Smart Stuff From the Comments

From a reader named Paul Kilmartin, in response to Steve Sexton’s post “The Inefficiency of Local Food”:

Well, if we’re going to think like economists, then lets talk about how we got here. The food distribution network cannot thrive as it does now without the massive public works program called the Interstate Highway system, which subsidizes distant food movement. Large, “efficient” agribusiness is as much a result of farm subsidies leading to consolidation, and the percentage of crop land dedicated to corn is a function of ethanol policy. Furthermore, FDA policies prohibit or discourage the farming and production of items people want, such as hemp and unpasteurized milk.

On top of that, misinformation of the USDA has driven the public to choose grains over protein and fat, driving the obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates higher, which shifts resources to those with government-granted monopoly rights to market pharmaceuticals to treat those diseases.

So, in the absence of all these price distortions, would local food be at such a disadvantage? I contend not. So those liberals who want more local food should dismantle the nanny state and public works programs that made pseudo food so much more profitable.

Who cares to argue with Paul?

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  1. James says:

    “…misinformation of the USDA has driven the public to choose grains over protein and fat, driving the obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates higher…”

    I’d certainly like to see some hard evidence on three points:

    1) That grains instead of protein/fat do in fact increase obesity, etc. It’s certainly not hard to find populations with a largely grain-based diet and little obesity.

    2) That Americans have in fact made this choice. Certainly some have, but my casual observation (e.g. compare say WalMart shoppers to those at Whole Foods), at least, suggests this population is less obese than average.

    3) That information, mis or not, from the USDA is a major factor in anyone’s dietary choices.

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    • Scott says:

      I second this motion. Please elaborate on the connection between grains and obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 9
    • Chris B says:

      1) Redefining grain to wheat: the China study shows a correlation with wheat consumption and heart disease, but Campbell chose to leave that part out because it doesn’t support his message. Obviously, correlation does not equal causation, but this is a nice example of how the existing research on obesity and health leaves quite a lot to be desired. Health and obesity are incredibly complex issues with little in the way of strong evidence saying anything. Wheat may be good or it may be bad, but no study definitively shows either causal linkage.

      I’d also say most native or historical populations that thrive on a heavy grain diet are doing so with little or no processed food. Grain may be something our bodies can tolerate in moderation in the absence of other pro-inflammatory toxins such as industrial seed oils and omega-6 laden foods, but when combined with a modern diet, grains cause a lot of people a lot of problems over the long term.

      There are a lot of wack jobs out there pushing all kinds of “treatments” that science may or may not support, but limiting wheat in the diet has been used to help treat a diverse collection of ailments for many people. Why this is, we may not yet fully understand, but there are some good hypotheses out there worth testing.

      3) The USDA has some influence on what kids are fed in school. That alone is enough to bring into question the motivations of an organization designed to support the viability of agriculture. I do not see where in the USDA’s charter that they are an advocacy group for health, so why are they publishing health standards and why are other agencies following said standards?

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      • Dave Hodgkinson says:

        I’ve been gluten-free for a month or so and have lost 8lbs and don’t suffer the afternoon blahs and more. That’s a trivial case. I’ve had a few friends do the same and all have felt liberated from a variety of annoyances from bloating and cramping to more dramatic weight loss.

        Check out the “Wheat Belly” blog and book. Yes, the guy comes across as an acedata-heavy, study-light evangelist but just read any of the comments on the blogs. LOTS of people have stopped eating wheat products and it’s had a rapid impact on their health.

        Yes, I’d like to see studies but for now I’ll take “works for me and my friends”. I’d also urge anyone to give it a try. You might even go into withdrawal for the first couple of days! Oh, and avoid packaged “gluten-free” foods. They often just have other crap in them.

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    • Taylor says:

      1) It may not be hard to find populations with a largely grain-based diet and little obesity, but this can be said of any diet–the converse can be said too. Also, whether you subscribe to these kinds of diets or not, there is certainly science behind (and success stories behind) Robert Atkins’s low-carbohydrate diet.

      2) I’m really not sure what you’re saying here.

      3) The USDA has an extremely large influence on what children are fed at school. Also, who went to a public elementary school health class and didn’t learn that they should eat SIX to ELEVEN servings of grains every single day? Maybe I’m alone in this, but I was taught by my school and my mother to follow the advice of the food pyramid as closely as I could growing up.

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      • James says:

        2) That if you compare “typical” Americans (the WalMart customers) to those more apt to eat a diet higher in grains (the Whole Foods customers), then the second group appears to be healthier and less obese than the first.

        I’d also suggest that there might be a difference between eating mostly processed grains (white bread, white rice, etc) and eating the same amounts of whole grains.

        3) Well, me for one :-) Indeed, I’ve never quite understood exactly what a “serving” is supposed to be. I don’t think I eat 11 servings a day in total.

        But what I was trying to get at here is that most Americans, or at least most who pay attention to their diet, get most of their information from various fad diet books.

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      • Jack says:

        While I, too, have had success on low carb diets…I don’t think any dieters anecdote can be applied to the whole population, many of whom are not dieters. I sought out a new diet because my normal one wasn’t working for me.

