The Global Food Outlook
May 28, 2011 8:19 PM   Subscribe

The New Geopolitics of Food.

A missing piece from the analysis: food wastage.
posted by StrikeTheViol (32 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
here's a chart on food wastage, also btw...

China faces worst drought in 50 years - "water shortages have steadily worsened during the past decade, as increased agricultural irrigation and worsening water contamination have hit supplies. China's available water per capita is just a quarter of the world average and the lowest of any large economy" viz. Yangtze River Hitting Bottom, cf. Economic Activity on the Yangtze & China Rations Power Use Amid Drought

Three Sobering Notes About China - "As anyone who has traveled inside China knows, pollution and environmental devastation really are the nation's number-one emergency, and the main barrier to continuation of the past 30 years' economic boom. The government has started working hard on this problem, but it is a more serious one than is generally publicized."

China's Interest in Farmland Makes Brazil Uneasy - "Even as Brazil, Argentina and other nations move to impose limits on farmland purchases by foreigners, the Chinese are seeking to more directly control production themselves." cf. Brazil and China: the 'perfect match'

Ecosystem-based Public Goods - "Ecosystem-based public goods are important economic inputs (in the U.S. economy and elsewhere) and many are threatened or have been degraded. As a result, future growth will require even more labor, physical capital, and technological innovation." cf. Profile of Tyler, viz. Tyler Cowen, America's Hottest Economist
posted by kliuless at 9:11 PM on May 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


The average European or North American consumer wastes 95kg-115kg of food a year, above all fruits and vegetables. In contrast, the average consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia or south-east Asia wastes only 6kg-11kg.

I'm always shocked when adults leave food on their plates. It's a truly shameful habit.
posted by BinGregory at 9:14 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm always shocked when adults leave food on their plates. It's a truly shameful habit.
But then so is overeating.
posted by planet at 9:23 PM on May 28, 2011 [7 favorites]


Hedge fund farms.
posted by 445supermag at 9:35 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


In the United States, when world wheat prices rise by 75 percent, as they have over the last year, it means the difference between a $2 loaf of bread and a loaf costing maybe $2.10. If, however, you live in New Delhi, those skyrocketing costs really matter: A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much.

Prices are climbing, but the impact is not at all being felt equally. For Americans, who spend less than one-tenth of their income in the supermarket, the soaring food prices we've seen so far this year are an annoyance, not a calamity. But for the planet's poorest 2 billion people, who spend 50 to 70 percent of their income on food, these soaring prices may mean going from two meals a day to one.


It's so surreal living in the first world, a global food crisis has been going on for years and I barely notice it.
posted by riruro at 9:37 PM on May 28, 2011


I'm always shocked when adults leave food on their plates. It's a truly shameful habit.

The problem isn't "not eating everything" it's "taking too much food."

It's one thing to encourage people to take less next time around, if they end up with excess food on their plate when they're no longer hungry. But that's very different from causing guilt over not "cleaning your plate," which just encourages overeating.

If you've had enough and there's food left on your plate, let that be a reminder not to take as much next time. But for the love of god don't eat it just because it's there. We have a bigger public-health problem in this country with overeating, in the form of obesity and diabetes and everything else, than we do with starvation.

Shoveling down that extra waffle that you mistakenly ordered isn't going to help the starving people in [any other country].
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:11 PM on May 28, 2011 [5 favorites]



It's so surreal living in the first world......


