I only read it for the pictures, honestly

by John Q on May 2, 2012

The Economist gets some well-deserved derision these days, but it still delivers lots of interesting data, illustrated by graphs that are usually well designed and informative. Via Kenny Easwaran I found this table (published by EconomistDailyChart, but I haven’t yet located the chart) of annual meat consumption per person by country. The data set has plenty of anomalous features, but looks accurate enough for my purposes.

I’ve previously argued that we can feed the world if we make the right choices. . More precisely, our current food system produces more per person than is needed for adequate nutrition, and can continue do so in future if the right policy choices are made. The key problem is distribution, not production.

But the meat consumption data leads me to a more surprising conclusion.  Using current technology and with no additional diversion of food grain, the world could produce enough meet to give everyone an intake comparable to that of the average person in the Netherlands[fn1].

Here are the numbers we need to start with from the data table. Current average annual world meat consumption is 9.5 kg beef, 15kg pork and 12.5kg chicken for a total of 37kg per person per year. Netherlands average is 70 kg.

Each kg of grain-fed beef requires about 8kg of grain, compared to 2kg for chicken, and the trade-off similar when cattle are pastured on land that could be used for grain. So, 5kg of beef could be replaced by 20 kg of chicken.

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year. 

That would give an average of 62kg per person per year, not far below the Dutch average. To fill the remaining gap, I’ll call on the usual suspects, reductions in inefficiency and waste.

The reduction in methane emissions from cattle would almost certainly outweigh any adverse impact from reduced ethanol production (numbers on both of these effects vary so wildly that I’m not going to attempt a calculation for now).

How feasible is all this? The use of food grain for biofuels is discredited as a policy, and even the US Congress has withdrawn some support. The shift towards chicken makes economic sense, and would be accelerated if carbon pricing were applied to agriculture, which might well happen in the next couple of decades. So, world meat production could increase steadily over the next few decades, well ahead of population growth.

That still leaves the crucial problem of distribution. People in some rich countries, notably the US and Australia consume much more than the Netherlands, and that the  billion or so poorest people in the world can’t afford enough grain to eat, let alone meat. Until this changes, increasing average meat production isn’t going to solve the problem. [2]

There’s no real answer to this within the current world order, except to wait for poor people to become richer, as they have done in much of South-East Asia and are now doing, in large numbers, in China and India.

But a large part of my reason for doing exercises like this one is to consider the feasibility of a better world, even if it might be considered utopian at present. The ability of the world to feed itself, and to do so with a diet that should satisfy any reasonable person, is an important precondition. Until recently it has not been met – the total food output of the world has been barely adequate in normal times, and quite inadequate in famine years. But now, as I’ve argued it’s entirely possible.


fn1. I’ve picked the Dutch because they are supposed to be the tallest people in the world, which implies an adequate diet.

fn2. Even in a world where everyone had enough, substantial differences would persist. For example according to the data in the table, meat consumption (I’m not sure if they have a good handle on fish) in Japan is very low by developed country standards, and obviously this reflects preferences and national policies, rather than poverty.







Matt 05.02.12 at 11:15 am

The Netherlands seem to be on the chart twice, at 30 (79.6kg) and 41 (70.43kg). Is that one of the “anomalous features”, or am I reading it wrong somehow? I’m not sure if the difference between the two is enough to mess up your calculations if 30 is the right rank, but it’s odd, anyway.


Andreas Moser 05.02.12 at 11:22 am


J. Otto Pohl 05.02.12 at 11:28 am

The table is rubbish. It lists annual consumption of mutton and goat for Kyrgyzstan (no. 59) at 0. When I lived there from 2007-2010 I ate mutton almost every day as did most of the Kyrgyz I knew. It also lists annual consumption of goat and mutton for Ghana (no. 150) at 0. I eat goat a couple times a week and I am sure many people eat it more often than I do.


J. Otto Pohl 05.02.12 at 11:32 am

Oops Kyrgyzstan is no. 109.


J. Otto Pohl 05.02.12 at 11:35 am

Oops again Ghana is 151. The chart is hard to read. But, the figure of 0 for mutton and goat for Kyrgyzstan and Ghana is just not accurate.


wp200 05.02.12 at 11:44 am

One of the two “Netherland” entries is the Netherlands, the other is the Netherlands Antilles.

My guess is that the one “Netherland” where more cows and less chickens are consumed than in the other “Netherland” is, in fact, the Netherlands. That would be the one with 70 kg consumption in total (and 18 kg of beef).

The “not-a-lot-of-beef-but-a-lot-of-chicken” countries also include Saint Lucia, the Bahamas and Antigua, whereas Denmark is firmly in the “more-beef-than-chicken” camp.


Zamfir 05.02.12 at 11:47 am

Reading around on Dutch websites puts Dutch meat use on 88 kg/year/person, but meat consumption around 40 kg/year/person.

The difference is apparently that meat use is based on weight of the animal carcasses, while meat consumption is the end product.

On other words: the table is pointless fake data, with 7 digits of empty accuracy


Alex 05.02.12 at 11:48 am

I eat goat a couple times a week and I am sure many people eat it more often than I do

I think JOP is right.


rf 05.02.12 at 11:50 am

Yeah I’m not buying Irelands mutton consumption rates, and the figure for cow seems pretty conservative. However they’ve captured our taste for pigs and indifference to all other meats accurately


Glen Tomkins 05.02.12 at 12:14 pm

Most people only read it for the Forum

If you’re trying to sell soft-core porn, you need to find a way to intellectually launder it so that people won’t be ashamed to buy it. The “I only buy it for the articles” thing was the original Playboy version of this, but their downmarket competitor, Penthouse, had its success with this strategy in their Forum, where ordinary readers would supposedly detail their sexual problems/escapades.

The Economist could come out with a Forum for One Percenters to share their real-world problems, as a way to make it once again intellectually respectable to buy the thing in the face of its ever more embarrassing actual economic content.

Oh. Wait. That’s been done. It’s called the NYT.


ajay 05.02.12 at 12:23 pm

The “not-a-lot-of-beef-but-a-lot-of-chicken” countries also include Saint Lucia, the Bahamas and Antigua

Makes sense; none of those countries, splendid though they are, are blessed with large expanses of rolling grassland on which to raise cattle.

3: that is weird. The FAO lists a more realistic-sounding 8.5 kg of mutton and goat per Kirghiz per year. (Still not a huge amount – they eat a lot more beef than mutton.)


ajay 05.02.12 at 12:24 pm

10: once again, Douglas Adams was way ahead of you.

“I have a very special service for rich people… I tell them it’s OK to be rich.”


Tim Silverman 05.02.12 at 12:30 pm

Agree with JOP that it’s hard to escape mutton in Kyrghizstan.


Glen Tomkins 05.02.12 at 12:33 pm


Yes, but Adams, unlike the NYT, didn’t have a working business model for making himself rich by telling the rich it was OK to be rich.

An intellectual property is only valuable insofar as you can develope it so that it produces.

Besides, Adams can hardly be imagined to have invented the model of media comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. There would have been no need for Mencken to posit the opposite as the ideal for journalism had comforting the comfortable not been the near-universal actual practice of journalism.


ajay 05.02.12 at 1:02 pm

Yes, but Adams, unlike the NYT, didn’t have a working business model for making himself rich by telling the rich it was OK to be rich.

The quote is from an escort in “So Long And Thanks For All The Fish” – who definitely did have such a business model…


Norwegian Guy 05.02.12 at 1:04 pm

I was just going to comment that 0 kg mutton consumption in Norway couldn’t possibly be right, but it looks like the chart has been updated. It now list Ireland with a 4.8 kg and Kyrgyzstan with 8.8 kg consumption of mutton and goat. The Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles have been separated as well, along with changing ‘cow’ to ‘beef’ and ‘pig’ to ‘pork’:


“whereas Denmark is firmly in the “more-beef-than-chicken” camp”

But they eat even more pork. Probably just as a way to bash the immigrants some more…


Glen Tomkins 05.02.12 at 1:34 pm

Let’s not be Stakhanovite about food

The problem is indeed obviously one of maldistribution, not underproduction. People in the nations at the high end of the chart get between 4 and 8 times more protein than they need per day, in meat alone, not counting all the other sources of protein in the diet. Even the mean of 37kg per year is too much protein, in meat alone. Not only is the overconsumption bad nutrition in itself (least controversially by way of all the excess animal fat all that animal protein puts into the diet, but also less clearly because too much protein itself may encourage a destructive hypermetabolism), but the overproduction is bought at the price of all sorts of disastrous externalities that the industry manages to not compensate for.