        I don’t know the economic term for it…but an analogy would be if I was lactose intolerant, I would seek out a diet that was low in lactose and do better on it…and, in the process of researching said diet, I might find other people with the same problem. And…I might then be tempted to think it was best for everyone.

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  2. Jesse says:

    The term argue is right on. I would love to debate this but when someone says “those liberals” and “nanny state” they can’t be debated with–only argued with.

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    • Chris says:

      @Jesse I agree that those terms come off as pejorative but why not be the bigger person and back up your position rather than returning with an ad-hominem attack?

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 15
      • Greg says:

        @Chris: The terms do not “come off” as pejorative. They are pejorative phrasings chosen intentionally by you. Language signals, and pejoratives like “nanny state” signal closed-mindedness. So I suggest you stop blaming others when people choose not to engage you.

        Can you elaborate on “government-granted monopoly rights to market pharmaceuticals”?

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 17 Thumb down 13
      • EP says:

        Surely Greg realizes that Chris is not Paul, who made the comment featured in this post. So I suggest he stop blaming others when people choose not to engage him.

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  3. Enter your name... says:

    Funny, I thought the percentage of cropland dedicated to corn was a function of meat consumption. Most of that corn is fed to animals, not humans. That’s why there are six pigs for every human living in Iowa, and why there are almost 250 acres of field corn (or “dent corn”) for every acre of sweet corn (the kind used for corn on the cob, canned corn, and frozen corn).

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    • I can read says:

      “and the percentage of crop land dedicated to corn is a function of ethanol policy.”

      And you in return argue that it has to do with meat consumption. You argue most of that is corn not meant for human consumption Corn ethanol is made from that same type of corn with the US producing over 13 BILLION gallons of corn ethanol in 2010, I’d say its a far share. Combine that with the corn and agricultural subsidies in conjunction with the taxes on sugar (why the US is the only countryt hat uses HFCS in everything) and you have an even larger portion. In short, you argument doesn;t make much sense. It doesn’t contradict anything that the OP mentioned.

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      • cbp says:

        @I can read
        Putting the word ‘billion’ in capital letters doesn’t help give it the context that it requires.

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    • Skip Montanaro says:

      > Funny, I thought the percentage of cropland dedicated to corn was a function of meat consumption.

      Overall, that’s probably true, but the pattern of recent changes might well be driven by agribusiness love affair with ethanol subsidies. I didn’t spend more than a single Google’s search worth of time and a couple clicks, but this web page suggests a huge increase in corn planting in Iowa from 2006 to 2007, probably at the expense of soybean acreage:

      http://www.ipm.iastate.edu/ipm/icm/2007/4-2/acreage.html

      One year does not a trend make, but that was about the time ethanol and its subsidies were catching on I think.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/February08/Features/CornPrices.htm says that 55% of total corn production (field + sweet) is fed to animals.

        The increase in ethanol production has raised the price, but it doesn’t change the fact that meat production, rather than ethanol, is the #1 use for field corn.

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      • I can read says:

        @ Enter your name…

        The figures you cited only capture 2007. Considering corn ethanol in the US has more than doubled since then ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/jan/22/quarter-us-grain-biofuels-food ) I would argue those numbers are invalid. Secondly, your point is still invalid, for two reasons: 1) Most farmers would not feed their animals corn if it wasn’t subsidized and artifically cheap. Grass-fed beef is healthier and less disease prone (e-coli). Pretty much all grass-fed cattle are used for meat. 2) a good portion of those cattle that are corn-fed are for dair producers which has little to do with beef cattle.

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  4. iljitsch says:

    There is so much to argue about. First of all, people have been eating bread and pasta etc for centuries while obesity and type 2 diabetes have been on the rise only in recent decades. Even sugary softdrinks have been available throughout the 1900s. Of course the advantages of being able to move from one place to another or get medicine that probably won’t kill you are negligible and people will be happy to trade those against the ability to smoke pot and drink unsafe milk.

    About local food: in the Netherlands tomatoes and bell peppers are grown in artificially lit and artificially heated greenhouses while they grow for free (at least light and heat wise) in southern Europe and northern Africa. That is not the kind of local food we need. On the other hand, ferrying live pigs from Holland to Italy, slaughter them, and then transport the meat back just so it can now be called “Parmesan ham” is not a great practice, either. Seems to be that abandoning subsidies for farmers, especially on natural gas and electricity, would be a good thing, along with getting rid of any geographical requirements related to food marketing. I.e., Gouda cheese should taste like Gouda and not necessarily come from the city of Gouda.

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    • Dave Hodgkinson says:

      The wheat we eat now is not recognisably the wheat from 50 years ago.

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    • David says:

      Most nutritionists say we eat too much of EVERYTHING, not of any one thing. That said, high calorie and processed foods are heavily subsidized and aggressively marketed using sophisticated control techniques. Moderation can’t compete with that.