Don't worry........politicians and bankers are here to help you, the citizen, with this terrible problem!
posted by lalochezia at 10:13 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


From the article
- In 2010, the US harvested nearly 400 million tons of grain, of which 126 million tons went to ethanol fuel distilleries.
- Brazil distills ethanol from sugar cane and ranks second in production US while the EU goal of getting 10 percent of its transport energy from renewables, mostly biofuels, by 2020 is also diverting land from food crops.
This means that the price of grain is now unequivocaly tied to the price of oil
- countries are scrambling to secure their own parochial interests at the expense of the common good.
- 2010 World Bank analysis of these "land grabs" reported that a total of nearly 140 million acres were involved , an area that exceeds the cropland devoted to corn and wheat combined in the US. Such acquisitions also typically involve water rights.
See this Observer article and previous FPP with pdf map.
- Temperatures are rising, water tables are falling as farmers overpump for irrigation.
Water or lack of it will be the causus belli for future wars; and of course Wall Street being intrinsic in food speculation doesn't help but as price of basic food is now related to price of oil this is a closed and vicious circle.
posted by adamvasco at 1:09 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Boy are we fucked. At least in the disaster movies, all of the bad incidents that lead the main scientist character to actually be listened to by the president happen back-to-back. Real life doesn't even give us that. Just something bad followed by a month or two of calmness. This allows a sense of complacency to continue amongst the population. Doomed! Doomed, I say! I think I'm gonna go get some ice cream today; it's gonna be a hot one.
posted by frodisaur at 1:55 AM on May 29, 2011


Fruit and vegetable wastage, imho, also has more to do wiht purchasing patterns and distribution systems than with overeating alone.

In South Asia, ASEAN, Sub Saharan Africa etc you can buy vegetables on demand - majority may not have fridges or even otherwise, and you can go up to the guy on the street corner and purchase cabbage by weight (200 gms please) or by the money you have available (give me Rs 2 of cabbage). The habit is to purchase for fresh for each meal (if you are wealthier) or just what you need (if you have cash available daily from informal income streams). In a village in the Philippines, I've seen plastic bags of two slices of carrot, a bit of cabbage and half an onion that you can buy as a 'kit' for stew.

In the supermarket culture prevalent in the US and Europe (except for farmer's markets but even there you have to buy teh whole vegetable) you have to buy a whole cauliflower or cabbage or what have you if you want to cook it and thus pay for the whole weight and size of the veggie. This leads to wastage if you cook it just once or twice over the next few days.

Supermarket packaging for non perishables also enables and supports bulk shopping by car - something that doesn't work for fruits and veg. I've noticed that they also spoil faster even if kept in teh fridge.

There are also sell by dates, things like the EU's preference for straight bananas and whatnot all of which goes towards increasing the amount of wastage. Plus in teh 'third world' there will always be someone willing to buy a bruised veg for less money or at the end of it all, animals who will eat it. Food is never wasted, as far as possible. (My dorm in design school for example would have scavengers collect leftovers from each night's dinner while scrapings from plates which were considered tainted were taken away by cowherds etc)

food is wasted, more in the US than in the EU and so much of it has to do with hte way the whole system is designed. Oversized portions served is part of the system design innit?
posted by infini at 2:18 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fruit and vegetable wastage, imho, also has more to do wiht purchasing patterns and distribution systems than with overeating alone.

Not to mention smaller households in the first world, it's a lot easier to overbuy a particular perishable.
posted by atrazine at 3:02 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Now that I've RTFA, the beancounter in me wants to pick holes - its minor inaccuracies but does undermine th credibility of the whole article for me in many ways, seeing as how it is Foreign Policy magazine.

A doubling in the world price of wheat actually means that the wheat you carry home from the market to hand-grind into flour for chapatis costs twice as much. And the same is true with rice. If the world price of rice doubles, so does the price of rice in your neighborhood market in Jakarta. And so does the cost of the bowl of boiled rice on an Indonesian family's dinner table.


Jakarta is in Indonesia.

More alarming still, the world is losing its ability to soften the effect of shortages. In response to previous price surges, the United States, the world's largest grain producer, was effectively able to steer the world away from potential catastrophe. From the mid-20th century until 1995, the United States had either grain surpluses or idle cropland that could be planted to rescue countries in trouble. When the Indian monsoon failed in 1965, for example, President Lyndon Johnson's administration shipped one-fifth of the U.S. wheat crop to India, successfully staving off famine. We can't do that anymore; the safety cushion is gone.