Supply-side thinking, thinking about food solely in terms of achieving high production figures, is what got the high end of this chart in trouble. We don’t want to repeat that mistake as we strive to achieve food security for the rest of the chart.

Being on the high end of this chart is pretty clearly a marker, not of nutritional achievement and security, but of the loss of control of the majority of people in these countries over their diet. No one needs that much meat. No one would want that much meat unless the quality of food preparation had dropped off a cliff. That much meat is bad in every way the issue can be looked at. You can only imagine that people got up to eating that much meat by way of losing meaningful control over their diets to industrial developement gone wild and out of control. Meat is the easiest thing for slothful cooks to prepare in ways that result in a half-way palatable meal, and it offers the highest profit margin for the industry, and that conspiracy of sloth and greed — and nothing else — means that in nations on the high end, meat is on the menu breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the year.

Nations on the low end of this chart may indeed be there because they are unable to produce enough food. Low meat consumption can indeed be a marker of poverty. But they could also be there because greed and sloth haven’t beaten down traditional food production and preparation in those countries — yet. Japan and India clearly owe their relatively low places on the chart to nutritional success, not failure.

India, to take an example, almost certainly has both an underproduction problem, and a virtuous (from every point of view) tradition of vegetarianism, to explain its dead last place on the chart. Where there are actual underproduction problems reflected in this sort of data, by all means we need to help with production. But I think the very worst thing to do (I mean, the worst thing once we’ve got to the point of actually determining to help, which is by no means a given yet. The worst thing to do is to do nothing.) would be to increase supply in ways that tend to break down traditional diets. Limit the interventions to insuring that traditional foodstuffs, prepared in the traditional way, are available and distributed so as to be available to all. That probably means that in most cases meat production doesn’t need to be on the menu of such help. Countries that have learned to do without much meat need to have the supply insured of whatever else they eat instead to achieve the really not very high or stringent daily protein requirement, rather than helped to start down the wrong path of hypercarnivoracity.


Glen Tomkins 05.02.12 at 1:55 pm


Well, good for her, comforting the comfortable is undoubtedly worth doing if done right. And a good bit less morally fraught doing it her way than the NYT’s way — less hypocrisy, less damage to innocent third parties.

In contrast, I’m afraid that if I were to take up the world’s oldest profession, I would only manage to afflict the afflicted.

The sad truth about prostitution, is that my case is much more commonly seen in real life than this fictional case of the successful practitioner.


James 05.02.12 at 2:01 pm

Food distribution runs into a few traditional problems. In likely order of importance.

1) Government corruption: Thug X in charge of region/country X takes the food and sells it for cash. There currently are no non-violent solutions for this problem. Maybe some could be found.
2) Rich countries produce a significant portion of the worlds food. Gifting the food, as seen with disaster relief food aid, destroys whole sections of the receiving nations economy. This is better than starving, but a problem none the less.
3) GMO food crops. The US is both a major food producer and GMO user. Europe has moved to block this type of food from Africa via threat of trade sanctions against Africa. So one major donor nation may not be available for any proposals.


aretino 05.02.12 at 2:19 pm

I think the protein gap is somewhat larger than this chart implies because it leaves out fish. Seafood consumption in Netherlands is relatively high — almost 20 kg per person per year. This is common in Western Europe, Eastern Asia, the United States, Canada, and Oceania. On the other hand, India, Central Asia, the Middle East, and most of Africa and Latin America average less than half this level of seafood consumption.


christian_h 05.02.12 at 2:31 pm

What surprises me about data sets like this is how extremely high the high end numbers are. Pace Glen, I surely eat more meat than is good for me (I’m not pushing vegetarianism which has nothing virtuous about it but that’s for another thread…); and just as certainly I do not come close to the US average. And this chart presumably counts everyone – including babies. This means that some subset of the Western populations must eat incredible amounts of meat.


gman 05.02.12 at 2:46 pm

The Dutch eat a lot of fish..not counted. Snert anyone? Could the fisheries sustain it?


Christiaan 05.02.12 at 2:50 pm


You’re reading it wrong. The one at rank 30 is the Netherlands Antilles, which is a (two) group of islands in the Caribbean. They are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but (mostly) not of the country The Netherlands (it’s status is a mixture of separate countries and Dutch communities.) And in the context of eating habits, they are certainly not at all the same or even comparable.


ajay 05.02.12 at 3:07 pm

Meat is the easiest thing for slothful cooks to prepare in ways that result in a half-way palatable meal

I’m really not sure about this. If you undercook a vegetable, you get a crunchy vegetable. If you undercook chicken or pork, you risk contracting serious illness.


J. Otto Pohl 05.02.12 at 3:09 pm


Well they eat a lot fish here and most of it is freshwater from the lake. But, my guess is that both fish and non-animal forms of protein such as soy, rice and beans, etc. are going to narrow rather than widen the gap between North and South. Lack of protein was a huge problem here a couple of decades ago. It is not a huge problem here now. Instead now we have increasing problems with hypertension, type two diabetes, and other ailments related to eating too much rather than too little. Despite the western stereotype of all Africans suffering from famine and malnutrition, I have actually seen quite a bit of obesity in the greater Accra region.


piglet 05.02.12 at 3:59 pm

The data source about all matters food is faostat.fao.org. By the latest available data, the global average meat consumption is 40 kg per year (compare to 124 kg in the US). Raising that to 70 kg is “only” 75 kg. I don’t disagree that that is conceivably possible given that there is a lot of waste and inefficiency in the system. The problem is there is no reason to assume that increased meat production will go along with waste reduction. The opposite seems more likely. The fundamental fact is that both meat and biofuels production threaten global food security, are environmentally destructive and cause deforestation pressure. What we need to do is at least raise awareness of that fact.

• UNEP: World Food Supply, http://www.grida.no/publications/rr/food-crisis/page/3562.aspx
• Pimentel and Pimentel (2003). Sustainability of meat-based and plant-based diets and the environment. http://www.ajcn.org/content/78/3/660S.full


piglet 05.02.12 at 4:11 pm

It is worth noting btw that meat’s dietary contribution is modest even in high-meat consumption countries. For example, by FAO statistics, meat constitutes only 12% of US food energy; cereals excl. beer 22%, sugar and sweeteners 17%, vegetable oils 18%, milk excl. butter 10%. Globally, meat constitutes 8% of food energy. It seems counter-intuitive – Americans consume three times the average amount. The discrepancy must in part be due to Americans preferring leaner meat. If those statistics are really that reliable, of which I am not so sure.


ajay 05.02.12 at 4:29 pm

Or it’s just because Americans consume lots and lots of everything else too. You sound as though you’re thinking “Americans eat three times as much meat as average, they should get three times as much of their calories from meat as the average” – but that depends on the unspoken assumption that American diet = average diet + some extra meat.


geo 05.02.12 at 5:11 pm

piglet @26: The fundamental fact is that both meat and biofuels production threaten global food security, are environmentally destructive and cause deforestation pressure. What we need to do is at least raise awareness of that fact.

Hear, hear. (BTW, considering your enlightened anti-meat views, perhaps you’d consider changing your nom de plume to “sproutlet” or “beetlet” or “chardlet”?)


Walt 05.02.12 at 5:28 pm

piglet/geo: Maximalist strategies to raise awareness are counterproductive. Me personally, I’m willing to not have a car, or live in a smaller apartment, but if I have to choose between eating meat and the world’s forests, I’m choosing meat.


Glen Tomkins 05.02.12 at 5:29 pm

Thinking about protein in terms of caloric content is not the right approach, so the statistics for that are meaningless.

Calories measure energy, and are thus an appropriate measure for carbs and fats, which we eat for their energy content. But proteins are used structurally, to replace the enzymes and muscles and connective tissue in our body as it wears out.

