Friday, February 27, 2009

Right to Food

On December 20, 2008, I read a blog article entitled: “U.S. votes against right to food’ in UN General Assembly”. Though the author of the blog had an obvious bias, I couldn’t dispute the United Nations General Assembly draft resolution that it discussed, document A/63/430/Add.2.
According to the resolution, the UN General Assembly members voted on the right to food and it was “adopted by a recorded vote of 184 in favour to 1 against (United States), with no abstentions.” This means that out of the 185 voting members of the General Assembly present at the meeting, the United States was the only dissenter, voting against helping individuals to gain access to food.

This resolution of December 2008 was based on, and built off of a previous resolution that was adopted in a General Assembly meeting in November 2008. At this meeting, “By a vote of 180 in favour to 1 against (United States) and no abstentions, the Committee also approved a resolution on the right to food, by which the Assembly would “consider it intolerable” that more than 6 million children still died every year from hunger-related illness before their fifth birthday, and that the number of undernourished people had grown to about 923 million worldwide, at the same time that the planet could produce enough food to feed 12 billion people, or twice the world’s present population.” Again, the United States was the only member to vote against the right to food.

Why did the United States vote this way?

After the vote in November, a representative of the United States answered that he was unable to support the test because he believed that the “attainment of the right to adequate food was a goal that should be realized progressively and that the draft contained inaccurate textual descriptions of underlying rights.”

In another vote, the United States was the only dissenter for a resolution that stipulated the provision of rights for the child with regards to education, health, and the right to food. With regards to this resolution, the representative said, again, that his delegation could not support the text as drafted because the United States felt that the attainment of the “right to adequate food” or the “right to be free from hunger” was a goal that “must be realized progressively” and the current resolution contained numerous objectionable provisions, including “inaccurate textual descriptions of underlying rights.”

For me, the explanation of the United States was not an explanation at all. What does it mean to realize the goal of adequate food progressively? What rights did the resolution inaccurately describe? I believe that if the United States did, indeed, consider adequate food to be a goal, it would not simply deny resolutions such as this, but try to work within them. Perhaps the United States has another goal, or another explanation that the representative failed to mention? The fact that we were the only country out of at least 180 countries to vote against these resolutions, and do so multiple times, shows that there is indeed a strong motivation for the United States to reject the right to food. As discussed in the books Stuffed and Starved and World Hunger: Twelve Myths, that motivation may be politically and economically aligned.

In order to enact the right to food, the UN General Assembly aims to give adequate priority to food security, eradicate poverty, deny the use of food as an instrument of political or economic pressure, and reduce negative human impacts on the environment. These are all measures that go against the interests of the United States because the United States benefits politically and economically from hunger throughout the world. When other countries cannot produce food for their own people, they must purchase food from the United States and thus, the United States is able to maintain control over the global food system. In fact, in instances of famine or hunger in another country, the United States uses its own food as an instrument of political and economic pressure. This phenomenon was seen in 2002, when Zambia experienced a drought and shortage of corn for its population; the United States offered to give genetically modified corn to the country not to feed Zambia’s people, but to create a market for the GM corn in Africa.

Studies of US foreign policy show many more examples of the United States’ abuse of the global food system. In World Hunger, we are told about US marketing of American wheat to South Korea to create a growing demand for wheat among South Koreans and several similar situations across countries in Asia, South America, and Africa. When countries require food in emergency situations, they rely on the United States to provide food, and the US responds by providing specific types of food to encourage future reliance on US products in the needy country. This helps the Unites States’ economy. Hunger also benefits the Unites States politically because the US can use its surplus of food as leverage to encourage other countries to abide by US foreign policy.

The United States has a history of exploiting the world food system and benefiting economically and politically from hunger in other countries. Though it is clear that the United States is not a proponent for the right to food, it is especially telling when it is communicated through a single dissenting vote at the General Assembly.

Too Much of a Good Thing

In today’s society, the dangers associated with eating unhealthy foods have become well-known; obesity, heart disease, and diabetes are just a few of the ailments we believe can avoid if we simply eat healthier. Though there are disagreements among dieticians with regards to the definition of unhealthy foods versus healthy foods, or “bad” foods versus “good” foods, there is general consensus that we should avoid eating calories, trans fats, carbohydrates, sugars, and sodium. The media and countless weight loss programs and books in the United States further drive the point home to the American public on a regular basis. The results of this increased health-consciousness in America are many and far-reaching: McDonald’s has replaced white bread with wheat bread for many of its burgers, organic food products are more commonly found in supermarkets, and health food products have gained acceptance and popularity, to name a few. In fact, many Americans pursue healthy eating habits aggressively, believing it to be the complete solution for a healthier life.

Not all of these trends are great news, however. Though there is no doubt that we must try to eat healthy, especially as fast food restaurants and food deserts are becoming ever more prevalent, it is more important for us to have balanced diets. In a recent article in the New York Times, the importance of balanced diets is underlined by newfound information about eating disorders.

