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.