Calorie-producing food is burnt up every day as it is used, but we do not have to replace protein structure at a high rate. Most of it doesn’t wear out at a high rate (enzymes are the exception), and we have excellent pathways to reclaim and reuse whatever does wear out. We only have to replace by taking in new protein in the diet every day, a very small fraction of the total protein content in our existing structure.

It’s relatively easy to come up with fairly close estimates of daily calorie needs, because energy expenditure is directly measurable, so we can say how much you need per day in the way of carbs and fats. The need for protein has no such ready measurability. The best we can do is try to figure out how much will barely keep you out of kwashiorkor, which can be hard to pin down with much accuracy. Doing that, and adding in a wide margin of safety, the accepted figure is 35-70 gm per day. Personally, I’ve never seen vegans get into any trouble even down to 20-30 gm per day, so I have always assumed that the conventional standard has a wide safety margin built in.

But whatever the standard you accept, I think everyone agrees that it needs to be expressed in grams of protein (available protein if it’s vegetable protein), not calories.


Latro 05.02.12 at 5:35 pm

Question, how do we square the derision toward the Economist with things like this


I mean, at least looks like there is space for other points of view. Although I may be trying to look at the positives while ignoring the negatives, or putting a blog inside the thing above the official editorial position, or something.

Or its just that I’m Spaniard, and the idea of any newspaper or magazine having a space for opinions not 100% aligned with the party line make me go all crazy.


torture reminder service 05.02.12 at 5:36 pm

Replacing meat by enslaving and killing billions more chicken would likely be one of the most most evil act possible to do, given the torture and killing intrinsic to chicken “production” and our ample knowledge of those conditions.

I wonder who here approves of the practices depicted and described here:


mpowell 05.02.12 at 5:42 pm

@31: 70 grams of protein is 280 calories which is 11.2% of a 2500 calorie diet, right in line with the number given by piglet, so I’m not sure what your point is.

I am also wondering if you are aware of the evidence that increasing the protein content in your diet is basically the only way to reliably lose weight. Simply reducing fat/carb calories without substituting protein is flat out impossible over the long term for the vast majority of people.


Glen Tomkins 05.02.12 at 5:50 pm

While vegetarianism is often touted by the people who practice it (of whom I am not one) for its supposed direct ethical superiority — the notion that it’s immoral to kill animals — what I meant by “virtuous in every way” was to bounce off that meaning to the undsiputed practical advantages of minimizing meat consumption and production. I have no opinion on the ethics of killing animals, but it’s a fact that meat production is an inherently vicious, in terms of energy wasted, way to get protein into the diet. Add to that virtue the virtue that veganism is the most direct way to avoid all the vices of the animal fat that comes with meat protein, then add to that the fact that if we had sane levels of meat consumption in this country we wouldn’t need to let the industry get away with the false economies and false efficiencies they have to practice to maintain inherently unsustainable levels of production.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about vegetarianism in general and veganism in particular, as being virtuous, even if there is absolutely nothing to the idea that it’s wrong to kill animals. They do themselves and the rest of us real and tangible good, whether or not they are right about killing Bambi’s mother.


michael e sullivan 05.02.12 at 6:01 pm

Glen T@16Even the mean of 37kg per year is too much protein, in meat alone.

I doubt this.

The lowest recommendation I’ve seen for dietary protein intake is 1g per kilo of bodyweight. If an average person is 70kg, that means they need roughly 25kg of protein annually. Meat is generally about 1/3 protein by mass, so that means 75kg of meat if meat is the only protein source. Of course, a healthy diet will include a decent amount of vegetables and whole grains which will also contain protein, if at a reduced concentration, so you don’t really need 75kg of meat even if your primary protein source is meat, something like 35-40kg is certainly enough, but it’s definitely not “too much” for most people.

For me, at 125kg and trying to build muscle, 50kg of protein is what I’m trying to do, so 70kg of meat is hardly “too much protein”. That works out to about 200g or 7 oz. per day of meat, which seems about right, maybe a little high, but reasonable on my vegetable heavy diet.


Glen Tomkins 05.02.12 at 6:22 pm

Well, I was just reporting a conventionally accepted standard when I referred to 70 grams a day. I use the lower, also accpeted, standard of 35 gm with my patients, and actually would put the number lower, but I have to stick to the standard of practice.

Of that 35 gm, there is absolutely no need that all of it come from meat, or even meat plus fish, or these plus eggs and dairy. It is almost certainly a good idea to have some of it as vegetable protein. The better the diet, and I mean that from both the health and the culinary perpsective, the closer meat consumption gets to hovering near zero. The best practice is to slay the fatted calf only on big occasions — for the return of the Prodigal, say — and almost never otherwise. It’s better for health, and makes the cook smarter about everything he or she prepares, even meat.

As for people having difficulty on a reduction diet that doesn’t lean heavily on meat, well, I don’t advise reduction diets. They don’t work. I advise people to get control of their diet, because that works, and reduction diets are “the noise before defeat”, as Sun Tzu put it, of getting control of your diet. The first step is control. Make everything you eat from scratch, so that you actually know what and how much you are eating. If you can’t or won’t do that necessary and basic first step, nothing else you do down the line will work. Once you have control of your diet, external restricitons aren’t necessary. Learn how to cook, and you won’t want more than an ounce or two of meat a day. If you do, you still haven’t learned how to cook, and it’s back to the kitchen with you.

In practice, almost none of my American-born patients can even imagine getting control of their diets. Practical, everyday cooking is one of the artes perditae in this country. All memory of it is gone. Fortunately, I have a lot of damned furriners on my panel, from places low on that list of John’s, and they can get their diet under control unless they’ve been in this country so long that their work ethic has been hopelessly corrupted. Real Americans cannot take any work that isn’t paid for cash on the barrel at all seriously. That’s deadly, and if our society goes under, that will be why. More traditional people know better. The only success I ever have with Real Americans owes to the fact that they have to flunk a solvency test to get into my clinic, so they are mostly unemployed, so some will respond to the idea that learning how to cook so as not to kill themselves is now their full-time job.


Watson Ladd 05.02.12 at 6:25 pm

Glen: Ever actually eat at a Chinese restaurant? Or an Indian restaurant? Beans, soy, and milk solids are major items on the menu, as are chickpeas. All of these have significant amounts of protein in them. I don’t actually know of dietary studies of the diets of rural Indians off the top of my head, but equating protein with meat is dead wrong.


Alex 05.02.12 at 6:48 pm

Fortunately, I have a lot of damned furriners on my panel, from places low on that list of John’s, and they can get their diet under control unless they’ve been in this country so long that their work ethic has been hopelessly corrupted. Real Americans cannot take any work that isn’t paid for cash on the barrel at all seriously.

Have you ever considered that this attitude may be linked to your apparent failure to convince them?


engels 05.02.12 at 8:07 pm

Re pictures in the Economist, I’d be interested to know whether they recruit their caption writers from the Sun or from Viz.


geo 05.02.12 at 8:13 pm

Glen: Make everything you eat from scratch

This is indeed the alpha and the omega. There should be a constitutional amendment …


ben in el cajon 05.02.12 at 8:25 pm

I have one gripe with the original post. I don’t want to challenge the basic assumptions or get into ethics or even health, but this paragraph is viciously misleading:

The other main user of grain (apart from human consumption) is ethanol production which now takes something like 140 million tonnes a year. Fed to chickens that would produce around 70 million tonnes or 10kg per person per year.

The flaw here is that we assume that ethanol production consumes the entirety of 140 million tonnes. However, no one simply trucks the used mash to a landfill. Instead, it is a sought after, wait for it . . . animal feed. Claiming that an amount of grain is used only for ethanol is like claiming that we get only gasoline from crude oil.

I don’t know what percentage of calories or nutrition is lost in the distilling process, but it certainly is not 100%. I apologize if you have already made the calculations to account for the duel use of grain for both ethanol and animal feed.


piglet 05.02.12 at 8:29 pm

ajay 28: “You sound as though you’re thinking “Americans eat three times as much meat as average, they should get three times as much of their calories from meat as the average””

No that’s not what I’m thinking and it not what I’m sounding either. Since you are curious, the US calorie supply per capita and day is estimated by FAO at 3750, 450 from meat, vs. a world average of 2800 and 218 from meat. If these figures are reliable, then US meat has on average 1340 kcal/kg versus a global average of 1980 kcal/kg.


piglet 05.02.12 at 8:49 pm

ben 42: “I don’t know what percentage of calories or nutrition is lost in the distilling process, but it certainly is not 100%. I apologize if you have already made the calculations to account for the duel use of grain for both ethanol and animal feed.”