In the article entitled: “What’s Eating Our Kids? Fears About ‘Bad’ Foods”, Abby Ellin reports that children in the United States may be acquiring eating disorders as a result of their obsessions with healthy foods. Lisa Dorfman is a registered dietitian who often sees children who are terrified of foods that are deemed “bad” by their parents. “It’s almost a fear of dying, a fear of illness, like a delusional view of foods in general,” she says. “I see kids whose parents have hypnotized them. I have 5-year-olds that speak like 40-year-olds. They can’t eat an Oreo cookie without being concerned about trans fats.” A growing number of dieticians, doctors, and specialists worry that some parents are overzealously trying to inculcate good eating habits in their children, micromanaging their diets and causing them to have high levels of anxiety and stress related to food. This anxiety is not dissimilar to the anxiety that causes the eating disorders of anorexia or bulimia. Dr. Steven Bratman terms this new issue, the obsession with health foods, as orthorexia.

Dr. Leslie Sanders of the Atlantic Health Overlook Hospital in Summit, N.J. has also seen a rise in the number of children who are fixated on the way they eat. She says: “Some educators categorize food into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ The kids come home and say ‘Don’t eat French fries’ instead of talking about moderation.”

Moderation in eating habits is the most important way to reduce the risk of illnesses associated with food. In class, we have learned that malnutrition cannot be solved by simply giving people more calories; people require a variety of foods in order to live well. Similarly, obesity cannot be solved by simply cutting out fats, calories, sodium, sugar, and carbohydrates. Though there has been no formal study that links orthorexias with deadly eating disorders, this article very effectively associates the importance of moderation in our eating habits and the extent of psychological and physical impact that food has on our well-being. We cannot argue against the importance of eating healthy foods, but we can do so in a more balanced way that encourages bodily strength along with emotional happiness.

Sage vs Commons

Today while dining in our very own Russel Sage dining hall, I was struck by a few quesitons. How does Sage fare compared to Commons in terms of variety and appeal, as well as nutrition? I asked my friend Onoki about what he thought about the selection in sage vs commons, and he told me that there was a bit more variety in commons. A big difference he noted, however, was the positioning of the salad bar in commons vs sage. In sage, the sald bars stand on islands, far away from the normal food line flow, but in between the main food line and the grill. In sage however, the sald bar is located directly across the way from the main food line, which includes the grill. I asked Onoki if he felt drawn to, or felt like one set up was more inviting than the other, and his response was that neither stood out in particular, that it was just different. I would be curious however, to look into the appeal of one set up over the other on a larger scale, perhaps by interviewing a large group of people.

If it were possible, I would interview Clarence Saunders to ask his opinion on the setup of collge dining halls. Dining halls at RPI certainly don’t funnel you in to force you to pick things up, but rather have the open air of an all-you-can-eat food bar that is appealing in its inviting nature. In a college setting, it would not be economic for the food providers to manipulate our choice such that we feel the need to pick up anyhting and everything. But that doesn’t mean that dining halls can’t be specific about the way they manipulate the space so as to subconsciously guide us to healthier foods.

In researching the styles that different schools employ in their cafeterias, I found that many schools these days are trending towards more selective, higher ticket food in orde to attract students whose parents probably have more money, whether that is at USC, University of Chicago, or Columbia. An outlier I found was in College of the Atlantic—their main theme is local and organic everything; they even have their own farm (ecology is huge at College of the Atlantic) !

In asking other students, they told me that they felt no real difference between the set up in Sage vs Commons, although one student felt the salad bar at Commons was more appealing due to the crutons, whereas Sage’s salad bar is a lot greener. Despite responses to my direct question about the differences in setup, I am not convinced that set-up doesn’t matter. My opinion is that with better presentation, college dining halls can promote healthier foods (not necessarily salad bars, but whatever is healthiest in their selection), and direct student towards a healthier lifestyle.

New programs have been springing up, however, such as STARS--Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, as well as the Real Food Challenge, and CASFS--Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, which promote local and organic foods by appealing to our culture’s sense of competition by awarding points that lend toward higher ratings. If food deserts are springing up because non-local food distributors are swelling, maybe the way to restructure this growing imbalance in our nation is to attack the flow of food not going to our residential cities, but to our schools.

I mean hey, who doesn’t like a friendly competition?

http://online.wsj.com/article/0,,SB1036711327163385908,00.html?mod=at_leisure_main_weekend_journal_ends_only

http://www.wiretapmag.org/environment/43530/

*the picture is not giving you the middle finger

A Model Community?

