Monday, December 8, 2008

Food to my attention

This morning on facebook, A from GUI wrote on his status,

"totally agrees what Ivy Singh said "You can print money overnight but you can't grow food overnight" What is a financial crisis compared to a food/water crisis?"

To add to that, an article on AP caught my attention with the headlines,

"In lean times, SoCal residents trade guns for food"

And it just reminds me of what HL told me the other day about David Harvey talking about how organic food production has diminished the quantity of food, exacerbating the food crisis. But at the same time I'm also reading this manga Akumetsu, which talks about the economic crisis in Japan and the pork barrel politics. And some how I cannot see organic farming as the evil perpetrator. I cannot agree with D Harvey when shouldn't the economic system be under scrutiny instead? Why blame something that at least have good intentions? Of course I do not think that the organic system is anywhere near perfect. It's so problematic in the first place but let's not divert attention from the source of the problem in the first place alright? It's alright to criticize something but to totally discredit organic farming is like diversionary tactic. It's hardly addressing the root of the problem isn't it? What would normal people do with such information except to feel self-righteous and self-justified that organic is "evil" after all and they can continue with their current lifestyle of supporting "normal" crop produce. Of course as W would probably tell me, capitalism is not all that bad. Yes sure, I think that forms of capitalism have always existed but what happen to progress? I think we're way overdue for a paradigm shift.

I do admit however that I am in no position to comment further until I have read up on this more. Perhaps I will take HL's advice and read DHarvey's book on neoliberalism. You can't criticize what you have not read.

Personally I wouldn't start advocating for people to jump onto the organic bandwagon. I would still eat regular produce but this is why I'm more inclined towards the freeganism ideals. Not that I'm about to start climbing into dumpsters though. Still, I think that there is no idealised alternative at this point in time. I'm still thinking. I honestly care less about food safety and what not ever since I started my research. However, I'm being more aware of not consuming food from faraway countries. And yes, if I am the consumer, I would support local organic produce. In that order of priority. I'm not about to consume organic food from the US or Europe! But personally I think the only way I can change my lifestyle is to help exact change in the source of my food. I have decided my "power" as a consumer is not strong enough but neither am I willing to go and amass consumers to my cause. It's such a complex equation. If I address the issue from producer perspective, they will just tell me that there is no consumer support. If I address consumer support, I do not have a produce to deliver to them. I do not think organic is ideal. So what if something is labelled organic? It means hardly anything to me. Especially if it's sold in a supermarket and have fancy packaging.

Seems like, the more one knows, the harder it is for one to live an "easy" life.

So here's my question now - why is it that singapore is not willing to pay more for ethical food but europe, usa, hongkong and japan are willing to? Why is US and Europe supermarkets able to exercise greater pressure on their supply chain while SG is not? Why are we only concerned about food safety while other developed countries can exercise pressure on environmental issues? Is environmental issue in your source really a domestic problem and none of our business? Why does our regulations only limited to food safety? How can we exercise some form of regulation over the environment conditions of where our food come from? Certification? How effective is that? Is there any other way?


Agagooga said...

While the ends do not always justify the means, it is even more perverse to claim that the means justify the ends.

The economic system is not under scrutiny because it brings cheap and safe food which has huge variety to consumers.

Organic food is more expensive - poor people do not have the luxury of indulging themselves with something that has no greater nutritional value.

Organic food is also worse for the environment, since land is used less productively.

All in all, a bad idea.

Consumers are welcome to pay more for "ethical" food, but when pressure groups force their will upon the majority this is unacceptable.

Monkey said...

point taken but i must say...

1) i never said the means justify the ends. not once did i say organic is THE WAY. Im asking for an alternative BETTER than organic.

2) according to current economics theory, if there is more demand, supply can be cheaper and with economies of scale, cost of production can be lowered. so why is organic more expensive? theoretically, organic production can be cheaper. right now, we are lowering cost merely through "shortcut" methods like exploiting cheap foreign labour and using more potent pesticides that can kill all in 1 dose. instead of expensive pesticides that require more frequent attention and dosages.

3) there is more to alternative food than just "greater nutrition". how about food safety? or ensuring justice to your producers? how responsible are consumers supposed to be? so we can be irresponsible pricks who import all our food and don't care if the people in the producing countries are starving to death or have their environment destroyed?

4) I can see why irresponsible "organic" farming will result to less productive lands and producing less food to a more "elite" market. But it's naive and overly non-critical if we just think that price is everything. Conventional farming has been going on for the last 40 years under green revolution but there is STILL hunger so don't blame it on organic now. it's bullshit that "poor people" dont have the luxury to indulge in organic food. It's not organic food but HOW you get your hand on food that is the problem. If I'm an urban poor but I belong to a urban community supported farming system then I can be getting my quality food cheaply.

We should be examining the consumers and their unnecessary wants fueled by mass media and advertising but I'm not going into that. But for the sake of this argument, if you buy a smaller tv, drive less, buy less fancy clothes or even just buy less unhealthy processed food and put in occasional physical labour for quality food, I think it's definitely worthwhile.

when is the last time people made their own dough and baked their own breads? Or buy some beans and make your own soy milk?

People think that if they buy bulk in costco they are actually saving lots of money but actually you are spending more and wasting more.

consume less, spend less and you're actually getting more in the areas that really matter.

of course if responsible food is not what people are concerned about then what can i do right? i cannot impose my values and what i deem as "responsible" to others. morals are value-dependent.