You are correct that byproducts from ethanol production can be economically used for feed. It would be interesting to have reliable numbers about that. I have found the estimate that a (metric) ton of corn yields up to 400 L of ethanol (2.7 gallons per bushel, http://www.ers.usda.gov/AmberWaves/April06/Features/Ethanol.htm) but I have also seen that estimate questioned (Patzek, Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle). One would think that ethanol producers should be able to quantify their inputs and outputs but apparently we do not have reliable figures about the actual corn ethanol production process. Of course estimates of EROI (which is the real issue) are also contentious (from below 1 to 1.3). We also do not seem to have reliable data about how efficiently the byproducts are used (again if somebody is aware of such data, let us know) so we really have to go with back of the envelope estimates. Ethanol energy content is 6.5 kWh/L. If we assume 3200 kcal/kg for the corn and 400 L ethanol per T of corn, about 70% of the corn energy gets converted to ethanol so at most 30% would be left for byproducts. I’m not sure about the 3200 figure though.


Salient 05.02.12 at 8:56 pm

This is indeed the alpha and the omega.

Probably the intended meaning of ‘from scratch’ should be carefully and precisely specified if it’s to be the alpha and omega.

But also. Dismissing the wellness of people for not having the time, resources, and willpower to invest in pursuing an entirely new second career is the right wing resentment squad’s game, not ours. That shouldn’t change just because the second career in mind is ‘cook’ and the work will be unpaid. Glen’s statement, when applied socially rather than individually, is basically demanding that every human being take on an intensive unpaid and untrained internship, indefinitely, until their skill at producing their own food becomes both (1) approximately as tasty and palatable to them as the standardized industrial products they currently consume and (2) not much more costly than those products. That’s a hell of a lot of work to expect people to go do on their own.

Now, I get that Glen’s a doctor and is providing insight into what he would recommendation an individual patient. But unless I’m severely misinterpreting, the statement “There should be a constitutional amendment” was a playful way of asserting that we should apply this recommendation socially, as a principle of social organization.

But you should know that “I can do this, so why can’t everybody else” is a dangerously callous statement for a vast variety of choices of ‘it.’ It can’t be too terribly hard to see why cooking from scratch would fall under that, can it? I get that nobody’s in the business of being cruel here, but what’s up with this kind of dismissive everyone should pursue a private solution to a public problem because that’s what I did and I’m happy with it type proposal?

Everyone should make their own food from scratch. : If they’re not healthy, hey, they chose that. :: Everyone should find a good full-time decent-paying job. : If they’re not financially secure, hey, they chose that.

It makes a lot more sense (in the US at least) to argue for a VAT on derivative agricultural products, including all meat, while subsidizing a variety of alternative protein sources. Given that the price of meat and soy is already artificially set (in the US) by subsidies, and given that we haven’t seen any massive social uprising in response to various fluctuations in those subsidies and corresponding prices so far, this seems like a superior approach to accomplishing a widespread and lasting reduction in meat consumption. Heck, we could put together an advisory board like we did for cheese, to prod the existing food industry into increasing their use of nonmeat protein products. But proposing that everything would be ok if people would just be as virtuous as us (for whatever definition of virtue) does not work well as a mechanism for social change, except in the context of brutal suppression that neither of us would support.


piglet 05.02.12 at 9:14 pm

geo 29, that is sooo tasteless!


Salient 05.02.12 at 9:51 pm

geo 29, that is sooo tasteless!

No no, tofulet would be tasteless. Beets have plenty of flavor. … _I’ll get my coat._


shah8 05.02.12 at 10:14 pm

*Salient*, as a general rule, without hyperbole, *Glen* is right.

There is always that reflexive angst by certain people on the left that people shouldn’t have to be well rounded…


illustrates that perfectly. Same goes for P.E. (which most certainly could be better taught, for the purposes of less trauma and more utility for students). Same goes for home ec or woodshop (which most certainly could be taught to both boys and girls).

People actually do need to know how to cook. People actually do need to know how to engage their senses, whether that be fine teas/food, perfumes, fancy and fashionable clothes, etc. Hedonism is fundamentally part of the human experience and aids the ability of people to be discerning, whether that is their hobby, or a politician/policy/etc. Being able to cook to your taste is fundamentally part of how people can eat healthily, whether they actually cooked that meal or went out to eat. People who can’t cook, who can’t *taste*, often don’t have the innate sense of proportion/balance that allows themselves to honestly eat what they want, be satisfied, and still honor dietary restrictions.


John Quiggin 05.02.12 at 10:38 pm

@Glen Since we’re going anecdotal, I lost 12kg during 2010, and have kept it off since then, following the reduction path you recommend against. I mostly eat food that’s had a significant element of preparation before I cook it. The local butcher offers everything from kebabs to enchiladas, ready to put in the oven, and I often eat lunch or dinner out. But I can keep track of the calories/kilojoules, and I’ve increased my exercise level enough to get a net reduction.

I think, there are a lot of unstated psychological assumptions in your post, and in most of what I’ve read about this. For someone like me, with a strongly rational-numerical orientation, as you can tell from my posts, the basic arithmetic of
energy used – energy consumed = fat burned
seems to work pretty well. From what I’ve read, that’s not true of everyone, but horses for courses.


piglet 05.02.12 at 11:30 pm

Glen 31: “But whatever the standard you accept, I think everyone agrees that it needs to be expressed in grams of protein (available protein if it’s vegetable protein), not calories.”

Had wanted to respond to that earlier…
No, not everyone agrees. For one thing, why neglect the fat? (No at porcinems please!)
More generally, what is at issue is feeding the world. As a necessary condition, there have to be sufficient food calories to supply 7 billion people with adequate food energy. After that of course we need to talk about protein and minerals and vitamins but as a first approximation, it’s a matter of energy balance. Crude estimation won’t answer all questions but can be quite insightful – e.g. how efficient is meat production and how will its expansion affect global food security?


Salem 05.02.12 at 11:36 pm

“People actually do need to know how to cook.”

Are you familiar with the concept of division of labour?

There is a very objectionable tone of implied superiority about much of this thread. I think Salient says it well. Not everyone wants to be a cook, or engage in home production generally.


Emma in Sydney 05.02.12 at 11:41 pm

@33, I agree that further mass production of chickens for meat would be a disaster, if done by current industrial methods. Raising chickens for eggs and meat in a decent, humane and productive way actually takes a lot of land (and produces a lot of good fertiliser).
In spread out cities like mine, though, it’s perfectly feasible to raise chickens for eggs in the backyard ( I can recommend it). Once you do, though, you can’t stomach battery-farmed chicken any more, because you know the hell these charming, curious and interesting animals have been through.


engels 05.02.12 at 11:47 pm

“Are you familiar with the concept of division of labour?”

Are you familiar with the long history of left-wing criticism of it?


Emma in Sydney 05.02.12 at 11:52 pm

@ 51

Are you familiar with the concept of self-care? Knowing how to feed yourself cheaply and well seems to me like knowing how to wash or dress yourself. Or keep your living space in a liveable condition. These are the things that parents should teach their children. “Being a cook” is not the same.

And I’m always amazed at how Americans get tetchy when someone suggests that they should learn to cook. It’s not hard, people. And it’s healthier, and can certainly be cheaper. Rice and beans, dhal and flatbread, hummus and yoghurt, udon with edamame, cooked by peasants around the world, easy, delicious and cheap. It’s as if not cooking, and eating industrially produced crap is some kind of measure of their modernity, or advanced status. Or alternatively, their working class or non-elite credentials. I’ve seen it on blogs far and wide. Weird.


shah8 05.02.12 at 11:52 pm

*Salem*, I will say just one thing:

It’s safe to say that if you don’t want to cook, or clean, or do any other domestic chores, you’ll have to have someone else do it. In a just and free world, how often would it be, really, that you’d be able to pay for any of that, in quality?


piglet 05.03.12 at 12:08 am

“Or alternatively, their working class or non-elite credentials. I’ve seen it on blogs far and wide. Weird.”

