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Archives for Food Economics

The Myth of Sustainability


When foodies use the word “sustainable” they typically mean a system that doesn’t require outside inputs – no chemical fertilizer or herbicides, no purchased feed for livestock, and only water that falls from the sky or flows on the surface. In other words everything needed to produce vegetables, fruit, and meat over the long term is either already available (water, for instance) or can be produced (manure fertilizer) on location.

This a wonderfully pleasant, bucolic idea that takes many proponents back to a distant time when farming was less of a business and more of a way of life. But before you write it off as hopelessly romantic and idealistic you should know that a number of studies have found that such operations are capable of at least equaling the calories-per-acre production of state-of-the-art industrial farming operations. There are, however, a couple of caveats.

First, the successful farms are located in areas sporting both plenty of clean water and rich soil. Second, the farmers running these operations devote far more time and effort to their farms than the average mega- or even mid-size farmer does. It takes a lot of data collection, analysis, and planning to achieve such yields without external inputs. Add in the actual physical labor and farmers such as the Salatins, who Michael Pollan describes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, work far harder than almost anyone else in our economy. Only someone who truly loves farming would invest the effort required.

The hard work quotient is just the first road block to nationwide sustainable agriculture – the utopia many foodies dream of when they think of the future of farming. There’s also the issue of arable land. Large swaths of this country, even those that provide much of our produce, are incapable of self-sufficient agriculture. A significant percentage of the fruits and vegetables in this country come from the Central Valley of California – an area that relies on water piped in from Northern California. Arizona and New Mexico are also major producers and their climate makes Southern California look like rain forest. With irrigation these areas produce almost enough vegetables to feed the nation – and the do so year round.

Obviously the western mountain chains (and large areas of the eastern mountains) are incapable of supporting more than subsistence farming. Additionally the vicinity of major metropolitan areas (think NYC, Chicago, Boston, and so on) means a lot of potential farmland is already in use and what land is available is too expensive for agricultural uses.

Government policies also impede sustainability by encouraging mono-cultural (one crop) agriculture via direct and indirect subsidies and by excluding farms from laws regulating air and water pollution. For instance, any sane policy would prohibit the manure lagoons produced by Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) rather than giving them an exclusion from environmental laws.

Finally, it’s worth noting that with the exception of sunlight the Earth is a closed system – meaning we aren’t the only ones affected by our decisions and the decisions of others will inevitably affect us. In other words, although thinking about sustainability within the borders of the United States is a valid starting point, sustainability eventually must be considered globally. And, given that the Earth is a closed system, we must think about sustainability.

The initial practical answer probably isn’t the farm described in the first paragraph. Instead the answer is semi-sustainability; a reduced reliance on fossil-fuel based fertilizers and herbicides, a greater effort to prevent the loss of topsoil, the development of drought-resistant plants – perhaps even using genetic engineering. And it’s livestock breeding and ranching methods that don’t require antibiotics to prevent disease.

We need to keep in mind that, however appealing it may be, a system of agriculture that fed 77 million people in 1900 – the model that today’s sustainability proponents harken back to – won’t feed the 304 million people alive today. Furthermore, the current system can’t be scaled up to support even twice the current population.

That brings us to the biggest obstacle to sustainable agriculture – even a modified, more realistic, less pure agriculture – our eating habits. We need eat far less meat than we do now because our meat-eating habits simply aren’t sustainable. We need to quit throwing household organic waste into landfills and instead turn it into fertilizer (composting on a grand scale). And lastly, we need to care enough about the issues to express our opinion.

Sure, write your Congress-person. But if you educate yourself on the topics and just talk about it when the subject comes up you’ll have as much effect as writing a letter or planting a garden on the White House lawn. And eliminating meat one day a week will reduce your carbon footprint more than almost anything else you can do.

