Food & drink

Seeds of doubt about the future of food

Has the era of cheap food come to an end? Food prices have erupted recently and are even above their 2008 peak. Prices are now higher in real terms than at any time since 1984. Why? Some of the reasons are temporary – droughts in Russia and Argentina, floods in Canada and Pakistan and export bans in a number of nations keen to hold onto food stocks, either for their own people or for their own profit. Higher oil prices have also had a direct impact because rising oil costs mean rising fertiliser costs. Ethanol is also factor. In the US, subsidies now mean that 40% of America’s corn crop goes towards filling cars rather than feeding people.

But there are much longer-term forces at play, not least the fact that the world’s population keeps growing (along with incomes), and diets are changing to include much more meat, in turn affecting the need for water. For example, 1 kg of wheat requires 1,150–2,000 litres of water to produce, while 1 kg of beef needs 16,000 litres. The global population is growing at around 1% per year, which means that that yields of staple foods will have to rise by about 1.5% per year (to take into account the increasing demand for meat). It may not sound like much, but it’s more than current increases and if you start to project growth over a 30-year period things start to look gloomy. One estimate, for instance, says that production will have to increase by 70% between now and 2050.

The good news is that in China and India domestic farmers are doing well in supplying local populations. But the amount of unfarmed land is already close to the sustainable limit and so too is the amount of water that’s available for agriculture. And don’t forget that climate change could make many of these issues worse.

So what’s to be done if we are to avoid more food riots and more starvation? Ironically, higher prices might actually be a solution due to the fact that higher prices stimulate investment. We may also get used to eating less in the West. In the meantime, much more money should be spent on basic agricultural research.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 26 February 2011, ‘The 9 billion people question: A special report on feeding the world’ and ‘Crisis prevention: what is causing food prices to soar and what can be done about it?’ (Same issue).
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Search words: Food, security, hunger, population
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Too hungry to think

Back in 2008, the Copenhagen Business School asked eight economists to think about what they would do if they were given $75 billion to spend on causes that would improve the lives of the most people. Of the eight, five selected nutrition as a key issue that could be solved through the wider availability of vitamin supplements.

To live a long and healthy life, humans need 40 nutrients, but globally four of these 40 (iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A) are in short supply. A chronic lack of vitamin A, for example, means that 500,000 children to go blind each year, half of whom go on to die of organ failure within 12 months. A chronic lack of zinc creates brain and motor function failure (causing 400,000 deaths per year) and a lack of iron means chronically weak immune systems. If this isn’t bad enough, individuals who cannot obtain enough key nutrients find it harder to concentrate, which impacts on educational attainment and earning power.

So what’s the solution? Well it’s not rocket science. The growth of local agriculture is one answer because farming generates income and feeds local people. In many regions, women are responsible for farming. As they also have the most influence on child health, getting more land, more water and more seeds in the hands of women seems like a good place to start. In practice, however, the expansion of agricultural production is no better, and is in some instances worse, than expanding GDP through general growth. Why would this be so? The answer is that poor people often buy rather than grow their own food and the food they often choose is not very nutritious.
There are success stories nevertheless. In 1990 a foundation was set up in Bangladesh aimed at developing markets gardens by giving women both seeds and advice. By 2003, 80% of families in the local area had gardens, and nearly all women and children were eating fresh vegetables three times per week when previously only 30% were.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 26 March 2011, ‘ Hidden Hunger’,
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Search words: Hunger, food
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Dishing out the food trends

It seems that food has become as fickle as fashion. Every year lists of what’s hot and what’s not pop up as regularly as Paris Hilton at a New York after-party. And both can leave a somewhat superficial taste. Novelty has something to do with this, but so too do economic trends. When things are booming we become flamboyant and splash out on show-off food. When the mood is more sombre the money goes quiet and people prefer to eat comfort foods at home. So what’s in store for the rest of 2011 given the vagaries of the economy at the moment? Street food (especially food served from vans) is hot, not least because it’s cheap to eat and cheap to set up, especially if you’re an out-of-work chef. Kogi BBQ in LA is a classic example.

Keeping things small is also hot. This means smaller plate sizes (for less money), but also smaller menus and smaller premises. Judas Goat, Meat & Bread and Japdog Cafe in Vancouver are examples. According to the US National Restaurant Association’s top 20 trends for 2011, we should also expect to see more locally grown produce (do you think?), sustainable seafood (yawn) and hyper-local restaurants with chefs doing their own butchering to keep costs down. Cocktails are also back (again) too.
Meanwhile, a set of forecasts produced by Andrew Freeman & Co (a hospitality consultant) says that pies are the number one trend for 2011 (certainly true of savoury pies in the UK). Also on the menu is mobile apps for restaurants. Oh, and one other trend. Goat. Yes, that’s right, goat.
Ref: Vancouver Sun (Canada), 5 January 2011, ‘The year of the goat’, by M. Stainsby.
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More food trends (and fads)

Here’s a list of Canadian food trends for 2011 and beyond, courtesy of the Globe and Mail. First up, we have vegetable ash. Ash has traditionally been used as a protective coating for cheese, but it’s now making an appearance elsewhere. Don’t expect it to last. Next we have olive oil alternatives. Apparently walnut, hazelnut, almond, sunflower, soybean and hemp oil are all in fashion. Locally grown global produce is self-explanatory (I hope), while sea buckthorn probably needs some explanation. This is apparently a shrub that’s high in antioxidants, hopefully with the thorns removed. Drinkable snacks sound weird, as do liquid snacks. Think of drinks that are somewhat solid (i.e. yoghurt). Healthy indulgences seems to mean pizza with more vegetables on top, while US invasion refers to US chain restaurants such as McGuire Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken and Woody’s BBQ heading north of the border. Artisan Cheese is something not entirely new while Better Breakfasts simply means breakfast flavours later in the day. Finally, Old School Dishes (Old School Cool?) means things like chicken in a pot and salmon with parsley sauce. As for Canadian drink trends, the list includes brown spirits, value shoppers, cabernet franc, white wine not red (due to warmer winters caused by climate change), lighter glass bottles (lower carbon footprint), pink cocktails (especially Negroni), locapours (like locavores but with drink), cross-border sales and Sangria (and anything else Spanish). One trend that really did catch my eye was something called Baskin Robins at the Bar. Apparently, the millennial generation, brought up on Doritos and other highly flavoured foods, is demanding more flavour intensity.
Ref: Globe and Mail (Canada), 5 January 2011, ‘The Year Ahead Food & Wine Trends for 2011’, by W. Leug and B. Crosariol.
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Search words: Food trends, drink trends, fads
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The yin and yang of rising food prices

High food prices are good news for farmers because, as I’ve already mentioned, there is greater incentive to produce more food. Commodity traders and speculators gain too, but it’s not such good news for consumers, especially those in poor or developing regions. Costly raw materials are also bad news for processed food makers. In the UK food prices rose by 3.1% in 2010 and are expected to rise by a further 6.6% during 2011. As a result, expect to see more food shoppers trading down between price segments and buying more private label products. However, also expect some counter-trends (and counter-intuitive trends). One example is meat. Rather than eating out, many people will buy expensive cuts to eat at home and will seek out other permissible indulgences to offset the austerity that exists elsewhere.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 22 January 20011, ‘The consequences of costly nosh’.
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Search words: Food, prices, inflation
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