It is definitely weird that in fake-working class US discourse, preparing one’s own food from fresh and usually inexpensive ingredients is considered elite snobbery. The cultural history and implications of this nonsense cries for anthropological study. (Well there is some literature – e.g. Fast Food Nation – but not quite what I’m thinking of).


John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 1:22 am


There’s a big difference between cooking and cleaning, though. Cleaning (surfaces, toilets etc) is the same drudgery with the same tools, regardless of who does it. And while there are some differences in skill, they aren’t enough that an expert can do the job in a small fraction of the time it would take an amateur. So, there’s a strong case that we should clean up after ourselves.

Cooking, or food preparation more generally, is nothing like that. It can be anything from a fully automated factory process to artisan labour using techniques unchanged since ancient times. And skill makes a huge difference, so a good cook can prepare a fine meal for many, with less ingredients per person and taking less time in total than it would take a bad cook to produce a barely edible meal for one.

If you’re not good at it, and don’t enjoy it, or just have something better to do with your time, I don’t see that there is any moral imperative to cook your own food, particularly if you are supposed to do it, in some sense, from scratch.

BTW, as an Australian, I’m not really attuned to the US culture issues being raised here. I don’t think the fake-working class stuff is as salient.


shah8 05.03.12 at 1:31 am


Oh, hell, you know what? Ima go hide inside this pillbox, just in case artillery is brought to bear around here with the proverbial SEZ WHO? The whole response is just…wrong, in a deeply classist Megan McArdle sense.


Emma in Sydney 05.03.12 at 1:35 am

JQ, you haven’t seen the flame wars, insults, flouncing and so on that this issue provokes on, say, pandagon or LGM? It is a very reliable flashpoint. Usually with some self-appointed spokesperson for the downtrodden masses alleging that it is just impossible for ordinary people to cook nutritious meals for themselves. As an ordinary person who has cooked nutritious meals for my family for 30 years while working full time, I find it astonishing. Glen above @ 37 implies that this is a general attitude among his patients also. There is something very different in the general food culture in the US, no doubt.


Substance McGravitas 05.03.12 at 1:49 am

Usually with some self-appointed spokesperson for the downtrodden masses

Self-appointed spokesperson you say?

As an ordinary person who has cooked nutritious meals for my family for 30 years while working full time

Not spokespersony at all.


JanieM 05.03.12 at 1:57 am

Never seen the flame wars etc., and I haven’t even had time to read this thread thoroughly but here goes. I think I’m going to put this in several comments, otherwise it will be far too long.

I was born in 1950 in the American midwest. Both my parents grew up poor, in very different contexts: my mom a rural Baptist of what I might call old American stock, my dad the son of Italian immigrants who lived in town, the small one I eventually grew up in. Despite the huge cultural, religious, and contextual (town vs country) differences between the families, both had huge gardens. Both my grandmas cooked everything their families ate, and grew and canned a lot of it as well.

My parents, raising a family after WWII, did not have a garden, and viewed it as a step up in the world that they were no longer so poor that they needed to grow their own food. The knowledge of how to have a garden was thus lost, and when I wanted to have one as a young adult, I had to go find it in books, mostly, plus the snippets my one grandma would write me in letters. “How to start lettuce the way we hayseeds do,” I remember as the heading of one letter. (Scatter seeds on the surface of an area damp earth and cover with a board until they germinate.)

By the time I was raising my family (both my kids are in their mid-twenties now), a lot of the middle-class people we lived amongst, including us, spent a lot of mealtimes either at work or at sports practices and games. Meals were much more catch-as-catch-can and random than they had been when I was growing up, when we sat down to a family dinner every night of every week of every year, except when we were at one of the grandmas’ houses and the family grouping was even bigger.

For a lot of Americans, the art of cooking has been lost by my generation just as the art of gardening was lost by the previous one.


John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 2:26 am

The animal welfare problems associated with raising chickens arise, as far as I can tell from pressure to cut labor costs and space requirements. The estimates I’ve given would work just as well with free-range chickens.


JanieM 05.03.12 at 2:28 am

Realizing as I go along that I’m probably not going to succeed at condensing my thoughts into blog-size bits, and not wanting to drag the thread too far off topic anyhow, here are nevertheless a few more random things about food:

1. Food deserts in the US, this deceptively “richest” of countries.

2. I used to love to eat out. Now it mostly sucks. Granted I live in rural Maine, not a hotbed of fine dining, but even the good locally-owned restaurants (the ones that serve fresh food, often made with local ingredients) mostly serve food that has enough salt in it to choke an elephant. This is what we as a culture have normalized to.

3. the basic arithmetic of energy used – energy consumed = fat burned seems to work pretty well.

I think it’s more complicated than this in that there’s an absorption issue that complexifies the arithmetic. I won’t inflict my personal wild theories about nutrition on the CT readership except to say that when I stopped eating wheat about fifteen years ago, because someone whose notions I trusted suggested that it might help me get an auto-immune skin condition under better control, I lost thirty pounds (gradually, over the course of a year and a half) without even trying.

I think the wheat/gluten was irritating my gut so badly that I just hadn’t been absorbing nutrients in the right way, so I was always naggingly and unpleasantly hungry and never felt really satisfied. Now, I haven’t had a skin outbreak in years and when I’m hungry, eh, no big deal. And I weigh what I weighed as a young adult. I still miss good bread (hey, I’m half Italian), but I feel better in all kinds of ways than I did in the last few years before I quit eating wheat.


s.e. 05.03.12 at 3:15 am

troll comment deleted


engels 05.03.12 at 3:36 am

If you’re not good at it, and don’t enjoy it, or just have something better to do with your time…

Playing a round of golf or reading the Sunday papers spring to mind.


John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 3:43 am

@Shah8 Are you really saying that eating a TV dinner makes me a McArdlite classist agent of oppression? If so, you’re nuts. If not, I have no idea what your point might be.

@Engels Golf is my standard example of an activity so low on my list of priorities I won’t reach it before the Reaper catches up with me. By contrast, when I’m in the US, reading the (paper) Sunday NY Times is my favorite example of things I like to do when I’ve decided to ignore all the more important things I should be doing.


John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 3:44 am

BTW, we seem to have derailed ourselves very much onto First World problems. I’m too blame as much as anyone else, but I’d like to suggest a return to the issues raised by the OP.


Emma in Sydney 05.03.12 at 3:49 am

Substance, can you really see no difference between recounting personal experience and opining that (other) people are not capable of learning to cook? See, this seems like an example of exactly the kind of odd (and in your case, uncharacteristic) tetchiness that this subject brings on. The threads I’ve read on Pandagon on the topic are chock full ‘o commenters, who themselves cook, saying that other, less privileged people, can’t possibly be expected to do so. I just find it strange.


Emma in Sydney 05.03.12 at 4:08 am

Sorry, JQ, will do. My last crossed with yours.


Helen 05.03.12 at 4:22 am

We really should have a look at what the “tetchy” people are saying. They are generally making the point that very poor people find it difficult to put “healthy eating”, as advocated by middle class people, into practice. The barriers include
-Living in “food deserts” – In some poor neighbourhoods in the US, literally the closest food shop may be a gas station.
-Combined with a lack of personal transport and the inability to go to markets and come back with a load of produce
-Extreme poverty means you can’t buy in bulk, or you may decide that buying four McDonald’s “meals” is the best way out because the money you have in your hand isn’t enough to buy the different ingredients for a meal cooked from scratch
-You don’t own property and/or live in a house with space for a garden
-You live in a rooming house or other marginal property where you lack proper utensils and equipment for cooking
-You work long hours (combined with the lack of transport, and the fact that it’s far to the nearest source of fresh food)
-Low wages – I think most people here have read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed and noted how hard it was to feed herself properly, let alone dependents

That’s just the few that come to mind but I don’t blame people for being “tetchy” when people come on all missionary about cooking; and I’m someone who loves to cook myself.


Helen 05.03.12 at 4:23 am

Sorry, JQ, didn’t read your last comment before posting.


shah8 05.03.12 at 4:41 am

*John Quiggen*, a big reason why people do not like to cook, is the clean-up of pots and pans and dirty dishes. That’s inherently part of the deal, and cooking is just not separate from cleaning.