In fact, just giving a damn at all can make a difference eventually.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Cheap Eats


I made fondue a few weeks back. The gruyere and emmentaler cheeses cost $9.00 and $6.00 respectively for a half pound of each. I used a California Sauvignon Blanc at $13.00 a bottle. The bread (a good artisan French loaf from a local bakery) was $4.00. Kirschwasser (cherry brandy) was $8.00 but I only used a bit – call it $2.00. Assorted pickles, olives, and sliced sausages on the side – $5.00. So altogether I spent $39.00 on dinner for a dinner for two. There was a bit of fondue and bread leftover, so let’s assume it was more like $35.00 for two. Not so cheap, but cheaper than the $70.00 the Melting Pot charges – and probably better tasting.

fondueAnd yet, fondue is actually a peasant meal. Herders in the Alps would melt the cheese they made (probably the cheese that wasn’t quite up to commercial quality) over a fire in the wine their neighbors made. Then they’d dip the bread their wives made in the cheese and munch on homemade sausages and pickles. Such a meal wasn’t exactly free. Making cheese, wine, sausage, pickles, and bread all require a great deal of work and skill. But such meals probably didn’t cost the herder a single Swiss centime. Peasant food. Cheap eats.

It strikes me as supremely ironic that some of our most-renowned dishes – dishes you can pay a fortune for in three-star restaurants – are ultimately peasant food. Bouillabaisse, Boeuf Bourguignon, Choucroute and even sushi, like fondue, all began as poor peoples’ foods. But here’s the kicker: These deservedly famous foods began as peasant food because the ingredients, cooking techniques, and cooking equipment were indeed cheap in their place of origin. Bouillbaise is made from the fish that didn’t sell, which is cheap if you’re a fisherman in Marseilles but expensive if you’re a middle manager in Kansas – same with sushi. When you can trade the cheese or sausage you made from your own cows for a bottle of wine from your neighbor’s fields, wine is a cheap ingredient, but not when it has to be shipped in from California or the Rhine Valley.

Cassoulet is another famous French dish that began as peasant food. It includes duck confit, pancetta, and garlic sausage – expensive ingredients where I live. But it’s basically just another bean dish and it’s essence can be captured with a few deft ingredient choices for a fraction of the cost and effort. And for that matter, Boston Baked Beans (or the Southern Barbequed Beans) are home-grown and absolutely delicious local peasant foods. I adore macaroni and cheese, made from scratch with quality ingredients. I made that fondue because I owed a friend a special meal, and I’m too chintzy to take anyone out to dinner. Or for a fraction of the cost of fondue, try Welsh Rabbit. Same idea, another imported peasant food, but using domestic cheese, beer, and toast makes it cheap eats.

Want to go all-American? Make your own burgers – America’s ultimate peasant food. Burgers have moved into upscale restaurants and, if you wish, you could once blow $125 on ground meat on a bun at the Boca Raton Resort. Make your own and it will beat the hell out of any fast food joint. Ground beef, pork, turkey, even lamb are relatively cheap. Add a few spices and herbs and pay attention to what you’re cooking and you can eat a burger worth writing about.

I have the luxury – like agrarian peasants of yore – of working at home so I can devote time to cooking and slow-cooking intensifies flavors and tenderizes tough meat – pot roast is a classic American example. But these days you can buy a slow cooker pretty cheap and cook supper while you’re at work.

The lesson to be learned here: Make the best of what you can afford. Peasant food isn’t about eating fancy, it’s about eating well.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Yo! Nick! – A Cook’s Christmas List


Polls are indicating that people are eating out less, and when they do it tends to be at fast food joints. For example, Applebees sales are reportedly down about 15 percent while McDonalds are up by eight. But people are also doing more of their own cooking in order to economize. So this Christmas, I thought I might offer some suggestions for practical gifts to make home cooking more economical, easier, or both.

Few of the items mentioned below are actually inexpensive, but they cover a gamut of prices points and degrees of economy and I’ve either used or own most of them. So I know where-of I speak.

CrockpotFirst on my list is to reduce costs by eating less meat and eating tougher (cheaper) cuts of meat. A great tool for this approach is a slow cooker. Toss a chuck roast, some red wine, and a few vegetables and herbs in a Crockpot in the morning, set it on low, and come home to the most marvelous pot roast you can imagine. Or mix some dried beans, canned tomatoes, a smoked ham hock, and a few herbs and vegetables in a slow cooker and again, you come home to a meal packed with flavor. The trick here is the slow cooking, a technique that gently teases the flavors out and melds them. You can do the same thing using a Dutch oven (which is what I use).

