Monday, December 30, 2013

Garden Earth at a discount

Dear Reader,
Thanks for following my blog.
During 2013 there have been some 5,000 page views per month in average. 

If you didn't already read my book Garden Earth,  from Hunters and Gatherers to Global Capitalism and Thereafter, I could suggest it for reading 2014.

I offer my readers a US$4 discount if you order it from: CreateSpace on this link: 
and use the campaign code: HWDQQ4JX
The offer lasts until 15 January. 
The book is also available in hard cover.  
ISBN-13: 978-9198089202 published by Regeneration.

You can order it via most bookshops, physically or otherwise.

The book is also available as a Kindle book as well as in other e-book formats.
If you want to order more than 5 copies of the book, please contact me at gunnar at 

The coming year there will be many more post based on the upcoming book. Tentatively it will be titled: Global eating disorder - the true cost of cheap food

For those voting for a name or sending suggestions, here, on LinkedIn or by email, thanks.
Happy New Year

Monday, December 23, 2013

Jevons paradox - why efficiency is a liar word

Young Karamoja boys herding goats and cows.

Recently, I visited the Moroto District in north-east Uganda, home of the (in)famous Karamajong pastoralist. These number half a million people and are isolated geographically, economically and politically, and are widely despised by their compatriots as violent and underdeveloped.  There have been efforts to settle the Karamajong in villages, get children to school and make them grow crops. However most of them are dependent on various development programs as well as food aid from the World Food Programme[1].

I visited a village where the normal kinds of development interventions were taking place. Most of them, typically, were not successful, e.g. only one child in this village of hundred children went to secondary school, the vegetable growing project had failed and most of the economy seemed to be gold mining and the brewing of sorghum beer. One intervention seemed to be successful; the construction of wood saving stoves. Such stoves are darlings of the development community and can save at least half of the firewood. Clearly a good thing; and they were in use. When I asked a woman if she now didn’t have to collect so much firewood every morning, she said, “oh, I collect the same amount of wood as before, I just sell the wood I don’t need”. This was ironic as the reason for the introduction of wood-saving stoves is to save trees, not generate income.  

This is one of many examples of Jevons paradox formulated by English economist William Stanley Jevons in his 1865 book The Coal Question. He observed that England's consumption of coal soared after James Watt introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which greatly improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomen's earlier design. Watt's innovations made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. Jevons argued that improvements in fuel efficiency tend to increase, rather than decrease, fuel use: "It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the one must suppose that coal thus saved is spared-it is only saved from one use to be employed in others". Which seems to describe very accurately the effect of the wood-saving stove in Moroto.  

With the advent of petroleum, Jevons paradox fell into oblivion until the first oil price shock and the emerging environmental discourse[2] in the early 1970s. When you improve efficiency, say improve fuel efficiency in a car, it lead mainly to that people drive more as the cost goes down. Further, it is not only the same drivers that drive more, but more people buy a car and use it instead of going by foot, bicycle or train. On yet another level, the money saved on buying gasoline is used on some other activity which equally is resource demanding, e.g. building a bigger house, take a flight for holiday or just consume more “stuff”. This is referred to as a rebound effect. There are some that see evidence of that total resource consumption increases as a result of improved efficiency[3].

Jevons himself observed the effect also in other important factors of production, such as iron and labor. Even if rationalization can make workers redundant, it also increases the remaining workers’ salaries. This creates new demands and new employment opportunities. Those that made redundant are mostly productive in some other trade. Even if we see a lot of unemployment currently one must admit that, globally, the enormous gains in productivity have not resulted in widespread unemployment. To some extent, workers have reduced their work hours, but certainly not at all in parity with the increase of labor productivity. Overall, efficiency gains have not resulted in reduced hours of work, but in increased consumption.  

If we compare efficiency on various systems, e.g. in farming or food processing, it will in most cases show that the bigger and more technological advanced system is more efficient. Larger crop farms perform better financially, on average, than smaller farms. The larger farms don’t have higher revenue or yields per acre, but they simply have lower costs. As expressed by a report (Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming) from USDA: “larger farms appear to be able to realize more production per unit of labor and capital. These financial advantages have persisted over time, which suggests that shifts of production to larger crop farms will likely continue in the future.” Their yield per acres is mostly the same as on smaller farms but the research shows that farms with more than 2,000 acres spend 2.7 hours of work per acre of corn and have cost for equipment of $432, while a farmer with 100-249 acres will spend more than four times as much labor and double the amount for equipment per acre. In that sense the larger farms are more “efficient” or “productive”

The same goes for a farmer who drives his pickup to the farmer market compared to the lorries supplying the supermarkets; she will use more fuel and more machine capital per kg of goods. And embedded in the machine capital are many other resources, metals, more energy and other peoples’ work. But despite all this efficiency our society neither reduce the number of hours worked nor the resources used, not in total and not per capita. This is not even the case for societies that have moved towards more services, as agriculture and manufacturing declines. How come?

There are several ways of tackling this question. In an article[4] in the Journal of Cleaner Production, Blake Alcott looks critically at the claim that there is less impact from people employed in the service sector than in manufacturing. He says that this claim loses its validity if the full resource use of the workers is taken into account. If we only look at the labor it is quite evident that a hairdresser uses less resources per hour than a car-maker. But the barber will use his money earned for buying the same kind of stuff as the car-maker, so the resource use embedded in their work hours is more or less the same. Well, the car maker probably earns more, so in that sense she will use more resources. But, on the other hand, if the service job is in real estate or finances the service worker will earn more, and thus, on average use up more resources. With this perspective it is the total resource use for a human being that is of relevance and not how many barrels of oil he or she use in the work place.