Moreover, while, sure, a TV dinner that you pop in the microwave and eat and trash the containers is cool and labor saving (and hey! it has its place!), the vast majority of such products are massively unhealthy to eat on any regular basis. The vast majority of most ready serve food ends up sending poor people to *Glen Tomkin*’s clinic. Too much drug food components (fats, sugars, salts, etc), and just not enough nutrition. And this is the stuff poor people have the most access to! Hence, food deserts. What’s worse, many middle class people who can afford real kitchen equipment like a full-size refrigerators, freezers, stoves, ovens, good knives, pots, pans, etc, they don’t know the first thing about how to use any of it. Many people just have had well made home cooking rarely, and many don’t know how to do it themselves with 3 or 4 recipes to go, when they need it. Consequentially, these people, among others, have a very hard time controlling their diets when they need to, because they are near totally at the whim of prepared foods that may or may not work for them. They also have trouble enjoying healthier foods, because it’s so often prepared poorer, and they’ve just never developed the taste for these foods.

The McArdle thing was about the fascination with fancy kitchen equipment. My impression in comment 57 was that you think cooking requires specialized equipment like food processors. Or cooking isn’t drudge-work. Which is not true. People make the same things over and over and over, using about 10-15 recipes they know cold. Many dinners, such as Thanksgiving, or New Year’s Day in our household is horrifyingly burdensome. New Year’s Day’s dinner has chitterlings. That means, fecal matter has to be cleaned out of intestines. Collard Greens has to be washed and destemmed. So forth and on. Every bit as unpleasant as cleaning growing crud from the shower, or caulking hallow space, or waxing floors, or any of the other cleaning tasks that also requires tools.

And yes, *everything* is faster when you do it often, and do it right. There are cleaners you can hire, just the same as a chef you can hire, for 3 days a week or 3 days a month. These labors of maintenance have no real degree of distinction.

As for the topic derail, well…I think much of this is connected. Humans tend to treat food and food consumption and food waste (Consider the issues of food waste in India at certain kinds of gatherings like weddings! It’s a fairly political topic there.) as a sumptuary good. In the US and the West and in most aspiring cultures, eating meat is about eating wealth. It’s also a token of dominance over nature. Maldistribution has everything to do with the better off people norming themselves as top people by consuming baroque (and inefficiently produced) products that are too costly for the hoi polloi. Nowadays, it’s more like countries and societies do that, with a hamburger outlet on every street corner, but the VIP consume items that the hoi polloi don’t even *know* about, such as cornish hens and other, even more exotic, meats. They visit places nobody ever heard of, and drink wines (and teas) that you’d only know to drink if you’re among that set. Dominance is different for VIPs and VIP societies. How we drive Haiti from being able to feed itself, and dependent on foreign “aid” that’s just enough to keep society (and exploited factory labor) going.

The Earth probably can feed 7 billion people. It probably can feed 12 billion people. Ignorant people who feel it can’t, just don’t realize just how big the Earth is, and how small we are, however numerous we are. What’s wrong with the Earth has always been about our societies, and the stupid things they do. That’s why changing things such that everyone has enough to eat would take a profound revolution (that would almost be Stalinist is coerciveness, given just how badly people want to keep score via other people’s misery).


shah8 05.03.12 at 4:50 am

No *Helen*–

This is the problem I have with you people. People should be able to cook. That societies prevent them from being able to cook when they need to. That society prevents them from ever learning, or ever having the time/energy to cook–That is the root cause, and we should change SOCIETY such that poor people can effin’ cook. Doesn’t mean that they want to, most of the time, but it shouldn’t be so hard for them to do so if they do! As such, being “tetchy” whenever people say that cooking is a valued skill is madness. Should I be “tetchy” if you say that driving is a valued skill? Or reading at a certain level? Or keeping the living area clean and free of varmin? Society prevents poor people from being able to do any of these things, by various means, even when there are good reasons to believe that all of these skills are skills people really need! Nobody is talking about everyone needing to learn how to make a patisserie, or even flapjacks from scratch. Just basic stuff on how to make edible hot food you’d want to eat!


js. 05.03.12 at 5:25 am


“Are you familiar with the concept of division of labour?”

Are you familiar with the long history of left-wing criticism of it?

Depends on what one means by “division of labor” though, no? E.g., if you take something like Gilman’s arguments for the professionalization of housework (or “women’s work” in general), it’s hard to see why leftists should be opposed to it.

I guess whenever I hear things like “Everyone should cook their own food!” (or: “Everyone should grow their own tomatoes”, or even: “You have to be ready to kill a buffalo with you bare hands if you want to eat meat!”), I’m a bit wary. It’s all a bit too Back to Earth for me. (And I would hope that shah8 is not entirely unsympathetic to this point.)


John Quiggin 05.03.12 at 5:42 am

To restate, let’s return this thread to the OP. I am planning a post on housework Real Soon Now, so keep everything hot on the stove until I get back to it.


js. 05.03.12 at 5:48 am

Also, while we are somewhat away from the OP, I agree with shah8 (72) that it’s wrong to think of these issues surrounding cooking, housework, food availability, etc., as “first-world issues”. I’d think they’re precisely not that. (Though I haven’t read the thread that closely, so maybe JQ (67) was referring to something else?)

For example, “cooking” is a very different activity depending on (a) whether or not the (or a) woman in the house is supposed to do it, (b) whether or not there’s a dishwasher (and would that be the mechanical appliance or someone who comes and washes the dishes for you?), etc. So, yes, cooking can be very different from different from cleaning. But in the world we live in, it mostly isn’t. Which, again, is why this isn’t just a first-world issue.


js. 05.03.12 at 5:49 am

Oops, last post crossed with JQ’s last. Feel free to delete.


shah8 05.03.12 at 5:59 am

Of course I’m not unsympathetic about ridiculous demands for skills! However, we get into these flamewars over friggin’ OATMEAL. The first one was about a Bittman column about Starbucks and McDonald’s OATMEAL. It does not take anything but the most minimal of cooking skill/attention to even make a *nice* bowl of oatmeal, let alone nuke some rolled grains in water. Costs dang near nothing to make it, as opposed to $2 to $3 at a drive-through. Lemme tell you what poor people don’t do. They don’t buy nutritious oatmeal at drive-throughs–costs too much!

It’s not about asking for extreme levels of skills, but simple stuff like cooking oatmeal, veggie/mushroom sautee, spaghetti, frying a hamburger patty, roasting a chicken…none of this stuff is hard, and it’s easy after some repitition. At the bottom, it’s just rings of a disguised snobbery/condescension to think otherwise.

This response can be moved to the new thread when ready.


Salient 05.03.12 at 7:31 am

As an ordinary person who has cooked nutritious meals for my family for 30 years while working full time, I find it astonishing.

That astonishment (from afar) seems much more reasonable than Substance’s comment credited, which I’m only mentioning because I’m hoping to pun on ‘Substance abuse’ as often as possible in what follows. (I heart you, McG, but I heart puns more.)

There is something very different in the general food culture in the US, no doubt.

Drug culture, perhaps. I think the core problem is, industrial food product is a cocktail drug masquerading as something that’s masquerading as nourishment. Industrial food product is a concentrated drug of sugar and salt and lipids, in various proportions, with lots of different packaging. It doesn’t even have much to do with pleasant taste, it’s designed to elicit various physiological responses with its core ingredients. The meager nutrition provided by the product is almost incidental, except that it enables the grand McMasquerade.

For all the social problems that alcohol exacerbates, at least alcohol isn’t sold under the guise of thirst-quenchers, so we can talk about its effects directly. With industrial food product it’s more complicated. Industrial food is sold and advertised under the guise of hunger-quenchers. Hunger-quenching is not quite the same thing as nourishing. But one is easily mistaken for the other in the midst of advertisement. Conflating this tripartite distinction — food as drug, as hunger-quencher, and as nutrition source — enables the food-as-drug providers market their drug as a quencher, which allows marketers to ignore the question of nutrition entirely if they so choose (there are no Golden Buffet ads advertising healthy choices).

And since the feeling of quenching hunger is deceptively similar to the feeling of intaking a drug hit — so deceptive that people regularly eat themselves into gastrointestinal distress, enjoying the rush — it’s pretty much guaranteed that this line of advertising will be effective and will result in repeat customers, who get the physiological experience of drug intake and the psychological reassurance that they just did something fairly sensible, i.e., they quenched their hunger.