Gelpro matNext on my list is a Gelpro kitchen mat. I spend way too much time standing on a tiled kitchen floor and not only do my feet get sore, but at the end of a full day of cooking everything is sore and stiff. I’d settle for one, but a couple of these would make my life far less painful – and I think making my life less painful is a good idea. At $125 for a small mat or $150 for a large one, they’re not cheap, but they are cheaper than the commercial mats. And if a mat like this makes you more inclined to cook then it’s a good idea.

Food LoopsFood Loops are a home cook’s substitute for kitchen twine. They’re made of silicon and are used to tie up rolled roasts. I’ve used them and they don’t hold as tightly as properly tied twine, but they’re a good substitute for someone who doesn’t know how to tie a roast and they make a nice stocking stuffer.

Vacuum SealerWhen the vacuum food sealers first came out the reports on them indicated they were expensive and not particularly effective. But since then the prices have dropped and the reliability improved. I just threw away a couple of pork chops that had migrated to the back of my freezer and avoided my notice for six months. Despite double-wrapping in plastic and storage in a zippered freezer bag, they were badly freezer-burned. A vacuum sealer solves this problem by eliminating air from around the food. Less wasted food means lower food costs.

Stock PotThere is no one more cognizant of food costs than a chef. Chefs waste nothing if they can avoid it because food costs are the bane of a chef’s existence – well, one of them. A great way to use up things like carrot peels, leafy celery tops, onion skins, bones, shrimp shells, and so on – stuff that most of us would think of as garbage – is to make this detritus into stock. Homemade stock is not only cheaper than anything you can buy, it’s usually far better-tasting as well. So I think a good, big stock pot is a great investment in better and cheaper meals.

Elements of CookingI spent last week answering questions by panicked home cooks about their Thanksiving meal. In many cases I had answers from my own experience on tap such as “How do I cook a beef tenderloin?” But in other cases they were facing difficulties I hadn’t personally encountered like, “I burned Food Lovers Companionthe turkey gumbo, how do I fix it?” In these cases I fell back on both personal experiences and a general knowledge (book-learning) of food and cooking. Michael Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking is a great source of information on fundamental cooking techniques and processes, if all you own are cookbooks, you need this book. I also highly recommend Food Lovers Companion, an essential reference I can’t imagine living without – my copy is almost worn out.

So far I’ve remained practical in these recommendations, but I have a contrarian nature and when I know I should economize my inclination is to splurge (on the other hand, when I know I can splurge my inclination is to splurge), so I have a couple of suggestions along those lines. After all, Christmas is a celebration and some festivity is called for. How better to celebrate than enjoying a special treat?

TrufflesThe first treat is domestic truffles. These come from Tennessee and are the famed Perigord black truffles of France. They are reportedly an excellent alternative to European imports at a fraction of the cost. The second splurge is domestic caviar. I recently tried this product and wrote a review.Caviar

I’ll be reviewing both of these foods before Christmas so if you want to hold off on ordering I’ll be providing more information to go on, but for the right person caviar from the Great Lakes, country ham from Tennessee, or truffles from Oregon are a wonderful gift.

If you’re short on cash this Christmas, you’re short on cash and there’s probably little you can do about the fact. So I’ll be cooking up gifts again such as my grandmother’s Bourbon Cake and the pancetta I sent out last year. But if you have a little flexibility in your budget some of these gifts can go a long way toward making economizing a pleasure, not a curse.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Eating Oil


On October 12 Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food took over the New York Times Magazine for his polemic, “Farmer in Chief” framed as an open letter to the next president. Pollan writes: “what’s needed is a change of culture in America’s thinking about food … focusing the light of public attention on the issue and communicating a simple set of values that can guide Americans toward sun-based foods and away from eating oil.”

CornThe article is a tour de force of the problems facing the American and world food supply. Pollan begins with food prices but moves on to farm policy, climate change, economic policy, health care, energy policy, and diet. He does a masterful job of showing how these issues relate to and affect each other.

