The future of food looks like lots of lobsters, Polish chardonnay and California coffee.
This is a difficult story to tell, though the timelapse imagery here is relatively useful. If one had some extra money lying around, it certainly indicates which crops one could be shorting in the markets over the next few decades.
I can imagine Jeremy Cherfas doing something interesting and more personalizing with this type of story via his fantastic interviews on Eat This Podcast.
Legalized marijuana is going the way of all agricultural commodities in the United States, and that shouldn't be a surprise. A really interesting analysis by 538 reveals that the price of pot has dropped for grower and dope fiend alike, and with big money at stake -- $6.7 billion this past year and $20 billion the dream for 2021 -- big money is very interested.
Jeremy has some great insight in looking at marijuana as a simple staple crop. It would be interesting to view this as a simple agriculture problem and compare the economics of it for the first several years to other crops like soybean and sorghum. I’m relatively sure of where things will end up, I’m just curious how they differ until things reach scale. This is a particularly interesting economics problem because it provides an experiment that isn’t an easy one to recreate at these scales for how often does a mass consumable crop get discovered?
“Plenty of plants, not much meat and maximum variety.”
The best advice for a good diet I’ve ever heard. It’s a maxim devised by Colin Tudge, long before anything similar you may have heard from more recent writers. Tudge, more than anyone else I know, has consistently championed the idea that meat ought to be seen in a supporting role, rather than as the main attraction, a garnish, if you will.
Tudge has been thinking and writing about agriculture and food systems for a long time, and we’ve been friends for a long time too. In fact, it’s fair to say that knowing Colin has influenced my own thoughts about food and farming quite a bit. As far as Colin is concerned, we’ve been going about farming in completely the wrong way for the past 100 years or so. Instead of asking how can we grow more food, more cheaply, he thinks we should focus on what we need – good, wholesome food that doesn’t destroy the earth – and then ask how we can provide that for everybody.
He’s expanded and built on those ideas in many books since Future Cook (Future Food in the US), which contained that pithy dietary advice and which was published in 1980. And rather than reform or revolution, neither of which will do the job he thinks needs to be done, he advocates for a renaissance in real farming.
Remember Farm Aid, which launched in 1985? A lot of people do, and they tend to date the farm crisis in America to the 1980s, triggered by Earl Butz and his crazy love for fencerow to fencerow, get big or get out, industrial agriculture. And of course, land consolidation is inevitable, because if you’re going to invest in all that capital equipment to make your farm more efficient, you’re bound to buy up the smaller farmers who weren’t so savvy. Those “facts,” however, are anything but. They’re myths, on which much of the current criticism of American farm policy is built. There are others, too, and they’re all skillfully eviscerated by Nate Rosenberg and Bryce Wilson Stucki in a recent paper.
One villain or two?
And here’s another thing. That first Farm Aid concert apparently raised $9 million. You could presumably help a lot of poor old dirt farmers with that kind of cash. But Farm Aid wasn’t actually about poor old dirt farmers, it was about people like Willie Nelson. He lost $800,000 the year before Farm Aid. Nine million dollars doesn’t go too far when individual people are losing that kind of money.
Tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance at (one) source
In the past year or so there has been a slew of high-level meetings pointing to antibiotic resistance as a growing threat to human well-being. But then, resistance was always an inevitable, Darwinian consequence of antibiotic use. Well before penicillin was widely available, Ernst Chain, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work on penicillin, noted that some bacteria were capable of neutralising the antibiotic.
What is new about the recent pronouncements and decisions is that the use of antibiotics in agriculture is being recognised, somewhat belatedly, as a major source of resistance. Antibiotic manufacturers and the animal health industry have, since the start, done everything they can to deny that. Indeed, the history of efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics in agriculture reveals a pretty sordid approach to public health.
But while it can be hard to prove the connection between agriculture and a specific case of antibiotic resistance, a look at hundreds of recent academic studies showed that almost three quarters of them did demonstrate a conclusive link.
Antibiotic resistance – whether it originates with agriculture or inappropriate medical use – takes us back almost 100 years, when infectious diseases we now consider trivial could, and did, kill. It reduces the effectiveness of other procedures too, such as surgery and chemotherapy, by making it more likely that a subsequent infection will wreck the patient’s prospects. So it imposes huge costs on society as a whole.
Maybe society as a whole needs to tackle the problem. The Oxford Martin School, which supports a portfolio of highly interdisciplinary research groups at Oxford University, has a Programme on Collective Responsibility for Infectious Disease. They recently published a paper proposing a tax on animal products produced with antibiotics. Could that possibly work?
Here’s another great example of a negative externality. Too often capitalism brushes over these and creates a larger longer term cost by not taking these into account. It’s almost assuredly the case that taxing the use of these types of antibiotics across the broadest base of users (eaters) (thereby minimizing the overall marginal cost), would help to minimize the use of these or at least we’d have the funding for improving the base issue in the future. In some sense, the additional cost of eating organic meat is similar to this type of “tax”, but the money is allocated in a different way.
Not covered here are some of the economic problems of developing future antibiotics when our current ones have ceased to function as the result of increased resistance over time. This additional problem is an even bigger worry for the longer term. In some sense, it’s all akin to the cost of smoking and second hand smoke–the present day marginal cost to the smoker of cigarettes and taxes is idiotically low in comparison to the massive future cost of their overall health as well as that of the society surrounding them. Better to put that cost upfront for those who really prefer to smoke so that the actual externalities are taken into account from the start.
The narrowing of diversity in crop species contributing to the world’s food supplies has been considered a potential threat to food security. However, changes in this diversity have not been quantified globally. We assess trends over the past 50 y in the richness, abundance, and composition of crop species in national food supplies worldwide. Over this period, national per capita food supplies expanded in total quantities of food calories, protein, fat, and weight, with increased proportions of those quantities sourcing from energy-dense foods. At the same time the number of measured crop commodities contributing to national food supplies increased, the relative contribution of these commodities within these supplies became more even, and the dominance of the most significant commodities decreased. As a consequence, national food supplies worldwide became more similar in composition, correlated particularly with an increased supply of a number of globally important cereal and oil crops, and a decline of other cereal, oil, and starchy root species. The increase in homogeneity worldwide portends the establishment of a global standard food supply, which is relatively species-rich in regard to measured crops at the national level, but species-poor globally. These changes in food supplies heighten interdependence among countries in regard to availability and access to these food sources and the genetic resources supporting their production, and give further urgency to nutrition development priorities aimed at bolstering food security.
This book offers a broad introduction to food policies in the United States. Real-world controversies and debates motivate the book’s attention to economic principles, policy analysis, nutrition science and contemporary data sources. It assumes that the reader's concern is not just the economic interests of farmers, but also includes nutrition, sustainable agriculture, the environment and food security. The book’s goal is to make US food policy more comprehensible to those inside and outside the agri-food sector whose interests and aspirations have been ignored.
The chapters cover US agriculture, food production and the environment, international agricultural trade, food and beverage manufacturing, food retail and restaurants, food safety, dietary guidance, food labeling, advertising and federal food assistance programs for the poor.
The author is an agricultural economist with many years of experience in the non-profit advocacy sector, the US Department of Agriculture and as a professor at Tufts University. The author's well-known blog on US food policy provides a forum for discussion and debate of the issues set out in the book.