So really let me say this: I am worried because we are a nation with a large plurality of food-as-drug users and the vast industry concoting those drugs has perfected their marketing strategies and that industry is expanding faster than population growth, and is extending itself aggressively into the developing world in order to sustain that growth trajectory. (FWIW, I have a parallel fear about tobacco products.)

The key problem is distribution, not production.

I don’t know precisely how what I’m describing relates to the OP, but it does; hopefully in the follow-up comments it’s reasonable and ok to move on to discussing distribution, including the principal commercial actors and their mechanisms for obtaining some measure of control over food distribution and policy.

So, okay, the largest and most capable organizations for food distribution in our world today are peddlers of hyped-up druggy crap. They’re in command of vast resources and in need of more customers. And they have achieved, at least in the US, an extraordinarily strong influence in two legislative arenas: agricultural subsidies, and the public school program.

For the latter, there’s the blatant aggression of installing food-drug markets in schools for lunch programs, sure, but equally disturbing is the influence these producers have in developing national standards for health classes that emphasize the role of individual choice. There’s a reason it’s legal in the first place for Pizza Hut to even have a chance to install themselves in a public school building, and there’s a reason Pizza Hut is considered a legitimate nourishment option to market to schoolkids — because it’s an option! Kids have the right and the opportunity to buy other food instead of Pizza Hut drugs (not that the food alternatives are especially shining examples of nutrition, but actually, Pizza Hut uses that to make the case that their product is not much worse). As with most industries, the moment you grant an industrial food provider the chance to bill their product as a legitimate (food) choice rather than as a drug in food-camouflage, they’ve won. “Our products are intended to be just one part of a balanced diet including {whatever blah blah}.”

And control over the school programme is where it’s at. If cooking is an element of self-care — and I’m with Emma 100% on this — why isn’t cooking a part of mandatory health class? Why isn’t it represented in standardized tests? (‘Follow a recipe, obtain the desired result’ is low enough on Bloom’s taxonomy to be a perfect candidate for mass testing.)

I think it’s because various industries profits from the learned helplessness. They certainly don’t benefit from any attempt to discredit their product as a drug. They only need to be a less healthy food option among food options, so that their users are shouldered with the moral responsibility of each transaction.

That’s the food culture which Emma speaks of. It’s real and it’s pernicious. Any attempt to investigate the future of food distribution will, eventually, have to address the systemic problem of this institutionally reinforced learned helplessness. It’s not easily reversible. JanieM is deeply right here — something is being lost that will be very hard to recover, because the traditional family mechanisms for passing the knowledge along are failing.

It is a very reliable flashpoint. Usually with some self-appointed spokesperson for the downtrodden masses…

Banking somewhat off this ” self-appointed spokesperson for the downtrodden masses” thing — learned helplessness problems always disproportionately impact the less well-off, because resource constraints always aggravate learned helplessness.

To head off another objection I’ve gotten before, let me clarify: I am not proposing there is “fast food addiction” — the distinction between learned helplessness and addiction is absolutely crucial here. Both do disproportionately impact the less-well-off, sure. But learned helplessness is generally not understood to be a disease, the way addiction can be. On a literal level the distinctions are obvious. But also, the emotional configuration, how we feel about the person and their relationship to their habit, is very different. Learned helplessness is, in its severest states, essentially a behavioral disorder, whereas addiction is physiological and more concrete.

Anyway, as for the spokesperson thing. FWIW, I do not want to defend a drug industry on the grounds that they have been successful in encouraging the use of their product among working-class American populations. Non-starter. But I think we should also refuse to discuss the issue in a framework that discounts or neglects the principal reason so many people buy so much industrial food product so often. If we’re going to assign the weight of choice responsibility to the individuals who consume industrial food product, I at least want to advocate that we identify the choice alternatives as including marijuana / caffeine / etc, rather than as including good ol’ home cookin’ / varieties of peasant cuisine.

It’s not a question of the latter being illegitimate, it’s more of a tactical question: letting the industrial food product industry bill itself as a nourishment option is giving away half the game, even if it’s self-evidently the least nourishing nourishment option. If we argue against fast food on the (accurate) grounds that it is non-nutritious, the industry will respond by mucking about and reconfiguring the ingredients enough to confuse the issue, or they’ll put some nonsense salad option on the menu and parade around declaring they’ve solved the problem. Example, McDonalds loses a ton of money on their salads, due to low demand and product expiration. They’re a vanity publicity item, mostly unordered because they aren’t even trying to be a quality drug alternative. But it’s certainly evidence that McDonalds is making an attempt to offer people choices! Some of those choices are more nutritious than others!

They’re offering people choices of drugs. We need to call them on their shit.

Are you familiar with the concept of division of labour?

This is exactly what I’m talking about. This is a problem. A “division of labor” in which we let drug sellers claim a dominant role in the provision of nutrition is about as dangerous to the future of human health and welfare as it’s possible for a food distribution network to be. (I think that’s at least part of what engels is invoking.)

Self-care is important. Autonomy is important. The learned helplessness of food preparation dependence is a public epidemic problem for which we shouldn’t be promoting private solutions. The market is the problem: given the choice, of course there will be plenty of people who choose to buy drugs rather than food, especially if the drugs really are hunger-quenching, and can be marketed freely as such without social sanction.

And of course, a hell of a lot more people will choose to buy drugs for food when it’s the cheapest and most widely available drug. So why is the US government heavily subsidizing the sugar-salt-fat industry? (Rhetorical question.) We don’t subsidize cigarettes or alcohol. Alcoholic energy drinks got banhammered within months of their advent. But we Americans subsidize industrial food product.

Oh and hai world. The companies we’ve helped flourish are now aggressively pushing their way into developing-world markets. It’s obscene. The drug market should be subjected to the widespread derision and disgust that the drug abusers get dumped on them for being fat and diabetic.

It’s completely natural to feel a sense of astonishment when witnessing learned helplessness, but that helplessness can only be cultivated in an environment of co-dependence — and when an entire industry profits off aggressively maximizing the breadth and depth of that co-dependence, it’s probably time to shift one’s moral outrage from the users to the dealers.

Coming back around to what I said earlier, let me go ahead and admit, it really isn’t hard to learn to prepare and provide palatable and affordable nutrition to oneself and one’s family.

It’s actually also not that hard to learn to make food-drugs — it’s just that the industrial stuff is so readily available. You can’t bake a cake in your car, but Dairy Queen can put a cake there any time you want. Fried chicken is somewhat of a pain to make, but KFC has the bucket ready for you any time you want.

Dealers on every street corner, selling an overwhelming variety of finely tuned and carefully tested product.

Learned helplessness does inculcate a sense of how staggeringly monumental even the most basic cooking tasks presumably must be.

I think what was missing from my original comment is: we can’t expect people mired in this state of learned helplessness to be receptive to initiatives designed to goad them into changing their habits.

Basically, you can’t expect them to learn to cook well enough to make the food-drugs they use in their kitchen. It’s not trivially easy to make fried chicken at all; making fried chicken that your KFC-inflected palate identifies as a superior drug to KFC is possible, but requires some effort and trial and error.

Creating and regularly producing home-brew replacements for all the drugs you like on the market, McD and Taco Bell and Wendy’s and whatever else, is basically impossible unless you study to become a cook as if it’s a career. Those restaurants hire full-time cooks to fine-tune their drugs, and expecting an individual amateur to compete against them is unfair, if not irrational. We can’t expect people to train their way out of learned dependence on drug-foods.

But we can, and should, put intense effort into making sure our public school students don’t suffer the same fate. They’re not training for a career yet. They have time, and can be given incentives they will be receptive to. They can even be taught about how the body reacts to sugar and salt and such, so that they understand why they feel so strongly attached to various sugary and salty foods. They can be taught about the diseases and pains that these drugs can cause or exacerbate, and about how to acquire, prepare, and subsist on sources of nutrition that are not drug-laden. Put it in their goddamn D.A.R.E. anti-drugs class, right alongside the graphic warnings about lung and mouth cancer from tobacco use. Then maybe we’re making some progress — against what really should be one of the most troubling corporate expansions of our time.