From The Threat of Famine, Time, December 1965

The shortages could hardly come at a worse time for India; the U.S. is now using its Public Law 480 "Food for Peace" as leverage to coax recipient nations toward wiser economic policies (see THE NATION). Though Indian Minister of Food Chidambaram Subramaniam desperately wants a new long-term U.S. commitment on grain shipments, Washington insists on delivering only on a month-by-month basis until India presents convincing proof that its next five-year plan will modernize its famine-prone farm system. And though Washington won't say so, it may well be that no long-term agreement for U.S. wheat will be forthcoming until India complies with the United Nations order to pull back its troops from the truce line along the Pakistan border and show some sign of interest in a settlement of the Kashmir question.

The geopolitics of food, indeed.
posted by infini at 3:54 AM on May 29, 2011


We have a bigger public-health problem in this country with overeating, in the form of obesity and diabetes and everything else, than we do with starvation.

Oh no, not guilt! The idea that Americans are morbidly obese because they are forcing themselves to clean their plates is as silly as the idea that they would be fit and trim if they left half of it to rot. Americans are in fact living proof that you can horrifically overeat and waste scandalous amounts of food, all at the same time. Waste as much per capita as a South/SE Asian gets in their belly, if I'm reading that chart right. And that is at least in part a moral failing, a cultural failing, that a little bit of guilt might do some good for. Whether you are rich or poor, fat or thin, you simply don't push away a plate half finished in polite company if you've been raised right. I don't think America's public health system would be irreparably harmed by adopting some basic good manners.
posted by BinGregory at 4:16 AM on May 29, 2011


I was brought up to believe that completely "cleaning your plate" is bad manners, because it implies you weren't given enough food. That said, I always clean my plate at home, where I'm in charge of how much food is on my plate. But someone needs to tell restaurants that we don't actually need servings that would feed a family of four on a single plate (Cheesecake Factory, I'm looking at you.)
posted by Daily Alice at 4:51 AM on May 29, 2011


Food: The Hidden Driver Of Global Politics (NPR interview with Lester Brown.)
posted by gen at 6:34 AM on May 29, 2011


You know what sparked the French Revolution? Grain riots.

Sure, it was political maneuvering that got the aristocracy up in a huff, and a good chunk of the middle class was with them, but the mass of the people didn't really give a damn until food prices skyrocketed. The previous two days had seen the populace go after customs houses blamed for rising food prices and basically anywhere there was rumored to be stockpiles of grain.

People will never riot about health care. Not enough people need it at any given time for it to be the kind of issue that motivates popular unrest. But food? People will riot for food.
posted by valkyryn at 6:41 AM on May 29, 2011


Whether you are rich or poor, fat or thin, you simply don't push away a plate half finished in polite company if you've been raised right.
I push away a plate of half-finished food every single time I go out to eat. There is no restaurant in America that sizes portions for a 115-pound woman, and I'm not going to eat to the point of feeling ill just because portion sizes are out of whack with my nutritional requirements. If that bothers people, it's their problem. I was taught that it's rude to notice what other people eat, so I guess we can think of each other as assholes.

(I do get doggie bags when it's feasible.)
posted by craichead at 7:55 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


a bit more on brazil (altho i'm a bit wary/weary of wrm):
Today Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soybeans, growing them in the tropical climate zone on land once thought to be hopelessly infertile. A combination of better agricultural techniques and new varieties of soybeans adapted to the tropics has turned a wasteland into whatever one calls the tofu equivalent of a breadbasket.

This is not problem free, nothing is. While soybean cultivation takes place mostly on semi-arid savannah land rather than in rain forests, there can be a knock-on effect. As more of the savannahs are converted to soybean production, cattle ranchers may clear more rainforest to replace the lost pastureland. Nevertheless, using grasslands to produce protein directly rather than feeding it to cattle is a more efficient and more sustainable way to use the land.