While looking through The Economist's archives for an article on the transportation factors involved in the current food distribution system versus more locally grown foods, I came across this article out of this weeks print edition. http://www.economist.com/specialreports/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13135425. The first half of the article talks about this village of Sieben Linden in Germany. There are about 120 people living there, and they try to support themselves off of the 77 hectares of land that the cooperative owns. This land is a mix of forest, (logged for fuel and home construction), housing, gardens and farmland. The Economist's article had did say that what ever they were not able to produce themselves they bought from local wholesalers. After searching for more information, I came across their website, http://www.siebenlinden.de/content.php?p=0000&lang=eng, and did some exploring. Turns out that the facility is designed to be as self sufficient as possible. They produce their own water and electricity, producing more electricity in a year then they consume. They use the nearby forest and the sun to produce heat for their homes and hot water. More importantly to them they have a tight sense of community amongst themselves, putting on plays and other community events through out the year. While it is not their goal to see the rest of the world adopt all the lifestyle changes that they have made, they try to show that it is possible to live a more eco-friendly life with out giving up most of the items associated with our standards of living today. They share large appliances, such as washers and dryers, much like a college campus, and share cars for when travel is required. One of the biggest changes they wish to see for the rest of society is the more prevalent use of car pooling. While this is an intriguing way for 120 people to live, that is obviously a small percentage of the world's population. Since it is know how much land they use to support a set number of people, it can be calculated to see how much land would be required to support the population of say the United States, if similar villages were to suddenly appear all across the country. Taking our US population of approximately 303,ooo,ooo, and the landmass of the country being 916,192,300 hectares, it can be seen if the population could be spread across the land at the same density of the village or not. Taking the population and multiplying by the ratio of people supported per hectare the number of hectares required to support the US population is 472,207,792 hectares. This turns out to be only 52% of the area of the United States. This means that almost half of the landmass of the United States would be allowed to remain completly untouched. This creates an interesting proposition, why not move to such a system, by slowly reorganizing society into small enclaves that are self sufficient, it if would mean an eco-friendly way to live for everyone? I leave that answer up to you.

Melamine to fool the safety tests?

In October, the Chinese State Council had announced heightened regulations in its dairy industry in response to reports of 54,000 cases of kidney stones in children and 4 deaths attributed to milk tainted with melamine. Now new regulations have been set on every step in the dairy industry, from the cattle to the carton. The question is, what exactly what regulations have been made, and will they effectively reduce the occurance of tainted food products?
The melamine was added to "watered down milk" to fool quality control tests and make the milk seem nutritious. The Chinese Health Ministry issued new guidelines in October 2008 regarding acceptable melamine levels. The question that comes to mind is, why are any levels of melamine allowed at all? How many synthetic products can be added to a food product until it is no longer considered food?
When we buy food products, we assume that what is claimed to be edible material is actually edible and not toxic. Is this an unreasonable assumption? I would argue that its not. It should be a right to purchase food without the question of its safety and content of actual edible material. Governmental regulations should be enacted to foster this sort of trust between the consumer and the retailer claiming his goods as food.
I can see the point of adding non-edible substances to food products to enrich their quality. If they are not toxic and seem to have no effect on the consumer's health, then why not? If the FDA were to eliminate all synthetic components from food products, we would have no more twinkies. Twinkies have been around since WWII, and in that time have not been known to cause any negative health effects beyond what is normal for desserts and other high fat items. Adding synthetic components may decrease the cost of the final product, either by diluting the actual food content or by replacing an organic substance with a synthetic one. This is a common practice and I don't see any reason to ban this.
It is true that melamine may only be harmful above certain levels. However, the levels will change with the size of the person consuming it. The people affected by the melamine in the milk were all young children and infants. The melamine was put in more dairy products other than infant formula, so the entire population was exposed to such levels. The levels of toxicity depends on the relative volumes of the people consuming them. The statistics on the melamine cases support this logic. The Chinese government previously had no regulations regarding the amounts of melamine allowed in food products, which shows a definite need of improvement in their health and safety committees to regulate and test synthetic substances used in food products.
Should such committees test all synthetic substances used in food products? If those committees are responsible for ensuring the safety of the food they pass through their regulations, then of course. Synthetic substances are not all poisons, some don't cause any effects to health and some even benefit. There is a common idea that "natural is better", but does it make a difference if the substance was synthesized in a lab or in nature? It is still the same product either way. It is the nature of the substance itself, not its origins, that should be of concern. And synthetically made products shouldn't have the negative stigma that is currently associated with them. However, any synthetic product used in food products should be carefully tested and evaluated to ensure its safety.

Sources:
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27119350/

The Supermarket’s Effect on the Shaping of Modern American Society

The self serve supermarket, taken for granted as the accepted norm in today’s society, is a relatively new and unique creation. Clarence Saunder’s patented idea of the self serve store, with consumers following a fixed path through rows of stock, revolutionized the food retail business. The only time any interaction occurred between the store clerk and the consumer was at the checkout station at the end of the path. In many ways, the self serve market had cut the connection between the consumer and the farmer; the label on the packaging became the only source of information about the food the consumer was to consume. This has had a significant influence on America’s attitudes towards food; we have a casual attitude towards eating and don’t even think of where our food came from or realize that what we eat is what we are. In taking away the human interaction normally involved in the sale of food, Americans also accepted the formality of the self serve food system and the fact that the prices are set. Bartering and haggling, commonplace in most of the world, became a rarity. It is said that Americans set the standard in forming waiting lines; single file, no pushing, patiently waiting. It is true that these quirks may be due to many unexplainable factors, but it is exactly the kind of behavior the self serve store system requires of its consumers for it to work. These are just a few examples of the American supermarket phenomenon’s impact on society. But it has had more drastic impacts as well.