I have no idea how in the hell we stand any chance of defending the developing world against the advancements of American drug lords, or how we can make any progress against their entrenchment and hegemony, but I think it has to start with acknowledging that there are American drug lords whose advancements into the developing world ought to be obstructed, and that we have imperative reasons to push back against their entrenchment and hegemony back at home.


Salient 05.03.12 at 7:35 am

…sorry, the last comment I’d seen was #64, took way too long typing. Please feel free to delete the mile-long derailment I just inflicted.


reason 05.03.12 at 8:10 am

But Holland is full of cows (- mostly for making milk) – and they still need to be fed. JQ – you forgot the cheese!


Emma in Sydney 05.03.12 at 8:23 am

Thanks Salient, that was quite fascinating. See you on the housework thread !


engels 05.03.12 at 2:25 pm

a big reason why people do not like to cook, is the clean-up of
pots and pans and dirty dishes. That’s
inherently part of the deal

Sounds like you’ve been very lucky in the flat-mates you’ve had!


torture reminder service 05.03.12 at 6:34 pm

JQ 62 “The animal welfare problems associated with raising chickens arise, as far as I can tell from pressure to cut labor costs and space requirements. The estimates I’ve given would work just as well with free-range chickens.”

First, are you familiar with the philosophical animal rights literature? What are your objections to rights for chicken, given that you seem to assume welfarism above.

Second, How do you plan to kill the hundreds of billions birds? Will you truck them to mass killing facilities? Do you think it is feasible to “produce” and kill hundreds of billions of sentient beings without causing massive suffering, given what we now about capitalism and its tendency to exploit the powerless?


Joshua W. Burton 05.03.12 at 7:43 pm

The totals here are all premised on “agriculture as we know it,” at the dawn of the cellulose revolution. Long before we make progress on the distributional inequities, the increasing demand for meat among the world’s second (think Russia) and third (Egypt) billion is going to meet assisted cellulose breakdown on a planetary scale, at somewhat higher efficiency than the 1890s trick of pumping ammonia into haystacks under tarps. A marginal acre of grassland — which is basically the best underutilized land/water/sun resource we have left — will do the work of two prime acres of corn and one of soybeans, more or less.

The balance of all grassland crops is low in protein, or to put it another way, turning them into high-yield feedlot inputs leaves enormous amounts of “surplus” cellulose. To some extent, that excess can be wasted as methane and solids, but both of these are global problems even at the present scale of beef production. To produce two or three times as much beef, solely on the now-available land, we need to get much farther away from the romance of the rangeland (in both Americas, Australia and elsewhere) and squeeze losses out of the cattle production system.

So right now, ethanol production is making higher-protein feed from maize as a fringe benefit (by turning the surplus starch into transport subsidy money); by mid-century, we are going to have to do something clever with perhaps six times as much (cellulosic) carbohydrate as the beef industry currently consumes, without adding any more net acres to the footprint. We can burn it as ethanol, or we can call it worthless and let the cows fart it (and consume more soy, which costs prime land we don’t have).

Against this, the whole scheme is consuming so much nitrogen that, even if we get there, it may be an energy wash — marginal rangeland becomes fertilized high-yield grassland, protein goes to feedlots, sugar goes to ethanol and right back into the Haber process to keep the grassland fertilized, with little or nothing left for cars (and more runoff for the Gulf of Mexico, and where do the phosphates come from?).

When we’re ten billion and only moderately poor, there won’t be a lot of slack. All the choices are hard.


Joshua W. Burton 05.03.12 at 8:24 pm

Also, it’s interesting that the only countries that currently approximate the poultry-first prescription are Caribbean islands (St. Lucia, Antigua & Barbuda, Netherlands Antilles, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Vincent, St. Kitts & Nevis, Dominican Republic, Trinidad), and Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel. Both lovely cuisines, to my taste, but most people in the world disagree.


faustusnotes 05.04.12 at 5:41 am

I would like to propose insects as a vastly superior mechanism for improving the world’s protein intake in an environmentally (and sentient-ally) friendly way.


ajay 05.04.12 at 9:55 am

86: all countries, as I note above, that don’t exactly have vast rolling grasslands on which to pasture their herds of cattle.


reason 05.04.12 at 12:36 pm

I thought that perhaps I should explain my note @81 more. JQ picks on the diet of Holland and just subtracts the amount of beef and substitutes pork or poultry. But he has forgotten dairy and eggs – that also come from beef and poultry. It is the alive animals that consume grain, not the dead ones. I suspect a lot of the meat is a side product of supplying eggs and dairy – male animals don’t lay eggs or supply milk. Sure we could have technological advances so that only females are gestated. But he still has to look at the picture including dairy cattle and egg laying poultry to get the whole picture.


musical mountaineer 05.07.12 at 8:11 pm

That still leaves the crucial problem of distribution. People in some rich countries, notably the US and Australia consume much more than the Netherlands, and that the billion or so poorest people in the world can’t afford enough grain to eat, let alone meat.

The poorest people in India eat meat. The richest, who can afford grain, subsist on grain and dairy. The Indian culture of the cow serves as a kind of Progressive Institution, driven entirely by Indians’ shared love of the cow, with no need for official sanction or enforcement. It transfers real wealth from the rich to the poor, and it holds up a nutritional safety net for those on the bottom rung of society. It wastes nothing: every pat of dung is carefully and quickly reclaimed.

The very poorest all over the world can never own vegetable crops, because they can’t own land or pay rent. The poorest can own animals, however, graze them on “waste” land, recycle food scraps and reclaimed garbage through them, etc. A cow or goat or pig or whatever is the one feasible capital investment, the one way to accumulate wealth, for the poorest people on Earth.

In economic terms, livestock provide market elasticity or cushion. Given animals to feed excess fodder crop to, an arable farmer risks little or nothing by excess planting. Should his yield be poor, he still produces enough to eat. If he gets a bumper crop, he need not let the excess rot; he can feed it to animals and bank the resultant protein, fat and manure. And in hard times generally, the animals themselves can be slaughtered to relieve food shortage.

Most of us city people have a blind spot where it comes to food production. We do not seem to imagine that food can be produced, and always has been produced, by means other than intensive agriculture. But intensive agriculture, while it does achieve low prices at vast economies of scale, is not efficient. The Total Energy Efficiency (I do not pretend to know exactly what that number means) of Indian cattle is said to be 17%. Of American cattle, 4%. It’s probably because there’s so much shipping involved in the American model from the oil tankers to the grocery vans, and because grain-fed cows shit green muck that you can’t burn in your stove.

Intensification of food production often leads to famine, (in fact, you can damn near say that intensification of food production is the ONLY cause of famine) because only Big Capital or Government has the means to effect an intensive production scheme. The result is that all the calories end up in the possession of entities whose top priority is to recoup their investments. And make no mistake: Big Capital is all over the place stomping on peasants, and stomping on peasants’ livestock. The “food producers” extract calories from the lands and waters of people who need them, and sell those calories to rich foreigners. A pastoral farmer who used to eke a living from marginal land ends up starving in the gutter, outside a shop stuffed with bread.

Intensively-farmed animals don’t suit the purpose of providing market elasticity. They die too fast. An industrial chicken is ready for slaughter at 39 days, and it won’t live more than a few months if you allow its mutated body to reach maturity. You can’t bank your grain there. So on the intensive-chicken model, the system is brittle and loaded to its theoretical limits all the time. One slip, one market shock, one bad weather event, and the millions die whom your policies have made dependent on the system.

I sympathize with commenters on this thread who disdain food production with their own hands, and who prefer to live in the city. But you presumably have money to buy food with, and available food to buy. Why should poor people be confined in cities where they can’t keep animals or produce at least some of their own food? Why should their leftovers and wasted food, instead of being a valuable resource, be a costly waste stream? Is there really a good reason why they can’t be located a little closer to the land?

I don’t know that the human race can survive without intensive farming. But for a host of reasons we should be trying to minimize, not maximize, its practice.


reason 05.09.12 at 7:26 am

“Intensification of food production often leads to famine, (in fact, you can damn near say that intensification of food production is the ONLY cause of famine) because only Big Capital or Government has the means to effect an intensive production scheme.”

Oh come off it – that is (especially historically) ridiculous.

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