There is much with which I agree. Pollan notes: “Monoculture is the original sin of American Agriculture.” We have a system designed to produce the most possible calories of food for the least possible price – factory farms are the result of this policy. It began with Earl Butz during the Nixon administration when he completely revamped farm policy to encourage maximum production and instead of offering farmers insurance during hard times the government began actively subsidizing crops such as corn, soy beans, and rice. This meant that farmers could make a profit even when their costs of production exceeded the market price of the commodity.

The most obvious result of this policy are CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and the increased use of HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) in processing our food Both encourage obesity and both are based on the over-supply of corn due to subsidies. That’s corn. But there’s also oil. Another product of corn subsidies, Ethanol – possibly the first bio-fuel – is increasing the demand for corn and thus contributing to increases in food prices. And, as the cost of oil and natural gas increase so does the price of crops dependent on high levels of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, made in many cases from petroleum by-products.

Pollan’s point is that the next president needs to have a Food Policy, a set of principles and plans that account for how energy, health, economics, and diet relate to and influence each other. Pollan’s thesis is that a piecemeal approach to the issues makes things worse and the next president needs to use his bully pulpit to encourage Americans to think more deeply about these issues and their interconnections. He even recommends turning part of the White House lawn into a vegetable garden as Eleanor Roosevelt did during World War II.

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none. But that’s not really the point. Food issues, whether the issue of animal confinement being addressed by California’s Prop 2, or buying organic, or even entertainment in the form of the Food Network is becoming something more and more Americans care about.

We see this interest reflected in the media. For instance, we not only have a Food Network, but one of Bravo’s hits is “Top Chef” and the Travel Channel offers both “No Reservations” and “Bizaare Foods.” The cover story of the November 2008 issue of Wired is “The Future of Food.” And equally telling, two years ago Spot-On asked me to write this column – not a food and cooking how-to but instead about how food and cooking fit into and are reflected in our culture.

This increased interest in food is a good thing because we’re approaching a food crisis that will affect even those of us in the developed world. The more thought we give to the issues now the better prepared we’ll be when the crisis hits and we actually do something about it. As Pollan writes, “…most of the problems our food system faces today are because of its reliance on fossil fuels, and to the extent that our policies wring the oil out of the system and replace it with the energy of the sun, those policies will simultaneously improve the state of our health, our environment and our security.”

In other words: We need to quit eating oil.


Update: Apparently I was wrong when I wrote:

Frankly I think the chances of the next president even reading Pollan’s article, much less considering his ideas, is slim to none.

According to this article Obama read at least a synopsis.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Review: King Corn


I’ve been wanting to see King Corn since it was released last year, but there wasn’t a chance it would appear in a theatre here in Knoxville and I missed the PBS broadcast here so I had to wait for the DVD release of this documentary about the current state of the American agricultural business. This past week I finally had my chance to view it and my reaction was, “Not bad, pretty good in fact.”

King CornThe conceit here is that two friends (writers Ian Cheney and Curtis Ellis), fresh out of college and having nothing better to do, decide to grow an acre of corn to see how the U.S. farm system actually works. It turns out their great-grandfathers lived in the same Iowa corn town at the turn of the century (they document this curious coincidence) so they go back to their roots – their greatgrandfathers’ Iowa corn town – to lease an acre of farmland and grow an acre of corn.

The “boys” are personable, articulate, and appealingly na├»ve. They ask good questions, they don’t preach. There’s nothing overtly ideological in this movie. Even Earl Butz, the former Secretary of Agriculture who initiated the current farm subsidies back in the 1970s before resigning his post over some racist remarks is allowed to speak his mind.

They also raise some interesting points – again without judgment: “Just for moving to Iowa and growing an acre of corn the government was going to pay us $28 – we should have raised 1000 acres!” And one of the farmers they talk to says, “I guarantee, if you’re not in the government program you’re going to lose money.” It’s an assertion born out at the end when the two add up the cost of growing their corn and find the current market price is less than what it cost them to produce the crop. Fortunately for them, there were other government programs that pushed them into profitability. The point: The U.S. government encourages over-production, which creates low market prices, by using tax dollars to subsidize the farmers – and the farmers know it.

