food. It struck me that my mother’s little observation winds up being about the Farm Bill after all, and that, pace Marion Nestle, food is both love and health when your attitudes toward those things are in order.

Now, I realize how fortunate we were to have bought that farm outright, when my folks inherited some money, and that the reason we were able to eat so well was because we were land-rich and cash-poor. A lot of talk about nutrition can come across as unrealistic hectoring that doesn’t take into account the time and work constraints that we’re all under. Even if you own the land, growing your own food is a lot of work and requires a complete change in lifestyle and in attitude, and isn’t something everyone should or even can do. But we can do better than this. We can do better than inverting the economics of eating and promoting these unhealthy2 faux luxuries with the public funds.

Ultimately, the farm bill can never and should never put filet mignon on every table, but it can and does put ground beef — cheap, unsustainably-grown, overcrowded, medicated beef — in the drive-thrus and waterlogged cold cuts the lunchboxes. There are a lot of reasons, on the surface of it, to think that sustainable food, local food, and the rest of it are regressive; that what some of us are proposing is a return to the 19th century; that eliminating CAFOs and industrial food will raise the price of food, which will most hurt those who can’t afford local and sustainable food.

These objections do not make it past a surface analysis. Eliminating the farm subsidy means that the inverted food pyramid we currently consume will become a great deal more expensive; it means that Coke will no longer be price-competitive with water; it means that the marginal price difference between ethically-conscious meat and feedlot meat will diminish — reducing overall consumption of meat, making all meat more of a luxury and making ethically-conscious meat less of a luxury by comparison; it means we’ll be eating less food, but that the food we eat will be better. Most of all, it means we won’t be using federal money to make it easier for people without health insurance to buy foods that make them unhealthy, and harder for them to buy the foods that we all ought to be eating more of. It shouldn’t be necessary to own your own farm just to eat healthy.

1. This experience was formative in so many ways. For one thing, I have little patience now for parents who say that their kids just won’t eat vegetables. Eventually, they will, and even later, they will appreciate vegetables for what they are. For another, I will never be less than genuinely grateful for a home-made meal, no matter what. I resent the term “food snob” because I would rather have lentil soup with love than filet without. Because of my experiences in as a cook and seller of high-end food, and because I’m someone who frankly talks about food or food policy all the damn time, many of my friends say that they would never cook for me because they can’t cook well enough, and although I think they mean it as a compliment, it offends me a little. Early in our relationship, I was impressed when my significant other said to me, “I bet none of your friends ever cook when you’re around. I’d like to make you dinner.”

2. Lest we get into trade disparagement issues, I should point out that from a health standpoint everything is unhealthy when consumed in sufficient quantities, and that these quantities are different for different categories of food. It is simply a fact, though, that Americans in general overconsume in the fat and protien categories and underconsume in the vegetable and whole grain categories. From a health standpoint, there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating meat, just like there’s nothing wrong in principle with eating ice cream. There is, however, something wrong with eating ice cream at every meal, and the same thing is wrong with eating meat at every meal.

Paying For It, Round 2

The following chart appears in connection with an article in Good Medicine, entitled “Why Does a Salad Cost More Than A Big Mac”

The whole article is worth reading. Also, regarding the kind of food we subsidize, I found the following bit by Bourdain to be worthwhile:

It really offends me when I hear, “What have you eaten that’s weird, strange, bizarre?” For example, Thais have a non-dairy food culture. Show them someone eating cottage cheese or the ranch dressing at the salad bar, and they’d be horrified. Or the size of our food. I mean, you see some 425-pound human being with a Stetson in the Houston airport shoving a Cinnabon into their face, you know, and a 89-pound Thai grandad seeing this just thinks he’s in another dimension — a really scary one.

Hat tip: Ethicurean

Update: There’s some informative discussion of this chart going on at Serious Eats. I confess that I am no longer sure that the above chart is accurate, striking though it may be. I am not sure it is accurate to refer to subsidies for feed as subsidies to the meat and dairy industries. I am not sure it’s inaccurate, either, because a major effect of the grain subsidy is to reduce the internal costs of producing meat and dairy. It seems a little too cute to say that we subsidize grain but not meat when most of that grain goes into meat production, but it is technically incorrect to say that we subsidise meat.

That’s what I get for posting during Federal Income Taxation.