Efficiency and low costs were at the core of Saunder’s idea of consumers following a fixed path through rows of stocked shelves and checking out at the end of the trail. Traditional clerks were demoted to the menial jobs of shelf stocking and running the cashier. Human interaction was minimized, the shopper was now on their own to do their own shopping. The layout of the store was carefully planned, this fixed path exposing the consumers to as much of the stock as possible to increase the chances that they would buy more. The idea of setting the psychological stage to encourage the consumer to buy more is a huge trend in today’s food retail. Convenience was another important motive; now consumers needed to go to only one store to get everything they needed. As the ‘self serve’ stores became extremely popular, local economies were greatly reduced (some destroyed) by the self serve stores taking all the business away. The self serve stores eventually became supermarkets; the main form of food distribution.

Being the main form of food distribution put the supermarkets in a very powerful position. As the intermediaries between the farmer/supplier and the consumer, they were able to control the amount the farmers and suppliers got paid (where else could they sell their goods?), and the prices the consumers paid for the food. With this control, the supermarkets were also immune from any fluctuations in the economy; either the producers or the consumers would pay to make up for the loss. Farmers suffered the most from this. Supermarket chains bought goods from farmers as cheap as they could, and farmers had no other choice but to sell it to them as alternatives were becoming fewer and fewer as the supermarket soared in popularity. The economies of scale also contributed to the farmers’ decreased profits. As the supermarkets were, well, super, they bought and sold goods in massive quantities with the least amount of investment per unit. This enabled supermarkets to lower their prices below that of smaller retailers. Local businesses could not compete with the supermarkets’ low prices, and many went out of business. Supermarket chains are able to fluctuate the prices of individual stores in areas with competition; when the competition is wiped out by the chain store’s low prices, the chain’s prices are raised again to normal levels. The supermarket had achieved a monopoly on the food distribution system in America.

Having the store clerks reduced to mere shelf stockers and cashiers set a pattern that would follow throughout every level of the food industry. To minimize costs, supermarkets were staffed with unskilled workers doing menial tasks. As most of the workers were part time, supermarkets did not have to give insurance and other employee benefits, and were able to pay only the federal minimum wage. Supermarkets gained in power as they became large employers, and with the labor unskilled and menial the worker was disposable and easily replaced. This has led to many instances of employee abuse and mistreatment by supermarket corporations (Walmart…). Unfortunately, with the increase in the power and wealth of the supermarket corporations came the corresponding decrease in governmental regulations. There have been reports of the government notifying corporations of raids on child labor law violations, health violations, and other labor law violations.

The supermarket has also contributed to the socio-economic stratification of American society. Supermarket corporations establish new stores in neighborhoods who can afford them. The variety, quality, and prices of the goods available in the individual stores are dependent on the type of neighborhood that they are in. In this way, supermarkets have turned food into something of a social class indicator, with organic produce, exotic goods, and sheer variety signifying higher socio-economic class. In the strategic placing of their stores, supermarkets have also contributed to the gap between the haves and the have-nots. In urban and rural areas, supermarkets are hard to come by, and small mini marts are the main sources of food. The minimarts charge higher prices because there is little competition in such ‘food deserts’, and the economy of scale is not working in their favor. The preference of supermarket corporations of suburban middle class neighborhoods encourages the use of vehicles; another economic class indicator. The supermarket corporations’ location strategies have caused drastic differences in the diets of the haves and the have –nots; this fact is supported by the drastically varied health statistics between high and low income neighborhoods throughout the country.

Are we letting the supermarkets have too much influence? I would say so. The government needs to take on the responsibility of adequate food distribution and availability for its citizens instead of leaving it to the decisions of a few corporate businessmen. The government also needs to fix the system to give farmers more rights and better support. Price and wage standards need to be set to ensure that workers involved in the food production and retail industry are adequately paid and that food prices are kept reasonable. Of course one cannot blame the supermarket system for sole responsibility of the current economic situation and the new culture that has developed during the last century. However, it can’t be denied that this system has had a larger impact than it is given credit for. The issues discussed in this blog demonstrate the amount of power the food distributor has in a society. Food is not a normal commodity, as it is necessary for life and we can’t live without it. Food is an extremely powerful political, social, and economic tool because of this. The main problem with the supermarket system is that this power is concentrated; locally with individual supermarkets and nationally and globally with supermarket corporations. As with any socioeconomic system, the power needs to be distributed to ensure the least amount of corruption and the maximum amount of people represented in decisions regarding the system that every person is a part of.

Resources:

http://www.marigallagher.com/site_media/dynamic/project_files/Chicago_Food_Desert_Report.pdf

Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, Raj Patel, 2007, Melville House Publishing, New York, pg. 215-252

Skyfarming

The idea of farming indoors it not a new one, in fact the first modern greenhouses were constructed in Italy during the 13th century to house exotic plants that were brought back by explorers from the tropics. Farming in an urban area is also an old-time tradition. As early as the turn of the 20th century roof top gardens and in some cases even small animal farms, could be found atop the roofs of New York City apartments. With our population growing as fast as it is, getting food to the largest density of people (the urban cities) is proving to be both challenging and inefficient. Our current model of horizontal farming has taken its toll on our environment; it has lead to poor soil conditions, deforestation, and semi-arid deserts. Furthermore there has been research that has shown the effects of large scale farming and deforestation have had a significant impact on the ever-growing threat of climate change.

Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental sciences and microbiology at Columbia University believes that the solution to our problem is “vertical farming.” Vertical farming is a term used to describe a building that would be used to grow food on a large scale indoors year round by using both clean energy (that the building itself will create) and recycled resources, such as hydroponic system. Furthermore by bringing the farm to the city it would reduce if not eliminate most of the energy that is currently used to ship farm raised products, as well as allow over farmed land to revert back to forests thus helping to fix our current climate issues.

Indoor farming has benefits other than reducing our carbon footprint as well. Crops that are grown indoors are not exposed to the same threats as those grown outdoors, such as animals and bugs, thus there would be almost no need for harmful pesticides to be used on plants. Furthermore the growing conditions for the plants can be controlled by computer, thus creating the optimal growing climate year round which would lead to greater crop yields without the use of genetically modified seeds, and almost no chance of massive crop failure.

The technology that would be used to in these “farmscrapers” is not only beneficial to the growing of crops, but rather to the environment as a whole. The building will be able to produce their own power, due to large wind turbines on the roof, as well as solar panels, and will even include their own water treatment facilities. Because the crops will be grown hydroponically, there is likely to be a loss of water from the system due to evaporation. This is no problem as evaporation recovery systems have already been designed. These systems will recover pure water which can then be sold, or put back into the system. Furthermore the hydroponic systems will operate off of “grey water” which is waste water that has been treated through filtration, but is not suitable for drinking, although it is suitable for irrigation.

Using electricity for heating a building as large as a proposed “farmscraper” is very inefficient, thus a pellet power system would be the heart of the facility. The pellets would be composed of both non-edible plant products as well as waste from restaurants. This would provide the building with enough energy power the entire building and then some. Excess energy could then be put back into the grid, or sold as clean power to neighboring buildings.

Although vertical farming sounds like a great solution to all our food problems, there is still much research needed to ensure all elements of the facility work together properly, this could take up to another 15 years in development, and millions of dollars. Most likely we will see the first vertical farms built in very wealthy nations such as Dubai, where private investors have the capital, but in the long run implementation in third world nations could greatly improve worldwide quality of life. The concept is still very young and more interest toward it would greatly improve its chances of working correctly and solving some of our major problems. The idea of a place where fruits and vegetables as well as small livestock can all be grown using renewable energy and leaving the smallest possible ecological foot print, really is the way of the future.

http://nymag.com/news/features/30020/

http://www.verticalfarm.com/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming

Why do we have default choices when we are overwhelmed by options?

The Paradox of Choice argues an interesting point: the more options we have, the more frustrating and stressful it is to evaluate and choose the best option. So, many of us end up defaulting to our true and tried choices. If I go to the store to buy a bag of potato chips in a hurry, I may see baked chips, sea-salted chips, kettle-cooked chips, etc. I honestly don’t feel like reasoning through the options, especially when my roommate will end up eating half of some gourmet kettle cooked bag I paid for. I simply default to a bag of Lay’s ridged potato chips. But how did I choose that default? How do we determine our original choice, our safety, our backup, in the first place? Marketing and brand identity. More than taste, more than product quality, marketing and brand image, characteristics, or even feelings we associate it with, determine which products we will venture out to buy, and which we will default to when overwhelmed by choices. So by the time we reach the grocery store, barring some unforeseen circumstance, our choices have already been made for us by the producers, by the manufacturers, by the grocer and most importantly by the marketer.
I say most importantly because even if a brand new line of potato chips comes out, that tastes better than Lay’s, that’s healthier than Pringles, and is the same price, many brand loyal Americans wouldn’t even think to switch if someone didn’t persuade them to do so. In this case, marketing could be positive. Providing necessary insight into the situation and allowing consumers to make an informed, healthier decision. But more often than not, motives are not so benign.
And it starts before we even know it. McDonald’s ads have traditionally been directed at children, they use theme-park-esce mascots and backdrops to captivate and intrigue. Camel cigarettes used a cartoon Joe Camel to attract young and old to its product and even instructed store owners to place cigarette ads at eye-level with children. It is no secret that the tobacco industry has targeted children, and the food industry is just as guilty.
"Realistically, if our Company is to survive and prosper, over the long term, we must get our share of the youth market. In my opinion, this will require new brands tailored to the youth market."
Claude Teague, RJR, "Research Planning Memorandum on Some Thoughts About New Brands of Cigarettes for the Youth Market," February 2, 1973
Food companies use a complex blend of sciences to analyze consumer wants. In many instances, their primary concern is not to have you love the taste of the food they are selling or even respect their company’s morals, no, they want you to identify with them. Through print ads or commercials, through models, slogans, jingles, and the like. Pepsi is hip. Coke is classic.
If they can hook you, they’ve got you. Not just with addictive cigarettes. One would think coke was still addicting with the staggering brand loyalty observed among Americans. It would be interesting to investigate whether or not Pepsi drinkers prefer Mountain Dew (also Pepsi Company) or Sprite (Coca-cola) or whether or not Lay’s plain potato chip users would be more likely to try Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips or those made by Pringles. If you think it doesn’t matter, consider this: Even if McDonald’s drastically reduced the quality of its meat (assuming you don’t feel this has already come to pass), do you think they’d lose a significant portion of business to Burger King or even Wendy’s?
People are more likely to move within brands because we are attracted to foodstuffs for complex reasons. It is more than just taste, or packaging, it is an image, a persona we want to identify and associate with. Within this, lies the real monoculture referred to in Tangled Routes and the true paradox of choice. That there are apples and oranges and bananas to choose from, that there are 20 different Lay’s potato chips flavors, that there are 40 types of cereal at the grocery store, is all a fa├žade for real choice. The paradox is not in having too many choices, but realizing that these “choices” are not choices at all in the sense of the word, some definitions of which include: abundance, variety, diversity, or power to choose. I certainly do not find a trip to the grocery store empowering, when I chose Lay’s over Pringles I feel no sense of accomplishment. But I do feel normal. Sometimes when I choose Doritos I feel kind of wild. When I go for Mountain Dew I think about snowboarding. And when I go to McDonald’s I feel like a kid again. When I eat LeanCuisine I can feel my thighs melting away. Hmmmmm wonder why that is.

