Archive for the ‘food’ Category

This Foreign Policy article on the West’s deleterious notions towards food production is the best I’ve read on any topic in weeks. After finishing it all I can do is wonder whether there is any other sector of the economy in which marketing and bias has persuaded more people to make choices opposite of what a large body of evidence–scientific, economic, moral–would indicate is best:

Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

What could be more cosmopolitan and progressive than opting to buy from the rich farmer a few miles down the road rather than the poor one a world away?

Keep your government hands off my fat farm bill...rooster.

Take industrial food systems, the current bugaboo of American food writers. Yes, they have many unappealing aspects, but without them food would be not only less abundant but also less safe.

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant. Pesticide exposures remain a serious problem in the developing world, where farm chemical use is not as well regulated, yet even there they are more an occupational risk for unprotected farmworkers than a residue risk for food consumers.


Where industrial-scale food technologies have not yet reached into the developing world, contaminated food remains a major risk. In Africa, where many foods are still purchased in open-air markets (often uninspected, unpackaged, unlabeled, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized, and unwashed), an estimated 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases, compared with an estimated 5,000 in the United States.

Food grown organically — that is, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides — is not an answer to the health and safety issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year published a study of 162 scientific papers from the past 50 years on the health benefits of organically grown foods and found no nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.”

I’ve been inspired to poetry by organic baby carrots, so I am no stranger to organic’s bulbous allure, but underneath hides rot:

If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined. Mass deforestation probably isn’t what organic advocates intend.


While I vigorously support cutting down millions of trees–they often obstruct otherwise pristine vistas–the idea doesn’t seem particularly sustainable.  Contrast that with what’s been happening with industrial agriculture:

In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a review of the “environmental performance of agriculture” in the world’s 30 most advanced industrial countries — those with the most highly capitalized and science-intensive farming systems. The results showed that between 1990 and 2004, food production in these countries continued to increase (by 5 percent in volume), yet adverse environmental impacts were reduced in every category. The land area taken up by farming declined 4 percent, soil erosion from both wind and water fell, gross greenhouse gas emissions from farming declined 3 percent, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use fell 17 percent. Biodiversity also improved, as increased numbers of crop varieties and livestock breeds came into use.

I’ve seen films like Witness and Caspar David Friedrich gefällt mir sehr, but the bucolic beauty of dirt-poor peasant agriculture lies only in the eyes of the Western beholder. Farmers earn income based on what they produce, and to produce more they need the trappings of modernity, greasy and grimy in its mechanical glory.

"Let's plant modern seeds...of DESTRUCTION!"

What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

Remember, it’s a feature, not a bug (Boll weevil? Could I have just written boll weevil there?) that so many barns in the US are quaint landmarks of a bygone era.

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Via Marginal Revolution, I discover something peculiar about flights and blasé about Germans:

Bei dem im Flugzeug herrschenden niedrigen Luftdruck steigt die sogenannte Geruchs- und Geschmacksschwelle – Kräuter, Gewürze, Salz und Zucker müssen höher dosiert werden, um wahrgenommen zu werden. Man rieche die Speisen und Getränke “als hätte man einen Schnupfen”, sagte Burdack-Freitag der Zeitung. Salz werde 20 bis 30 Prozent, Zucker 15 bis 20 Prozent weniger intensiv geschmeckt.

My literalish translation:

With the low air pressure prevalent in an airplane, the so-called smell and taste threshold rises–herbs, spices, salt and sugar must be given in higher doses in order to be discerned. One smells the meals and drinks “as if one had a cold,” said Burdack-Freitung to the newspaper. Salt was tasted 20 to 30 percent less acutely, and sugar 15 to 20 percent less.

This Lufthansa-backed study is offered as explanation for the inordinate fondness of Germans to order tomato juice on a flight (more popular than beer, according the article). As we all know, when low air pressure conspires to make your taste buds weak, the best way to kick it up a notch is to order tomato juice.

Two thoughts:

  • Like some people, I have an airplane drink, which is something you only order (or drink mostly) on flights. Mine happens to be apple juice, because apfelsaft was the simplest drink order I had confidence saying on my first flight to Germany–since then I’ve always gotten at least one glass per flight anywhere.  Apple juice is also the drink I associate most strongly with Germany.
  • One of my German colleagues in Schwerin had cousins in Texas and spent a lot of time there growing up. He scoffed the German dislike for spice and nearly killed me a few times because I was one of the few with whom he could share his love for hot sauce.

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This past weekend’s imu roast was a gratifying success. Not only had 20 hours in the imu steamed the pig to perfection, but just as the first cuts were being tossed on the grill for a finishing sear, storm clouds also darkened the sky and the first shower of the rainy season began. I and others were beside ourselves that our imu had pleased Lono, who had clearly sent the Pineapple Express our way.

