Food & drink

Is the label making us fat?

While we may have it drummed into us that getting active is the way to keep from piling on the pounds, it could be overeating, not a sedentary lifestyle that is at the root of the obesity epidemic facing the developed world. A study of US obesity showed that Americans’ levels of activity were roughly the same as they were 30 years ago, but their calorie intake has gone up. In fact, the calories consumed have risen by around 350 per day for children (equivalent to a can of soft drink and a small fries) since the 1970s, and by 500 for adults (about the same as a Big Mac). This could be why there are growing concerns about the way food is labelled and sold. In July this year the State of California began enforcing legislation requiring chain restaurants to include the number of calories on their menus. New York was the first State to introduce such a law, and similar rules have been introduced in three other US States. It’s believed that when eating out, diners frequently underestimate the caloric value of food – often by up to 600 calories – and that labelling the food will steer them toward healthier options. It’s hoped that greater transparency may also encourage restaurants to provide lower-calorie options.

For high calorie food such as soft drinks and chocolate, another alternative is to provide smaller portion sizes. In Britain, the Food Standards Agency has recommended that along with regular sizes, food and drink manufacturers produce smaller offerings. For Mars Bars it would mean a reduction from 58g to 50g and for Coke it would mean 250ml bottles are sold alongside the current 330ml ones. Such a move is likely to be met with fierce opposition from the manufacturers, as it would mean buying, or modifying, equipment to produce the new sizes.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 25 July 2009, The truth shall make you thin.; The Telegraph (UK), 29 July 2009, Chocolate firms told to cut sizes in obesity drive. Harry Wallop.; The Times (UK), 9 May 2009, It’s the calories that count in obesity rise. Sam Lister.
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Return of the food crisis

Throughout 2007 and 2008, the world experienced a global food crisis, where shortages pushed food prices up and led to widespread riots and poverty. At the time we were reassured that the higher prices would mean more money for famers and eventually a greater yield as they reinvested in their farms. As late 2008 rolled round, it looked as if this might be the case. A global cereal crop of 2.3 billion tonnes was the greatest ever recorded. A drop in oil prices around this time also helped things along, as with oil becoming cheaper then ethanol, less maize was sold into the production of biofuels and instead used for human consumption.

What happened next made less sense. Despite the bumper crop and the promise of another 2.2 billion tonnes in 2009, food prices began to rise again. The food index has rebounded by a third, and sugar and soybean prices by 50% from their weakest point. So what does it mean and is it the start of another global food crisis? One explanation for the price change is that it is due to cyclical fluctuations: one being the restocking of cereal supplies, and another, the rise in oil prices, which has also raised the price of ethanol. What happened in 2007/08, however, showed us that the factors behind the food crisis were not cyclical ones, rather irreversible trends. Population growth, urbanisation and meat-rich diets are all increasing and will continue to do so.

To keep up with the requirements of the ever-growing population, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that the food available in developing countries will need to double by 2050, a rise equivalent to 70% of world food production. If the reactions to the crisis of 2007/08 are anything to go by, we could see a worldwide land-grab as richer countries buy up land in Africa and South East Asia for food production – which could have disastrous results in areas where water is scarce. The FAO suggests that the better way to go about solving the potential food shortage is for farmers in poor countries to increase yields. The benefits of this are twofold: first, it would increase the wealth of these countries, and second, these areas have a greater potential for increased yields. Either way, the required 70% increase cannot be reached just by increasing acreage as there is just not enough land currently unused.
So while a superficial view of the situation shows that last year’s prices were a normal market reaction (price rises, investment into farms, increased supply and subsequent price drop), it would appear that oil prices and capital flows have simply increased uncertainty. The FAO suggests that, fundamentally, nothing has changed and that the spike of 2008 was not a bubble, but an imbalance of supply and demand.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 4 July 2009, Whatever happened to the food crisis?
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Local made easy

Not all of us have the space, or time, to grow our own vegetables, but even fewer of us would have the capacity to raise our own meat. Fortunately the locavore movement, raising interest in locally-grown food, is making it easier to buy local beasts. Through farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture groups that deliver fresh meat and more understanding butchers, there is now a clearer path to tread for the socially-aware eater. Local lamb offers the fewest traps for beginners. Sheep are easier to raise than cattle and require less pasture, meaning that meat is more likely to come from smaller farms; and sheep are more likely to be grass-fed, making for happier animals. With meat, you also avoid the debates of other organic produce, as vegetables labelled organic make no promises about whether farm workers are treated or paid fairly. The best way to be sure is to find a butcher that has a close and honest relationship with his supplier, or eat at a restaurant that does.