Sources

http://www.mascotcoalition.org/education/facts/own_words2.html

Barndt, Deborah. (2008). Tangles Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail, 2nd Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Scholsser, Eric. (2001). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. New York: Harper Perennial.

How to Build Brand Friendship- http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/may2008/sb2008059_609055.htm?chan=innovation_branding_brand+strategy

Schwartz, Barry. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc.

Education to Address Some Issues Surrounding the Links Between Chronic Disease and Food Deserts

In a recent study published by researchers at the University of Michigan, it was suggested that Americans who live in areas where fast-food venues are numerous, are more likely to suffer from a stroke, than those who live where fast-food outlets are fewer. Evidence provided in Examining the Impact of Food Deserts on Public Health in Chicago, also suggests that the greater number of fast food restaurants, the greater the prevalence of numerous conditions and chronic diseases traditionally used as health markers including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Both studies conclude that the convenient supply of fast food restaurants coupled with the severe scarcity of grocery stores in these areas may leave residence to eat less healthy food, resulting in increased medical conditions.

Although many people believe there is feasibly nothing that can be done immediately, I beg to differ. Eating fast food or food from a convenient store may be the only option for some, but it is not necessarily what they prefer. And often times, one can end up spending much more at a restaurant or convenience store per person than at a grocery store. If however, the first step towards reversing these situations involved education, a tangible, measurable difference in well-being may be observed.

If people could learn how to buy the largest/sufficient quantity of healthy foods on their budget, they may view things differently. A program called Eat Smart New York, does just that. This nutrition education program targets parents who receive or have at one point received supplemental nutritional assistance from the state. This program not only teaches them how to choose healthy groceries and prepare hearty meals for their families, it shows them how to do so on a budget. In Erie County, this budget was $10. They introduced the “Ten Dollar Stretch”, first coming up with several different grocery items that may be used to make family meals for less than ten dollars, and then showing them how to look through grocery store ads to find the best deals, make a list, and go at it. Participants were given calculators and taught how to calculate unit price as well, to make sure they were getting the best deal. They also stressed that canned, and even better, frozen fruits and vegetables, although not as ideal as fresh fruits and vegetables, were a good addition to any budgeted diet.

Many of the items could be found in a convenience store, but this is not a solution to the problem of food deserts. I feel that a bottom-up and top-down approach are needed to completely address the issue, and that this is one bottom-up approach that has been proven to change lives. And maybe if communities began to demand more canned or frozen vegetables and healthier options on a budget, perhaps more would be offered. But from this level, education must come first. Sure many people may believe that a diet consisting of McDonald’s for lunch and KFC for dinner is bad for health. But they should also know that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese isn’t the next best thing. That is where education comes in: teaching people how to improve their current situation and through that, strive to facilitate change.

Sources

http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2009/02/21/Strokes_tied_to_fast-food_neighborhoods/UPI-71061235247707/

http://www.otda.state.ny.us/main/fsnep/default.htm

http://www.otda.state.ny.us/main/fsnep/success/archive/2008-06-success.htm

http://www.marigallagher.com/site_media/dynamic/project_files/Chicago_Food_Desert_Report.pdf

http://www.cce.cornell.edu/view/page/45b

Almost Orwell: Tracking and Reccomendation Systems

We now live in a world where our preferences are tracked. Online the ads we see reflect what we have been viewing. Internet radio recommends new artists based our previous track selections. Every purchase we make from major online retailers results in more product selections that the retailer believes may interest us. All of these applications of data tracking and recommendation systems have been largely accepted as useful. However for some reason the public has been much less accepting of these technologies out side of cyberspace.

The majority of major super market chains now offer some sort of "Loyalty" program most require customers to sign up for a card that they use at check out to receive sale prices on products that they are buying. The corporations save information about the sale in massive databases. This information is later applied to customize marketing promotions to individual customers. at the time of the promotion manufacturers offer sales on certain products. Coupons for these products are then distributed to the consumers. Traditionally all consumers in the same region would get the same coupons (It wouldn't make sense to offer a sale on Ice Melter in Florida). With the databases of information gathered by the stores these marketing efforts are even more specialized. It is now entirely possible that two people living in the same house would receive entirely different promotions if they have distinctly different purchasing habits.