And it turns out that you can actually grow more soybeans in the tropics than in the temperate zone: with the tropical year-round growing season you can get two and even three crops a year from the same fields in Brazil. (New techniques involving the use of nitrogen fixing bacteria help reduce the need for fertilizer even with the extra crops.) According to Brazilian agronomists I’ve met, much of Africa’s unproductive, hot and semi-arid land could also be used to grow protein-rich soy, and Brazilians are already working to share these ideas and techniques with African farmers.
basically he's optimistic that brazil is becoming an 'agricultural superpower' that will prove "Malthusian panic artists" wrong, however if you look at crop yields globally that doesn't yet seem to be the case...

and that's not even taking into account that, before you know it, the way we're going, there will be no more fish in the sea* (previously:1,2,3)

and for an overview of some potentially forthcoming water conflicts...while the danube offers a case study...

---
*cf. 40 Insightful (Yet Deadly Creative) Infographics... oh and, fwiw, Paying More For Routine Visits, Why Do Americans Pay More For Healthcare? & Deportation In America
posted by kliuless at 10:56 AM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Such problems are often invisible to top-down management structures remote from where the problems/waste ... and also invisible to locals too close to, or part of, the problem.

Case in point: Fertilizer wastage costs China 52 million tons of grain. It took a recent academic study to spot this fact.

In the wealthy eastern part of China, farmers spread more than 180 kilogrammes of nitrogen on each hectare of their land.... In the poorer western part of China, nitrogen use is below 100 and even 50 kilogrammes per hectare per year. If the eastern provinces were to limit their fertilizer use to 180 kilogrammes per year, the remainder - 1.2 million tons of nitrogen - could go to the poorer agriculture areas. That would result in additional grain production of 52 million tons, Wang calculates.

I'm puzzled over a different question: what makes it possible for grocery stores to make more profit keeping food at a fixed price until it has to be thrown out, rather than lowering the price until it sells to people who would otherwise do without?
Whatever that equation is, it could be unbalanced in favor of less waste ... by calculating a larger good, rather than an isolated subsystem.
posted by Twang at 3:45 PM on May 29, 2011


Jakarta is in Indonesia

You're inferring some subtle relation not implied by the text. I'm sure Foreign Policy knows where Jakarta is.
posted by ryanrs at 3:53 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Bernanke says it's not his fault, but I'm not sure I believe him.

I'm puzzled over a different question: what makes it possible for grocery stores to make more profit keeping food at a fixed price until it has to be thrown out, rather than lowering the price until it sells to people who would otherwise do without?


Grocery stores I patronize lower prices on close to sell by dates all the time. But point taken. Question becomes whether it's too time consuming to reprice all those goods or to just let it go. Supermarket margins are pretty thin, and adding complexity to the workload for a small quantity is probably not worth it. Crazy making, but there it is.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:11 PM on May 29, 2011


Waste as much per capita as a South/SE Asian gets in their belly, if I'm reading that chart right.

On second glance, I wasn't reading that chart right. Rather Americans waste was much at the table as South/SE Asians lose in their entire supply chain, more or less. Sorry about that.
posted by BinGregory at 6:09 PM on May 29, 2011


the economics of dirt (via via) oh and fwiw Dirt! The Movie (on hulu ;)
posted by kliuless at 7:42 AM on May 30, 2011


"The food system must be overhauled if we are to overcome the increasingly pressing challenges of climate change, spiralling food prices and the scarcity of land, water and energy," via BBC
posted by infini at 2:18 AM on May 31, 2011


Guatemala pays high price for global food system failings
posted by homunculus at 8:50 AM on May 31, 2011


Bankers and politicians have turned food into a betting game
posted by adamvasco at 1:33 AM on June 7, 2011


The last monthly report on global food prices before the summer is now out.
According to the UN's latest update on global food prices, the cost of basic foods is still 37% higher than it was last year
posted by adamvasco at 8:42 AM on June 7, 2011


what makes it possible for grocery stores to make more profit keeping food at a fixed price until it has to be thrown out

I've been thinking about this. I suspect it's due to the incredibly low price of food relative to labor costs, in the first world. It's cheaper to just throw the food out than reprice it, even if your employees are making minimum wage. Most grocery stores run on thin margins as it is, and I assume they have the absolute minimum staff required to remain in operation.