But even with federal government subsidies, you can only make so much unless you get into volume – serious volume – by growing thousands of acres of corn. There are no family farms out there in the corn belt, in fact one farmer, who leases thousands of acres of land (from former farmers who are now no more than land-owners) baldly states his preference: “Get rid of all the housing and you can just farm through everything.” Every time you have to turn your tractor you lose productivity.

In the course of the film, Cheney and Ellis speak to a rancher running a Confined Animal Feed Operation (CAFO) who talks about how cheap corn has directly led to industrialized animal production. They talk to a woman at a plant that produces high-fructose corn syrup (they even try making their own). And they interview Big Ag’s harshest – and smartest – critic Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food,

If you’ve read your Pollan you won’t learn much from this film. The film-makers don’t attempt to cover everything – they don’t address the ethanol issue and its impact on corn prices. Nor do they discuss the use of land that had previously been set aside in the interest of conservation being put under the plow because of artificially high corn prices. Nevertheless, King Corn presents a solid overview of the place corn holds in our food supply and its wide-ranging effects.

The “boys” do have a nice sense of irony so watching the film is a pleasant experience and not overly negative. The special effects consist of using kernels of corn, sheets of construction paper, and a toy barn to make some of their points – a charming wink to school projects. And there are several subtle and not-so-subtle references to Field of Dreams.

All in all, I recommend the film. You’ll enjoy watching it and probably learn something important at the same time. What more could you ask from a documentary?

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 8:00 AM | Permalink

The Cost of Eating


You may not have noticed, but food prices actually started going up over two years ago. I was acutely aware of the trend because I was watching the average food costs for my clients climb from 30 percent to 40 percent by the end of last summer. Because I charge a flat rate for food and service I was also watching my income decline. So last August I bumped my prices up. I’m already almost back to a 40 percent food cost. (Note: I buy from grocery stores just like you do.)
Part of the problem is that I won’t compromise on quality for either myself or my clients.
Instead I’ve accepted smaller profits from my personal chef service and, like so many others on a limited income, I’m eating more carbs because they’re still fairly cheap as compared with meat. However, Asian rice prices have tripled this year. American bakeries report the price of flour has increased 15 to 25 percent. And corn continues it’s upward trend.
It would be nice to point to a single factor that we could address but unfortunately it’s far more complicated than that. As some wag noted, modern agriculture is the process of converting petroleum into food. Fertilizers, herbicides, tractors, and transportation all play a role in the truth of that assertion. But now we’re also converting fuel (in the form of oil) into fuel (in the form of ethanol) this is mind-boggling. Nevertheless, petroleum can only go up in cost from now on and to the extent it’s a function of food production that means food will continue to go up.
Climate change is affecting crops. Droughts and flooding are both becoming more common in areas where they were rare: too much rain is as bad as too little. Furthermore, weather becomes less predictable and predictability is essential for agriculture. A wet year followed by a dry year makes farming a gamble, but a wet decade followed by a dry decade makes it impossible.
The two largest societies on earth (India and China) are switching to a more Western diet that is not only a more expensive/meat-based diet, but it means they’re now bidding for the same food we are – and there are more of them. Furthermore, China, our largest loaner nation, is using our own dollars to compete.
Then there are the hidden costs. Industrial agriculture – the feed lots and chicken warehouses – have largely been able to avoid the costs of their pollution. Instead those costs are passed on to us in the form of lower real-estate prices near factory farms, higher medical costs resulting from both the pollution and from the indiscriminate use of antibiotics. And the direct cost of subsidies to Big Ag while ignoring the needs of the small independent farmer.
Mostly, though, our food system has become too complex and too detached from its purpose. It’s no longer about feeding people but about making money. There’s nothing wrong with making money, I’d like to make a lot more than I do (my net income in 2007 was less than $25,000), but my job is feeding people and I’ve noticed a bright side in that.
My cheffing business dropped off when I raised my prices last summer, but so far this year all of my cooking classes have been full. People still care about quality food and if they can’t afford to pay me to make it for them, they’re still managing to pay me to help them make it themselves. And while semolina flour may have jumped 45 percent, pasta is still cheaper than a pork chop.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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