Digest – Features: The economics of cheap food, beef industry insider critics, fish farming

Feast and famine: It’s the end of cheap food as we know it, says the Economist, whose food-price index is now at its highest since it began in 1845, having risen by one-third in the past year. The culprits, it says, are rising incomes in Asia that allow people to buy more grain-fed meat, and U.S. ethanol subsidies that have made corn (and therefore much of that meat) more expensive. Not a single mention of what role the skyrocketing price of oil might be playing. While we just love the proposed solutions — plowing over remote parts of Brazil, Russia, Kazakhstan, the Congo and Sudan, and a greater emphasis on GM seeds to improve yields — we wonder if perhaps moving from petroleum-based farming to more solar-powered agriculture, including grazing animals on less arable land, might not be a better long-term bet. (The Economist; thanks Niki!) Related: The Economist’s Leader prefers consumer welfare checks to farmer subsidies.

starThe beef stops here: An industry newsletter covers John Munsell, who has been fighting against E. coli on behalf of small plants for five years, ever since his family’s beef-grinding company, Montana Quality Foods, was devastated by an E. coli recall. Munsell wants to know why grinders like his family’s (and the now-defunct Topps) are to blame for tainted meat, and not the meatpackers who supplied the meat — bearing USDA’s mark of inspection. Munsell recently surveyed other processors as well as meat inspectors "to determine if his opinion that USDA is causing more E. coli problems than it solves is shared." He got more than a burger’s worth. (Meatpoultry.com; free registration required)

CAFOs of the sea: The federal government could allow the Gulf of Mexico to be the test(sea)bed for offshore fish farming on a massive scale. Fisheries in the Gulf have been decimated such that "trash" fish like drum and sheepshead now appear on menus; aquaculture set up near abandoned oil rigs, for example, could compete with all the farmed fish being imported from Asia. Fun fact: "A United Nations report last year found that nearly as many fish were harvested for fish meal as were created by aquaculture. Many in the industry say they are trying to diversify the diets of farmed fish by finding other sources of protein, such as soybean products or wheat gluten." (Times-Picayune)

This is just sad: The Times Sunday Magazine’s Year in Ideas issue features "fish-flavored fish," that is, farm-raised fish with flavoring compounds added so that tilapia tastes more “sea-flavored.” Fast-food chains are looking to replicate the mild taste of Alaska pollock, a northern Pacific whitefish that holds a near-monopoly over products like fish sticks, imitation crabmeat and frozen fish fillets. (New York Times)

starPractices coming home to roost: Avian flu is caused by a common — and usually harmless — virus found in ducks. So what’s changed that has allowed this virus to mutate into a deadly potential epidemic? A global monoculture of tens of billions of birds bred for rapid weight gain that creates conditions ripe for viral survival, mutation, and dispersal. (Mother Earth News)

Make my spray: Three lawsuits have been filed against the California Department of Food and Agriculture to stop its widespread aerial spraying targeting the light brown apple moth. The chemical (Checkmate, a mixture of pheromones and "inert" ingredients) is not registered with the EPA and hasn’t been evaluated for use in residential areas. The controversy involves tension between the public’s right to know, trade secrets, and the agricultural sector. (ES&T News)

Pigs, not pesticides: Jim Koan, a fifth-generation apple farmer in Michigan, has enlisted the help of pigs to control the curculio beetle, a pest that causes apples to fall months before they are ripe. Pigs graze on the fallen apples and also root around, which disrupts the life cycle of the beetle. Areas that did not have grazing pigs had five times more damage from the beetle. The animals also control weeds and leave behind fertilizer. (Flint Journal)

Rice crating ink: The British theater company Stan’s Cafe brings 900 million grains of rice to the Skirball in Los Angeles to illustrate global statistics in a physical way, instead of as abstract numbers. Now through December 30. (Skirball Cultural Center, via Good Food)

For the ears…: Sierra Club Radio interviews the Pulitzer-prize winning author of the L.A. Times’ Altered Oceans series and the author of a piece about the complex issues around soy, beef, and the Amazon.

The latest health craze: probiotics (MSNBC/AP)



2 Responsesto “Digest – Features: The economics of cheap food, beef industry insider critics, fish farming”

  1. Some good news on fish farming:
    Researchers at Mississippi State are working to ensure that fewer fish are caught for feed. They are working on insect based fish feed that provides onshore farmed fish with needed protein without so much stress on wild ecosystems.

  2. Thank you to the link on the pigs in the orchards. This is something I’ve been thinking on. Two years ago I planted the first 28 apple and pear trees of our orchard to be along the margins of our pastures with the idea that the sheep, chickens and pigs will keep down the pests and pickup the drops. Part of the goal is to feed the animals in the fall when the pastures start to get thin. I’m heartened to read of someone else who is doing this and for whom it is working!