That said, most grocery stores I've ever been to will reprice some types of produce as they get close to being spoiled. I'm guessing this is because there are dedicated employees in the produce section who can keep an eye on things and move stuff that's about to go bad over to the clearance table, or mark the price down.

What surprises me is that they don't drop the price on milk as it approaches its sell-by date. E.g., you ought to be able to buy milk that only has one day left before it has to get dumped for less than milk that has a week left. But most places just shelve the newer stuff behind the old stuff and hope it sells. Again I suspect, though without firm evidence, that the reason is labor costs.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:14 AM on June 7, 2011


Kadin2048, that might make sense except for the fact that labour costs are higher in Finland and they do mark down food by 30% or so as it approaches its last valid day (for ready to eat stuff) or sell by date (i've seen the stickers on everything from ground meat to milk). Could be a mix of business reasons as you outline and perhaps cultural conditioning against wasting food?

An interesting conversation today in Nairobi with my colleague on business models, pricing an d food - he was telling me about the city's first frozen yoghurt store where the product is priced per 15ml and you walk in with a cup and can choose your flavours and mix. For him the issue was with the fact that a) you have no idea how much it will cost as you are unable to estimate weight accurately and b) unlike say fruit or candy, if its more than you expected to spend (or had in your pocket) you couldn't put it back or pull some out to lighten the weight.

Its a model that works for credit cards, impulse buying and much higher disposable incomes than an environment where its cash based and prepaid phones are over 90% of the subscriber base.

(In reality, he says they're very popular with the local expat community (and local creamy layer) since the continent's UN offices are all headquartered here)
posted by infini at 12:59 PM on June 8, 2011


I haven't ever been to Finland but in other places in Northern Europe it seemed like the price of food was significantly higher than in the US. So it might not be the absolute cost of food or the absolute cost of labor, but one relative to the other. The US has very low food prices in terms of labor-hours, at least compared to anyplace I've ever traveled, or spoken to anyone who has traveled from. (At least of manufactured/heavily-processed food.)

Although the more I've been thinking about it, the food waste in US grocery stores may be less than it appears. At most local groceries, most of the bread products are taken back by the bakery/vendor if they're not sold after a few days, and in some cases taken to "thrift stores" where they're sold for lower prices.* The butcher does put stickers on the meat that's getting close to its sell date. And the produce does get marked down depending on condition and how long it's been around.

The only thing that's extremely perishable that doesn't seem to get marked down is milk ... but that may be because there's a mandated price floor on milk to protect the producers. That was the first thing that came to mind when I was thinking about items not getting re-priced, but it may be a special case (albeit a regrettable one).

* I found that I live right around the corner from an Entenmann's bakery outlet / thrift store, which is a dangerous piece of knowledge if there ever was one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:09 PM on June 8, 2011


in other places in Northern Europe it seemed like the price of food was significantly higher than in the US.

That may have something to do with the fact that the EU has arguably the single most protected farmers in the world. It's gotten to be a stereotype. Basically, the EU spends about half of its budget propping up food prices by subsidizing farmers and has absolutely punitive tariffs and import control laws preventing anyone else from selling food there.
posted by valkyryn at 12:42 PM on June 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


the EU...has absolutely punitive tariffs and import control laws preventing anyone else from selling food there.

Not sure if you've ever actually been inside the EU, but this is kinda zany. Yes there is a huge subsidy to EU farmers, and tariffs can be steep, but the idea that no-one else sells food in the EU has absolutely no basis in fact. As an example, we're in the middle of the British asparagus season, yet Tesco, the largest supermarket chain, is currently stocking Peruvian product as their standard asparagus. I regularly buy green beans from Kenya, peppers from Israel, processed food products from Thailand, salmon from Alaska etc.

US political posturing about the EU isn't always entirely fact based.
posted by howfar at 12:36 PM on June 22, 2011


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