Agagooga said...

Perhaps we may find an alternative better than organic, but till that time comes, the conventional food delivery system will be the worst one possible - except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

While economies of scale can lower costs, it's a fallacy to think that they will go on falling forever. You cannot look at a (presumed) trend, draw a straight line and project it into infinity. And most projections of scale economies are ridiculously rosy-eyed (same way how the projected savings from "cutting waste" is a popular way to "balance" your budget)

The reason organic is more expensive is because it uses more backward technology and ignores much of what we have learnt about food technology since the Green Revolution (possibly before).

No amount of economies of scale can reduce the cost of organic to match conventional food - unless you reduce the scale of production of conventional food, but then that's disingenuous.

Food safety: While China has been doing a spectacular job of torpedoing confidence in the global food chain, the fact is that with transparency and sufficient regulation, food is very safe - and remains cheap.

Ensuring justice to your producers - What is justice? What is a "fair" wage? If very few producers are employed because a "fair" wage is too high is this "fair" to the rest? And what about "justice" to the consumers on food stamps? The food inflation of the past year or two already caused riots - even in places with subsidised food. To raise food prices even more by raising agricultural wages would be highly irresponsible (and bring comparatively less benefit) - what you are trying to do is essentially redistributing wealth from the urban poor to the rural poor (to say nothing of other organic "innovations" that don't benefit producers) Most people in the world do not have the luxury of paying twice as much for essentially the same thing.

I don't see anything wrong with importing all our food - would you try and grow rice in a city? If you would, would you try and assemble an iPod in the South Pole? Same principles: comparative advantage, network effects etc.

I also don't know how the global food chain causes people in producing countries to starve to death.

Environmental degradation is a more valid concern, but the issue here is making producers accountable for their actions. Which is actually easier in some ways with a global company, since they are in it for the longer term and need a longer time horizon, and they are better able to monitor the situation (and activists can hold them to account).

Saying that conventional farming has not solved world hunger and so it's useless is like saying the United Nations, International Criminal Court, International Court of Justice and other multilaterals are useless. A proper comparison would be seeing what would happen without the variable we are evaluating, and organic farming has been shown to be far inferior for the purpose of producing food.

While you might be able to grow some food in an urban environment, the mere facts of urban density mean you will be unable to grow enough to feed everyone in the city (unless you go the GM route+fancy fertilisers, which would seem to be kryptonite to organic food lovers)

If someone wants to make all sorts of lifestyle sacrifices for organic food, it's his prerogative, but it'd be a lot more useful for the person to donate the extra money spent to charity and the time wasted to volunteer work. And it's definitely a lot less fun than spending all that time and money buying and reading manga :)

Monkey said...

too tired to correct you.
gawd, you don't see anything wrong with importing all your food? do you know that most countries don't do that because they have domestic production? we're one of the very few (less than 5) countries in the world that does that. it's shifting all our burden to other people. ecological footprint, virtual water trade, everything! uber uber impact on other people while citizens like you live in ignorant bliss when we happily buy seafood imported from south africa or celery from USA and chicken from brazil without thinking of where the food came from and conditions in those countries.

wah lau organic farming uses "Backwards" technique haha you're wrong. it cost more because the % of crop loss is so high that the amount of input comes out with so much less output that they have to charge more. but technically they claim that with more improved soils, production can be increased. *shrugs* they also require more labour. food quality is supposedly less consistent but not necessarily so. im just pissed that some people would go and clear pristine environments to grow "organic" so as an easy way to fulfil the criteria that "organic" imposes.

justice is so many things. aiyah i dunno why i end up rebutting anyways.

why must we wait for somebody else to find an alternative to conventional or organic? i am that somebody! rawr. haha what else are researchers good for but to contemplate alternatives?

Agagooga said...

Food should be produced where it is most efficient. If you're in the North Pole you can grow bananas locally, but it makes more sense to import than from Latin America because the climate there is more suitable.

Countries which enact measures to try and increase domestic production resort to protectionism, which is extremely wasteful - look at the EU's mountains of milk and butter, and High Fructose Corn Syrup in the US (or, more recently, corn-based ethanol).

Just because a cost is first borne by someone else does not mean it is unjust - as long as they are paid for it, they are compensated. For example, I may not do the dangerous welding for the frame of my tent (say), but I pay for the tent, and this money goes to the welder who bears the risk. Ditto for shifting our burden to other people.

Transport costs are a very small proportion of the total cost of food production. In Spain, water has to be brought down from the mountains to grow oranges on the arid plains when it's a lot cheaper (and ecologically friendly) to import them from Morocco.

A 2005 DEFRA study found that of tomatoes bought in Britain, those grown in Britain emitted 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide per ton of tomatoes versus 0.6 for Spanish ones. That's 4 times the CO2 emissions; 82% of food miles for UK food are generated within the UK, only 1% come from air freight. You produce more carbon dioxide putting UK apples in cold storage than by shipping them over from New Zealand, and milk produced in the UK is twice as energy intensive as New Zealand milk.

If you want to go ahead and eat locally produced food even though it's worse for the environment, you'll have to eat preserved fruits during winter (since you grow your food locally), and your health will probably suffer.

Monkey said...

again that is so not true. it's irresponsible discourse by the developed north to say that "food should be produced where it is most efficient".

im going to ignore this conversation bah