This big picture view of the system appears to be very practical and does not look like a source of controversy. How ever it has become one. The largest point of outrage comes from activist groups like CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering) who see this tracking as an invasion of privacy. Many would say that they are willing to give up a little privacy if it saves money. CASPIAN however argues that the coupons and sales are actually only offering the normal price and that the new prices are actually gross mark-ups. (http://www.nocards.org/overview/index.shtml)

Now that it is clear where the negative effects of suggestion systems potentially come from I would propose that it is not a necessity that these effects be exploited.

We live in a world where experts are being replaced by Expert Systems. Our ability to number crunch is beginning to out weigh our natural ability to analyze. Sabermetrics is becoming the standard for prospect ranking in baseball. Computer algorithms are now more effective at predicting the best wine grape crops than Sommeliers. Computers may actually be able to tell us what we want more effectively than we can predict it our selves. For a long time the common model in expert systems was to teach the computer all of the rules that industry experts learned and then let the computer decide what people will think is best. As it turns out this does not work. The current model is to tell the computer what people think is best (for example through consumer trends) and then let the computer deduce the rules.

Now that we have enourmous databases to develop recommender systems from it is the responsibility of the coroporations to responsibly apply this information. Netflix is an example of a company that employs a positive model for reccomendation systems. Netflix does not make more money if you choose one movie over another, they simply make money as long as you continue to choose movies. This model means that it is in the best interest of netflix to continue suggesting movies that you will like and will rent. This model can easily be applied in any system. Wal-mart, often considered the worst corporation as far as consumer rights, could apply a simmilar model, if they were to track your purchaces and deduce that you enjoyed fishing, it may be in their best interest to offer you a sale on select fishing equipment. While it is in their best interest to charge you as much as possible they wont lose money on the sale items and it is likely that you wont leave the store with only items that are on sale. It is far more convenient for you to pay a little more for other products that you need in order to save your self from having to go to another store.

This model seems straight forward and seems to be common sense. However corporations will tend to exploit information if they have it. It is the responsibility of the consumer to ensure that these suggestion systems are used only for mutual benefit and not for customer exploitation.

http://www.nocards.org/overview/index.shtml
http://www.catmktg.com/
http://www.mad.co.uk/Home/Home.aspx
Supercrunchers by Ian Ayres

Subsidies, the "Green Box", and the US

Yesterday some details concerning the 2010 budget for the USDA came to light, including a proposed phase-out over the next three years of direct-payment subsidies for farmers whose sales revenue is over $500,000, which according to USDA Chief Economist Joe Glauber affects about 3% of US farms (see source 1). Apparently, subsidies for farms whose sales are below the $500,000 dollar mark will also be capped at $250,000, and there will be cuts to crop insurance subsidies and programs to promote exports (see sources 2,3). So, how will this affect international agriculture? Will reducing this one kind of subsidy help in ameliorating some of the problems we've seen with how cheaply available US exports can destabilize the livelihoods of local farmers in the global south?

First, I wanted to investigate the WTO rules on subsidies. According to their web page (see 4), "green box" subsidies must cause "minimal distortion" (what a vague statement) in trade, must be government-funded, and must not involve (direct) price support. Direct income supports fall under this "green box" category so long as they are " not related to current production levels or prices" (ie. so long as they are "decoupled"). Programs for environmental and regional development also fall under this category.

So, if the WTO is to be believed, any changes in US policy regarding direct income subsidies should have minimal effect on trade (because the existence of direct income subsidies has a minimal effect in the first place). However, according to much of the reading, including most significantly World Hunger, Stuffed and Starved, and chapter seven of Hungry for Profit( "Global Food Politics" by Philip McMichael), even these kinds of indirect subsidies do have a hand in artificially lowering the prices of export crops. McMichael highlights this when he states, "the 'level playing field' is not level−because the U.S. and the EU retain indirect agricultural subsidies by decoupling farm payments from commodity prices."

So, given that these subsidies do in fact have an effect on trade, reducing direct farm payments should, in part, help to prevent flooding of overseas markets with artificially low-priced produce. However, I am ambivalent as to whether or not this is actually a good development in terms of increasing food security and reducing world hunger. On the one hand, a trend toward reduction of subsidies of US produce will help local farmers in other countries compete more fairly given that the price of US produce won't be as artificially deflated. However, other indirect subsidies through land management and environmental programs still may result in US produce having a lower price than locally produced agricultural goods. In light of this, the solution clearly shouldn't be to get rid of land management and environmental programs, which are certainly important for promoting sustainability (see 5).