Problem is, while Lono does exist in Hawaiian mythology, and the Pineapple Express is indeed the layman term for a genuine meteorological event, nearly everything else I included in that e-mail/post was harvested from my well-irrigated imagination; any resemblance to real persons or events was entirely coincidental.  Nonetheless some at the party did and as far as I know do still believe the tale to be true, and their innocent credulity fills me with mirth.

I’m reminded of a perhaps apocryphal story about Niels Bohr:

One of his students once noticed a horseshoe nailed above his cabin door and asked him: “Surely, Professor Bohr, you don’t believe in all that silliness about the horseshoe bringing good luck?” With a gentle smile Bohr replied “No, no, of course not, but I understand it works whether you believe in it or not.”

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Today I ran by the grocery store to pick up some milk and was perplexed to see that there were only a few cartons left on a very empty-looking shelf. I’m assuming it has something to do with this:

German cows have started filling stainless-steel vats with milk again after a 10-day boycott when many dairy farmers had dumped out their wares. Many say the problems that plague the industry remain.

Dairy factories warned on Friday, June 6, that promises by German discount grocers to pay higher wholesale prices for milk and butter have changed little.

At a time when international milk prices are low and the European Union is warning farmers to get ready for a market-driven, quota-free world, many small farms may fail.

For 10 heady days, the farmers let off steam and won mostly sympathetic attention from the media. But for those on the edge of bankruptcy, the loss of 10 days of income was a terrible price to pay.

While I heard some general comments about milk prices in the past days, I was totally clueless about what was going until about 15 minutes ago when I stumbled upon the article by chance.
Nevertheless, three thoughts now bounce around my calcium-fortified skull:

  1. If this strike has been going on since the end of May, why was milk ten cents cheaper when I bought some last weekend?
  2. In a way seeing empty dairy shelves at my local Lidl was nifty. I don’t think I’ve ever been so personally affected by a strike–not even by the Bahn.
  3. I’d be more than willing to pay a higher price per liter if I could buy milk in something larger than a 1 liter carton–I probably wouldn’t even notice the higher price, so great would be my joy.

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European breakfast cereal, which is comprised almost entirely out of seeds and assorted grains, has always reminded me of bird food (please try and tell me the difference between this and this).

But after buying a jumbo-sized two kilogram package of müsli today, I must say that the packaging rather reminds me of dog food:

This does not bode well for the future of our species.

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Sweet & Sour

ARTIFICIAL sweeteners have long been touted as being good for the calorie-conscious. Unfortunately, a study just published in Behavioral Neuroscience by Susan Swithers and Terry Davidson of Purdue University in Indiana suggests that such compounds may actually end up making people fatter than they otherwise would be.

And how can this be, pray tell?

The cause, Dr Swithers and Dr Davidson think, is a disruption in the connection that the brain makes between sweetness and calories. Past research suggests that the brain thinks that sweetness is a sign of highly calorific food. Dr Swithers and Dr Davidson argue that artificial sweeteners confuse things. After repeated exposure to sweeteners, the brain forgets the connection and thus fails to stop the animal eating at an appropriate point…

It therefore looks possible that low-calorie artificial sweeteners are a contributory factor to the rising number of people who are obese. What an irony.

I like the results of this study because it serves as a nice reminder of how ignorant humanity can be, and how unintended consequences are endemic to the activity of tampering with complex systems. Most of all, I like it because it gives evidence that good ol’ fashioned Aristotelian moderation is probably the better strategy for good health rather than following the well-marketed guidelines of the latest celebrity doctor.

Alternatively, one might content oneself with a more Platonic philosophy, which maintains that “attention to health is life’s greatest hindrance.”

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Basket Adjustment

My diet and eating habits have changed significantly since arriving in Germany. Some changes are linked to the different basket of goods available, while others have resulted from financial decisions:

  1. I eat far more bread, and it is both of better quality and more nutritious
  2. Sweet iced tea has been replaced by juice as my beverage of choice
  3. I eat a lot of margarine
  4. Besides the occasional wurst, I consume only deli meats
  5. My meals are simpler and my portions smaller
  6. I drink much more coffee and hot tea
  7. I eat breakfast
  8. Two different dishes comprise about 70-80 percent of my meals
  9. Dark chocolate is consumed regularly as a snack

What hasn’t changed is that I only rarely eat out, which is probably the biggest reason I’m able to survive on a food budget of less than 4 € per day. I look forward to the time when my income affords me feasts of roast duck and suckled pig, but it will be a while yet.

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