In Japan the locavore movement is bringing fresh vegetables to restaurants in a more direct way. While some restaurateurs have started up their own greenhouses to ensure maximum freshness and quality, others have tapped into the local gardening community – even displaying some of the vegetables for sale. At one restaurant the halls are lined with pots of spinach and Japanese mustard, which are purchased as is or can be cooked up by the chefs in a kind of vegetable take on the live fish tank. Also in Japan, a new vegetable home delivery service is reintroducing legacy vegetables to the population. These vegetables may either be traditional to other areas of the country, or were given up on by farmers after the war as they looked for easier and more fruitful growing options. But despite their history and unfamiliarity, the veggies are proving popular, with the delivery service seeing a 50% rise in memberships (to around 2,300) over the past year.
Ref: The Atlantic (US), May 2009, Graze Locally. Corby Kummer. ; The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 13 April 2009, Eateries touting fresh veggies. Hiroyuki Kobayashi. ; The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), 4 May 2009, New on the farm. Hiroyuki Kobayashi.
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The future of water

Local water shortages may seem to be just what they say they are – local – but they’re on the rise and may add up to mean a global water crisis. Decade-long droughts have occurred across Australia, and countries that rely on hydroelectricity, such as South Africa and Brazil, face regular brownouts. In other parts of the world there seems to be no shortage of water, with most countries outside of the Gulf only using 20% of the fresh water available to them, and globally only 9% of available water is withdrawn. The problem is, no one knows what the safe percentage of water usage is, with fears that we may already be dangerously close to the limit. Many of the world’s previously great rivers –such as the Indus, Rio Grande, Colorado and Tiber – no longer reach the sea. It’s estimated that half of the world’s wetlands have been destroyed or damaged in the 20th century and stocks of freshwater fish have fallen by 30% since 1970.

There are two key factors that are putting pressure on our water supplies. The first is demographic: though the population has just more than doubled from 3 billion to 6.5 billion in the past 50 years, our water use has trebled. So it’s not just the amount of people, but they way they are using water, and the biggest part of that is due to diet. Agriculture accounts for roughly three-quarters of the world’s water usage, while industry only uses a fifth and municipal and domestic use accounts for one-tenth. Producing a kilo of beef uses 15 times the amount of water that it takes to grow a kilo of wheat, and the rising wealth of countries like China means more meat in the diets of the people (China’s per capita meat consumption rose from 20kg to 50kg in the years since 1985). The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that at current rates of water efficiency, feeding the extra 2 billion people expected by 2025 will require 60% more water for agriculture, around 1500 cubic km, or as much is as currently used for everything outside of Asia.

The other key factor is climate change. Global warming is speeding up the hydrologic cycle, the rate at which water evaporates and falls as rain. This means that the Earth’s wet areas are becoming wetter and the dry areas drier, and others will swing more violently between droughts and intense rains. It also changes the way plants grow. The heavy rain followed by drought scenario will mean forests are more susceptible to fires and crops will grow quickly then wilt. The weather extremes will also play havoc with water storage systems, as they struggle to cope with the large volumes of water. Dams may make a comeback in areas such as Africa that currently have plenty of water but no storage. Climate change has also been the basis for the biofuels subsidy in developed countries, meaning more irrigated water is used in the production of crops for energy.

The answer is to increase efficiency across the board. It seems logical, even simple, but people are very reluctant to change their habits and governments have a poor history when it comes to water policy. The Pacific Institute believes that if the State of California used water-saving technology currently available, it could meet all its needs for decades to come. One thing that might kickstart the move to more efficient usage is the idea of “virtual water”, or applying trade values to water as are applied to other goods. As water use is not currently measured or priced accordingly, trade rarely reflects water shortages.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 11 April 2009, Sin aqua non.
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Fat taxes

Support is growing, especially in the US, for a tax to be introduced to junk food. Similar duties, known as “Pigouvian” taxes are already placed on goods such as cigarettes and alcohol, where the pre-tax price of the goods does not reflect their true cost to society. The levy on cigarettes, alcohol and gambling acknowledge that these products can lead to violence, family breakdown and increased health problems, the costs of which are all borne by the government. As well as potentially offsetting these long-term costs, it’s hoped that the tax may also encourage people to cut down on their consumption.

On some levels such a tax makes sense. With around one-third of Americans now considered obese (a rise of 15% since 1980), the cost of healthcare has also grown. Obese people generally have medical bills around $700 higher annually, due to increased risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, all adding up to around US$200 billion each year. A Washington think-tank called the Urban Institute put forward a proposal for a 10% tax on “fattening food of little nutritional value”, claiming it would bring in $500 billion over the next ten years.

It’s nice in theory, but would it work? Numerous studies have drawn links between the price of junk food and the weight of the population; people become fatter as junk food gets cheaper. It’s believed that taxing the number of calories would see a slow but sure decrease in obesity. Others argue against the effectiveness of a fat tax. As well as the complex issues surrounding exactly what to tax, there is still plenty of debate as to whether it’s the calories or the lack of exercise (or both) that’s causing obesity. Besides which, obesity doesn’t affect anyone but the obese, unlike the way that gambling can effect families or passive smoking can cause cancer. And drawing a somewhat longer bow, some are suggesting that a tax on quick and easy junk food may actually increase obesity as time spent cooking healthy food means less time for exercise! Also in the cons basket is the lack of availability of fresh food in some neighbourhoods, meaning a price rise in junk foods would see poor families at a disadvantage. The effect of the fat tax on obesity may all be academic, as it’s been shown with cigarettes and alcohol that the heaviest users are the least put off by price hikes, and overeaters may simply be resilient to the changes.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 1 August 2009, Does a tax on junk food make sense?
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