Reducing subsidies is a key component of trade liberalization (see 6). However, liberalization of trade seems to be, at least in this transitory period, a major problem with regard to food security in that it results in many countries becoming dependent on foreign imports and reduces incentives for countries to have strong domestic agriculture programs. Ideally, under trade liberalization, cheap agricultural goods will be available at all times even if one source runs out in the short term; however, as we have seen throughout the readings in this course, and especially in Stuffed and Starved, World Hunger, and the Buttel reading, the problem of world hunger is a problem of inequality and poverty; it is a matter of people not being able to afford whatever food is available. Trade liberalization will likely not help end inequalities and poverty, and consequently it will not help reduce the problem of hunger. As it stands, rather, when local farmers are out-competed in "the race to the bottom," local agriculture no longer is able to flourish, and food security is diminished. An aside: If in an ideal situation trade liberalization and rapid transportation were universally imposed and worked, the dependence of local communities on outside agriculture would not be as much of an issue; however, were an upset in transportation or trade to occur, these areas would be left without the means to sustain themselves. Thus, even in the ideal case, the system is problematic

Consequently, regardless of whether lower foreign prices are caused artificially by indirect subsidies or different factors entirely (an exceptionally good harvest in a given region, for example), the effect is still going to be the same under trade liberalization. So, ultimately, the effect of unequal levels of subsidizing across nations are simply symptoms of this underlying problem. Thus, while the impact of reducing direct subsidies might have some beneficial consequences, these would only be beneficial in the context of an already incredibly broken system.

So, overall, while at first this reduction in farmer income subsidies might have seemed like a step in the right direction toward "leveling the playing field" and possibly enabling greater local food security in other nations by allowing local farmers to have more realistically priced competition, upon closer examination it seems likely that a general trend toward reducing subsidies likely won't contribute much toward increasing food security in the long run given that it is part of the process of trade liberalization. At least it will help to reduce the amount of money flowing from the federal government to agribusiness. That surely counts for something.

1. Feedstuffs
2. Drilling Down on the Budget. New York Times
3. Opposition, Skepticism Greet Obama's USDA Budget. Agriculture Online.
4. Domestic Support in Agriculture. WTO.
5. Agricultural Resources. Economic Research Service/USDA
6. Agricultural Subsidy Programs. Library of Economics and Liberty.
7. Farm Policy.com: A Summary of Farm Policy News
8. Farming: Farm Subsidies. Environmental Working Group.
Schwartz, Barry.The Paradox of Choice. Harper Perennial. 2004.
Patel, Raj. Stuffed and Starved. Melville House Publishing. 2007.

Peanuts Everywhere

On Tuesday I read an article in the New York Times called “Peanut Recall’s Ripples Feel Like a Tidal Wave for Some Companies.” The piece talked about the countless companies, large and small, which have had to spend time and resources carefully recalling products containing peanuts. It occurred to me that the number of foods with peanuts in them is staggering in this day and age. Our society is highly susceptible to contamination epidemics because our food has been so standardized and its ingredient diversity severely diminished.

Although I myself am not allergic to any foods, I have become extremely conscious of foods with nuts in them after witnessing people having allergic reactions to nuts. When I worked at a bakery last summer I found myself paying more attention to helping customers who had allergies of their own, because of my memories of those reactions. It was difficult to actually sell them many of the baked goods because other people working at the bakery were sloppy, and would pile up croissants covered in sliced almonds on top of other, nut-free pastries. And when I went to ask one of the bakers if a particular product contained nuts (or peanut oil, or almond paste), I would often be surprised to find that it did – even though I would have guessed it didn’t. As a result, I sometimes turned away customers with nut allergies because I didn’t feel good giving them anything from the display case. The same problem happened with customers who had wheat or egg allergies. If I couldn’t get a straight answer about the ingredient list, I didn’t sell it.

The perils that people with nut allergies face when they eat at restaurants or buy packaged goods at the grocery store are now happening to all of us. Shopping at the grocery store during this peanut butter scare makes me realize just how many peanut products I eat. I currently do not eat my favorite kind of ice cream, crackers, or the chocolates my family sends me from a local company back home. Not all of my usual peanut products might originate from the tainted processing plant, but I decided I would rather just eliminate peanut butter and paste from my diet right now and not worry about it. That makes me feel just like someone who is allergic to nuts and must constantly be conscious of what he or she is eating.

Think about the potential for a widespread emergency when our foods are so homogenized and filled with the same ingredients over and over again. Peanuts are only a minor example. Countless foods contain high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated soybean oil. These products originate from a few processing plants in mass quantities. What if one of those ingredients became contaminated? I’m talking about something with more immediate effects than the speculation about mercury in corn syrup, although that is certainly a worrisome issue. We eat countless products every day that contain these ingredients without even realizing they’re in there. Thousands or millions of people would become ill within days before the problem could be recognized and stopped.

But we can’t really do anything about this potential scenario, because it’s virtually impossible to broaden your food horizons when you shop at your neighborhood grocery store. Some might say that you should make an effort to shop at farmers’ markets, organic grocery stores, or even start a garden of your own so you can eat more natural unprocessed food. But unfortunately there are a lot of us who don’t have the time, resources, or money to use these solutions. Poor, busy college students like me are inevitably going to end up with a cart full of corn syrup and soybean oil whether we like it or not, because we just don’t have a way to avoid that cheap, convenient food most of the time.

Sources:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/business/smallbusiness/26sbiz.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=peanut&st=cse
http://www.treelight.com/health/nutrition/PartiallyHydrogenatedOils.html (read about soybean oil under the section ‘Partially Hydrogenated Oils Make You Fat!’)
http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/lifestyle/health/chi-mercury-corn-syrupjan27,0,2801323.story