Up, Up, and Away: Food Prices Soaring Worldwide

Image from al-Arab Online.

A few years ago, when I started eating a strict gluten-free diet, my grocery bill tripled. I was shocked at having to pay $6 for a loaf of bread, and began using a bread maker to try to cut costs. Gluten-eating friends and family were invariably horrified when I told them how much gluten-free bread cost.

Today, a $6 loaf of bread isn’t uncommon. The price of flour has risen 40.6% this quarter, according to Forbes Magazine. Friend of the blog KeenEye, who owns a gourmet pizzeria in Oregon, reports:

Our flour?

Now at $37.52 a bag.

Yep. From $9 bucks a bag 142 days ago.

I’m pretty much freaking out.

She’s not alone. Wheat and rice prices are spiraling, causing a rising sense of panic. Business magazines have begun throwing around words like “famine” and “peak wheat.” Rice has hit a 20-year high, and many rice-exporting countries are instituting bans or caps on exports in the hopes of meeting domestic demand:

Vietnam’s government announced here on Friday that it would cut rice exports by nearly a quarter this year. The government hoped that keeping more rice inside the country would hold down prices.

The same day, India effectively banned the export of all but the most expensive grades of rice. Egypt announced on Thursday that it would impose a six-month ban on rice exports, starting April 1, and on Wednesday, Cambodia banned all rice exports except by government agencies. (New York Times)

Food prices are spiking everywhere: while US consumers are feeling the squeeze with an overall 8.9% increase, in Egypt, prices are up by 50%. Food riots have broken out in Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen, according to the Times; the Globe and Mail adds Egypt and Cameroon to the list.

There are a number of reasons for the spike in prices. Read the rest of this entry »

If You Teach Someone to Fish: Creative Solutions to the Food Crisis

The health crisis here in the US is reaching a critical point. There are drugs in our drinking water, sick cows in our meat supply, and additives in pretty much everything. We’re seeing huge increases in diabetes rates and bowel disease. We are not a healthy country.

The food industry isn’t entirely to blame: pollution, occupational exposure to chemicals, and lack of time/money to exercise are part of it too. You can’t simply blame one industry, but the overall effect of all of these factors is that we are exposed to a brew of chemicals unprecedented in human history, and we don’t know exactly how it is affecting us. You can study, say, the effects of dioxin exposure through tampon use; but what happens to someone who’s exposed to a multitude of chemical products through tampon use and food additives and pesticides and polluted water and industrial chemicals released into the air? How do you control for all that? You don’t, you can’t, so we’re reduced to guesswork. And a lack of proof means that the government can’t or won’t curb the corporations that pollute. (See Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream for more on this.)

So what do we do? (Solutions after the jump.) Read the rest of this entry »

Big Food Discovers War Profiteering

Via Another Green World:

New patent laws being imposed on Iraq will make traditional seed-saving practices illegal. Farmers will now have no choice but to purchase copyrighted seeds from the likes of Monsanto.

For generations, small farmers in Iraq operated in an essentially unregulated, informal seed supply system. Farm-saved seed and the free innovation with and exchange of planting materials among farming communities has long been the basis of agricultural practice. This has been made illegal under the new law.

The seeds farmers are now allowed to plant — “protected” crop varieties brought into Iraq by transnational corporations in the name of agricultural reconstruction — will be the property of the corporations. While historically the Iraqi constitution prohibited private ownership of biological resources, the new U.S.-imposed patent law introduces a system of monopoly rights over seeds.[…]

The term of the monopoly is 20 years for crop varieties and 25 for trees and vines. During this time the protected variety de facto becomes the property of the breeder, and nobody can plant or otherwise use this variety without compensating the breeder.

This new law means that Iraqi farmers can neither freely legally plant nor save for re-planting seeds of any plant variety registered under the plant variety provisions of the new patent law. This deprives farmers what they and many others worldwide claim as their inherent right to save and replant seeds.

The new law is presented as being necessary to ensure the supply of good quality seeds in Iraq and to facilitate Iraq’s accession to the WTO. What it will actually do is facilitate the penetration of Iraqi agriculture by the likes of Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow Chemical — the corporate giants that control seed trade across the globe. (Source: Organic Consumers’ Association press release)

Particularly galling is that this measure is meant to ‘facilitate Iraq’s accession to the WTO.’ As if Iraq were an ally receiving equal treatment and a place at the capitalist table, rather than a colonial possession being forced at gunpoint to serve as a proving ground for new and untried methods of corporate domination.

News you can use, from sushi to booze

-Asian chefs and kitchen workers are on strike in Israel. The Israeli government, which initially brought the chefs in as part of a move to replace Palestinian workers during the first Intifada, has decided it no longer wants them. Instead, they plan to train Israelis to cook Asian food instead. Two wrongs make a bad meal.

-In happier and more local news, the latest fruit of gentrification in Fishtown has arrived in the form of the Memphis Taproom. It’s a new bar that promises to serve tasty local food and, according to the Philadelphia City Paper, “a sizable American craft selection in addition to Belgian, German and English brews.” And for this transplanted Pittsburgher, it gets even better: “It would be pretty much a sin not to have really good pierogies and really nice kielbasa,” says co-owner Brendan Hartranft. All this, and it’s right down the street? I can’t wait until this place opens, in April. Oh, and they’ve promised to keep prices down. Sweet. [where: 19125]

-It’s the most wonderful time of the year… the Philly Craft Beer Festival is coming up!

