Food and energy

I am not a picky eater. There are things that I like and things that I don’t like to eat, if given the choice and the opportunity to choose, but ultimately I don’t really care. And of course I have no religious taboos about food. I am also somewhat casual about health factors. I tend to eat what I like without too much concern about what the latest medical research has said is good or bad for you. I figure that if I eat in moderation and have a varied diet, then the occasional heavy dose of transfats, sugar, salt, fat, and cholesterol are unlikely to do serious harm.

But some people are really careful and I am amazed at the amount of time and attention they devote to what they eat. A friend of mine knows the exact caloric value of everything she eats and if she exceeds her daily quota, will calculate how much exercise she needs to do that day to neutralize the balance sheet.

Other people go even further. At breakfast at one hotel I stayed in during a recent conference, the menu listed ‘freshly squeezed orange juice’ but this was not sufficient reassurance for the woman at the next table. She asked the waitress whether it really was fresh squeezed and was assured that it was. Still somewhat suspicious, the woman then got hold of another waitress and asked again, and this time the waitress admitted that they did not personally squeeze the oranges but got the juice from a vendor. The woman then called the manager and asked him the exact status of the orange juice and he assured her that although the oranges were not squeezed on the premises, he had every confidence that the vendor who supplied them was squeezing them.

I was frankly impressed at this woman’s dedication to making sure that she was drinking nothing but freshly squeezed orange juice. But I was also baffled. Is there something really good about it that makes it worth all this effort? Conversely is the orange juice made from concentrate really bad for you?

One thing about food that I cannot stand is wasting it. And it frustrates me to see so much food wasted in the US. People here do not seem to realize how precious an item food is. Maybe my sensitivity to food waste became enhanced because I grew up in a developing country where the importance of food was manifest and governments could fall if they did not ensure adequate supply of basic food items.

Americans are used to the fact that if they have money, they can buy any thing they want. Underlying this is the fact that the US dollar is the world’s reserve currency. Hence if the US runs a budget deficit, as it has for decades, it can always ways to fund it by various means, with the negative consequences not being felt until later. At the worst, it can simply print more money.

The governments of many countries do not have this luxury because their currency is not accepted in the world commodities markets. Their budgets are more like that of individual families. If your expenditure is more than your income, you have to cover the difference with loans or cut back your expenses.

During the time I was in college in Sri Lanka, the government decided to improve its balance of trade by severely restricting the imports of basic food items like rice, flour, and sugar. The goal was to stimulate local production of such staples which had a hard time competing against cheap imports. As a result of these restrictions, there were major shortages and rationing of all these items, which meant that we could not take food for granted. Although we never went hungry, we too were affected by food politics and had to be careful about its use. For these and other reasons, I now hate to see food wasted. In my home, I will eat leftover food that I really dislike or which has become stale rather than throw it away uneaten.

I also hate it when food is used for things other than consumption. I find abhorrent things like butter sculpture contests, or making the world’s largest cake or contests where people compete to eat the most hot dogs, or even food fights. Wasting food for the sake of entertainment seems just wrong. Using grains to feed animals for slaughter is another hugely inefficient and wasteful use of food.

This is why I also have serious problems with the increasing popularity of ethanol and other grain-based fuels. The idea of using food to make fuel in order to enable our wasteful energy use is infuriating. We are currently witnessing a worldwide decline in the availability of grains and a corresponding rise in the price of basic foods like bread, pasta, and tortillas, because of the diversion of food away from human consumption to being a raw material for fuel production.

As the Christian Science Monitor reports: “In 2008, about 18 percent of grain in the US will go to make ethanol and, according to the Earth Policy Institute, such production over the past two years could have fed nearly 250 million people.” Food riots have already occurred in Haiti, unrest is rising in many other countries, and analysts expect conflicts to erupt over the next year as the rapidly rising cost of basic staples of life rise steeply.

We are at present capable of producing enough food to feed a lot more people in the world and greatly reduce malnutrition from its current levels. What prevents us from doing so is purely economics, profits, and politics, and an insatiable demand for more energy. It is a scandal.

POST SCRIPT: William F. Buckley vs. Noam Chomsky

William F. Buckley, often referred to as a conservative icon, died recently. He used to have a public TV show called Firing Line. I found Buckley to be quite irritating. He had a sneering manner with a darting, snake-like tongue, would slouch languidly in his chair as if contemptuous of his guest, and speak in pompous language using esoteric, polysyllabic words. It seemed to me that he was trying to adopt the affectations of a stereotypical member of the British aristocracy. The thing I disliked most, though, was his habit of using verbal tricks, snide asides, and digressions to distract attention when he was losing a point.

He met his match when he had Noam Chomsky on his show during the Vietnam war. Chomsky had the facts at his fingertips and stuck doggedly to the main point, refusing to be sidetracked, and Buckley’s frustration as all his tricks failed was evident.

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  1. Jeff K. says

    Increasing popularity of ethanol and similar fuels is problematic primarily because we (in the US) produce them from food crops. New technologies for cellulosic ethanol production might provide a more sensible product, both environmentally sustainable and economically sensible.

    In my (non-expert) understanding, the root cause of our current predicament is that our technological direction in the US was heavily influenced by lobbying from the corn and domestic auto industries. Although an academic analysis of both the food-supply conflict and chemical efficiency of the process would have led us in a different direction, unbridled capitalism (that is, the shareholders or owners of farming and other companies) seems to have won out: short-term profit for the focused few will detriment the long-term good of many.

  2. Marie says

    The clip of Noam Chomsky and William F. Buckley was really kind of irritating. Buckley keeps interrupting and his arguments are so spurious. I love how Chomsky keeps saying “Okay, but in a real world…”

    Want to reach across time and space and smack Buckley.

  3. Jared says

    Hi Mano,

    In “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, Michael Pollan talks about all the insane things we use corn for. One reason is so that companies can say that they are “green” because they’re using ‘natural polymers’ instead of ‘synthetic ones’. The problem is that fertilizer production is currently an oil intensive process, and the amount of energy going in to make corn is less than what we get out of it (of course). This problem is compounded by subsidies, which bring the cost of buying corn below the cost of production. In other words, corn based ethanol is still a fossil fuel, and it’s less efficient than just using the petroleum.

    While we’re on the topic of “alternative” fuels that are actually just repackaged fossil fuels. The vast majority of world hydrogen is produced from small organics (like ethane and methane) collected from oil fields. Hydrogen, like corn, is currently a fossil fuel.

    It all makes me long after poor, misunderstood nuclear power. I find it ironic that nuclear power has such a bad reputation, but ranks among the most environmentally friendly energy sources. Breeder reactors produce waste that (if I’m not mistaken) becomes less radioactive than coal-ash after a few paltry centuries of storage. And these days they know how to poison the fuel so that the breeder blanket cannot be used for weapons.

  4. Michael says

    It’s a shame the interview cuts off just as they are about to compare Czechoslovakia and Guatemala. I would have enjoyed watching Buckley try to worm his way out of that one. The CIA planned and backed coup of the democratically-elected Guatemalan government in 1954 shows that there is little distinction between the intentions of the US and the Soviets.

  5. dave says

    As incomes rise in China the Chinese are eating more meat. Meat is very inefficient when compared to grains. What I mean to say is that it takes about 10 lbs of grain to produce 1 lb of beef. Or to put it another way, it takes about 700 calories of grain to produce 100 calories of beef.

    As meat consumption increases the supply of grains will be more and more strained. Add to this the biofuels issue and the problem only gets worse.

  6. sigurd jorsalfar says

    At the worst, it can simply print more money.

    Why is that ‘at worst’? Where else does money come from?

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