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  5. Clancy says:

    I whole-heartedly agree, right up to the last sentence where he blames nanny-state-liberals for the problems. Most liberals I know would love to do away with agricultural subsidies and ethanol subsidies. They’d also be in favor of legalized hemp farming and for getting the USDA out of the pocket of Big Grain and curtailing pharmaceutical monopolies. No-one but the most out-there space-cadet Randian Objectivists want to abolish the Interstate Highway System, but many liberals favor higher fuel taxes to pay for it (taking less out of general revenues), thus lessening the implicit subsidy to trucking and “leveling the playing field”
    It isn’t really a question of conservative v. liberal, it’s a question of public interest v. corporate interest.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 4
    • David says:

      Yes, the Talk Radio language is a major turnoff. The authors should be elevating the conversation.

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    • James says:

      Right. And on the other hand, some of us non-liberals eat good (that is, fairly natural, non-processed, whole grains, light on the fats & sugars, even organic) food, not because we have any interest in the politics of it, but because we think it tastes better.

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    • Ben says:

      “I whole-heartedly agree, right up to the last sentence where he blames nanny-state-liberals for the problems. Most liberals I know would love to do away with agricultural subsidies and ethanol subsidies. They’d also be in favor of legalized hemp farming and for getting the USDA out of the pocket of Big Grain and curtailing pharmaceutical monopolies.”

      Well… Clinton/Gore pushed and passed the ethanol subsidies and the democrat-majority congress renewed them. Obama pushes the same agenda and further support Monsanto and all their big-agra agenda. So… there’s that…..

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  6. Alex says:

    Who exactly wants unpasteurized milk? I’m pretty happy without food poisoning.

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    • Cor Aquilonis says:

      Me. You do realize the milk doesn’t come poisoned directly out of the cow, right? If you get it fresh and use it fast from clean sources, food poisoning isn’t a big deal. Just like any other food.

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      • James says:

        Yes, grew up on it, as did most of the people in the dairy farming area where I lived. A regular evening chore was to walk over to the neighbors’ farm with a gallon milk can.

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  7. Mike B says:

    Why do we want to go back to even the 1950′s where food cost 20% of household income instead of 9%? What would you prefer, Obesity or Hunger? You also are making the assumption that people eat too much solely because the food is cheap. People eat junk food because it TASTES GOOD. Higher prices would only provide a barrier to people getting their next hit of salt on fat on sugar, not make them suddenly switch to healthy “local” food. Yes, higher prices would reduce consumption…but I don’t think it would change the consumption patterns.

    Even today with all those “subsidies” one can save a lot of money buying healthy food and preparing it oneself. Vegetables (fresh or frozen), chicken, beans and pasta are the basic elements of a healthy diet and buying such is cost competitive with the per-packaged fried salt on fat on sugar foods, but most people don’t want to prep and consume healthy meals because salt on fat on sugar provides more pleasure in our brains. Hell water is nearly free compared with soda yet people continue to guzzle down the soda because they like it…not because it is “cheap”.

    The local food movement is nothing but the ramblings of the uninformed ecofringe that think that just because something is industrial means it is bad. They made the same arguments back in the early 1900s when A&P was busy putting local general stores out of businesses with their self service supermarkets. Well that not only saved consumers a lot of money (food cost a whopping 1/3 of household income in that time period), but also a lot of time and effort as the old stores gave consumers very little choice and one would often spend all day putting together their basket of goods. Industrial farming provides more choice at a far lower cost. Without it we would currently be seeing the soup lines and bread riots that accompanied the great depression instead of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Instead food is so cheap that few if any people will actually be at risk of starvation in our country despite the crushing unemployment. That’s a win for progress.

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    • James says:

      “People eat junk food because it TASTES GOOD.”

      Except that it doesn’t. I think you’re confusing “like” with “have been persuaded by advertising”. Do you think the Coca-Cola company – to pick one example – would be spending roughly $2.5 billion a year on advertising if people actually liked its products?

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      • Mike B says:

        Humans are hard wired to seek out fat, salt and sugar. You don’t need advertising to get them to like this type of food, just choose it in preference to other like products. Coke isn’t competing with water or milk, it is competing with Pepsi.

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      • James says:

        “Humans are hard wired to seek out fat, salt and sugar.”

        I do not seek out fat, salt and sugar, therefore I must not be human, QED?

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      • Kent says:

        Mike, actually the cola wars of the 1980s did compete with milk. So much so, in fact, that the dairy farmers started an aggressive ad campaign to regain business.

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      • Graham Peterson says:

        You assume advertising imposes want where there is none, which is dubious. If advertising is strictly meant to make up the difference in undesirability in a product, why do we see enormous advertising for basic-necessity consumer durables like, oh I dunno, Morton’s salt and feminine hygiene products.

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  8. Wayne says:

    I’m not an economist by trade but it seems as if he’s making a sunk cost argument. It might be that local food would be more economical if we didn’t have the highways, but we already bought the highways.

    That sort of factor also swings both ways. Food distibutors may have the benefit of the highways now, but if we didn’t have the highways then the local sellers would also not have them to gather more effficient and cost effective inputs such as fuel, feed, seed, and stock.

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