-A Columbia University study finds that body image is a better predictor of health than obesity. Furthermore, the results seem to suggest that discrimination and body-based oppression and the stress associated with them have a bigger impact on fat people’s health than the weight itself:

“Our data suggest that some of the obesity epidemic may be partially attributable to social constructs that surround ideal body types,” said Peter Muennig, MD, MPH, Mailman School of Public Health assistant professor of Health Policy and Management. “Younger persons, Whites, and women are disproportionately affected by negative body image concerns, and these groups unduly suffer from BMI-associated morbidity and mortality.”

…There is evidence that discrimination against heavy people is pervasive, occurring in social settings, the workplace, and the home. These processes are likely internalized, leading to a negative body image that also may serve as a source of chronic stress.

“The data add support to our hypothesis that the psychological stress that accompanies a negative body image explains some of the morbidity commonly associated with being obese. Our finding that the desire to lose weight was a much stronger predictor of unhealthy days than was BMI further suggests that perceived difference plays a greater role in generating disease,” said Dr. Muennig.

Interesting findings indeed. And if you’re trying to feel a little more sane about what you eat and how you feel about your body, check out this post about intuitive eating over at Shapely Prose.

-Good article on the Bush administration’s linguistic sleight-of-hand when it comes to food safety, from Gourmet.com’s regular feature Politics of the Plate.

-Finally, I’m told that shellfish are particularly sweet and lovely this time of year. Mario Batali’s recipe for crab tortelloni with scallions and poppy seeds might have to be our fancy, splurge-y meal for the week. There’s nothing like good crabmeat treated well. I used to turn down homemade crab cakes during my picky-eater childhood; I could kick myself for doing that now!

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Rethinking Meat? Why We Need A Movement

There’s an excellent piece in the Sunday New York Times– “Rethinking the Meat-Guzzler” by Mark Bittman.

A sea change in the consumption of a resource that Americans take for granted may be in store – something cheap, plentiful, widely enjoyed and a part of daily life. And it isn’t oil.

It’s meat.

The two commodities share a great deal: Like oil, meat is subsidized by the federal government. Like oil, meat is subject to accelerating demand as nations become wealthier, and this, in turn, sends prices higher. Finally – like oil – meat is something people are encouraged to consume less of, as the toll exacted by industrial production increases, and becomes increasingly visible.

Bittman goes on to enumerate the environmental costs of the mass production of meat. He points out that meat consumption has vastly increased, both globally and domestically; meat consumption is on the rise in industrializing nations like India and China, while here in the US

Americans eat about the same amount of meat as we have for some time, about eight ounces a day, roughly twice the global average. At about 5 percent of the world’s population, we “process” (that is, grow and kill) nearly 10 billion animals a year, more than 15 percent of the world’s total.

That’s a huge rate of consumption, far more than is needed to meet the protein needs of the population. It’s rendered particularly obscene by the fact that feeding grain to cattle and poultry to produce meat is far less efficient, both in terms of calorie intake and labor and environmental costs, than simply using that grain to feed the hundreds of millions of people who are hungry. (Check out the graphics provided with the story for a useful illustration.) In addition, Bittman looks to the water pollution and carbon emissions produced by feedlots, pointing out that while producers have long been able to foist the environmental costs of meat production onto taxpayers, resources are now stretched to the point where such pollution may become increasingly difficult to sustain.

This is, of course, all old news. Frances Moore Lappe wrote about much of it in Diet for a Small Planet back in 1971; recent bestsellers like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma have similar analyses. But only very recently have such ideas left the pages of vegetarian cookbooks and ecological journals and entered the arena of mainstream debate; it’s interesting to see potential solutions being kicked around in what is, let’s face it, the country’s paper of record.

So what solutions does Bittman propose? Read the rest of this entry »

Marion Nestle on Food Allergies

Today on Eating Liberally, nutritionist Marion Nestle takes on food allergies. She’s rightly cautious about the science, but notes that rather than dismissing the very real increase in food allergies, the lack of solid research means that we need more research. It should be obvious, but the funding hasn’t been granted. Check it out.

More on Nestle’s work here and here.  Or, of course, you can read her blog, which has interesting tidbits several times a day.

NYT: Food Allergies Stir a Mother to Action

Great article in today’s New York Times about Robyn O’Brien, a mother on a mission.

Working largely from a laptop on her dining room table, she has looked deep into the perplexing world of childhood food allergies and seen a conspiracy that threatens the health of America’s children. And, she profoundly believes, it is up to her and parents everywhere to stop it.

Her theory — that the food supply is being manipulated with additives, genetic modification, hormones and herbicides, causing increases in allergies, autism and other disorders in children — is not supported by leading researchers or the largest allergy advocacy groups.

That only feeds Ms. O’Brien’s conviction that the influence of what she sees as the profit-hungry food industry runs deep. In just a few dizzying steps, she can take you from a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese to Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds to Donald H. Rumsfeld, who once ran the company that created the sweetener aspartame.

Through creative use of e-mail, relentless inquiry and a persona carefully crafted around the protective mother archetype, Ms. O’Brien has emerged as a populist hero among parents who troll the Internet for any hint about why their children have food allergies.

I’ve been convinced for a few years now that the rampant adulteration of the food supply is behind the rapid increase in food allergies (and gastrointestinal disorders) in industrialized countries, and in countries where the food supply is industrializing. Ms. O’Brien, you are onto something– don’t let go.

(Note: the reader responses are also worth checking out.  There’s also a debate about this issue happening on Serious Eats.)