Other see that it is mainly the inherent forces of capitalism, i.e. profit and capital accumulation, which inevitably leads to that efficiencies will be exchanged for expansion. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York writes in the Monthly Review[5] that: “An economic system devoted to  profits, accumulation, and economic expansion without end will tend to use any efficiency gains or cost reductions to expand the overall scale of  production.... Conservation in the aggregate is impossible for capitalism, however much the out put /input ratio may be increased in the engineering of a given product. This is because all savings tend to spur further capital formation....”

There are also other perspectives. One is that much of the efficiency is not real at all. Ivan Illich showed already fifty years ago that if we included the embedded work in the car, roads, gasoline etc., the real speed of a person driving a car wasjust slightly quicker than walking. In addition to this Alf Hornborg points to that through factories and global specialization often is covering – and create – huge inequalities because of the skewed terms of trade where an hour of workin a rich country buys ten hours in a poor country. I believe all these perspectives have their grain of truth.
As yet another perspective, try this:

If we compare the resource use of big, highly mechanized farmer with a small scale farmer, we have ascertained that per kg harvested yield, the labor efficiency of the bigger farm is higher. This is also the case for use of most other resources for area unit. But what happens if we look at resource use per labor-hour? Then it is clear that the big farmer in his 400 hp tractor use an awful lot more resources than the farmer with a small tractor, or oxen, not to speak about the half a billion farmers still working with their own labor as the main resource. The same goes for the driver of the delivery truck to Walmart, he uses a lot more resources per hour than the farmer loading her pickup to drive to the market.

Now, you could say that nature doesn’t care about this discussion, if we are efficient per hour, per kg or per acre; nature only cares about the absolute use of resources or the total emissions. That is correct. But almost all people have a job of some kind, and in each job the same logic applies, i.e. that the more efficient each person is, he or she uses less resources per produced unit but more resources per hour of labor[6]. The total resource use in society is thus bound to increase despite of, or perhaps because of, increased labor efficiency. This is just another way of looking at the same things as Alcott does. He looks into the embedded consumption which follows a person regardless of occupation, while here I look more into embedded resource use per hour of work. After all, as long as we all continue to work so much, our total resource use is determined by how much resources we use at work and how much we use as consumers together.

The underlying driving force can still be the accumulation of capital as identified by Foster and colleagues, even if I see a more direct link to another aspect of the capitalist market economy; competition as a driver for reduction in labor costs per unit. Another driver is that people chose to continue working forty hours per week and thus exchange increase in labor productivity with increased consumption.  

Jevons had a problem to find a reasonable conclusion from his paradox. He said that “We have to make the momentous choice between brief but true greatness and longer continued mediocrity” in relation to the use of coal. His recommendation was more or less to continue with business as usual. I think what Jevons referred to as mediocrity is what is today called sustainability.

There are no free lunches. Or rather the problem is that we have got so many free lunches in the shape of “natural capital” that we have used “for free”, that we believe that we “have the right” to use so many resources, and that the lunch will be free also in the future. But it will not.

[1] There have been floods, fighting and a number of other reasons for their precarious situation, but the important thing in this article is not to give a complete picture of the fate of the Karamajong. That merits a separate article.
[2] Such as the Limits to Growth, from the Club of Rome.
[3] Jevons himself saw that for steam engines. After all the first ones were rather useless and were thus not used much. As their efficiency increased they spread all through the economy.
[4] Mill’s scissors: structural change and the natural-resource inputs to labor, Journal of Cleaner Production 21 (2012) 83-92
[5] Capitalism and the curse of energy efficiency: the Return of Jevons Paradox, Monthly Review, 2010/11/01
[6] It is likely that there are some exceptions to this, but I believe that they are just that, exceptions

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The synthetic meat scam

"It will be functional, natural, designed food," Vladimir Mironov says. "How do you want it to taste? You want a little bit of fat, you want pork, you want lamb? We design exactly what you want. We can design texture.” In a small laboratory on an upper floor of the basic science building at the Medical University of South Carolina Mironov has been working for a decade to grow meat. He envisions football field-sized buildings filled with large bioreactors which he calls carnaries[i]. And as I write this text Mark Post, sponsored by Google co-funder Sergey Brin with US$ 300,000, presents the first synthetic hamburger for the world’s media. 
The Postburger, Photo: David Parry / PA Wire
There are many issues around these synthetic foods. With genetic engineering we certainly will see more of it in the future. There are reasons to be cautious about the health effect of eating the stuff. Some of them will probably show to be harmful, some might be perfectly safe. We will realize this by the same crude process of trial and error that humans have used all along...and sometimes, well "shit happens". 

Yeast biomass was used as human food in Germany already during the First World War. The development of large-scale processes for the production of commercial protein began in earnest in the late 1960s, against the backdrop of looming food crisis. Most of the initiatives failed due to technical or economic reasons. The ICI Pruteen process for the production of bacterial Single Cell Protein for animal feed was a milestone in the development of the fermentation industry. This process utilized continuous culture on an enormous scale. BBC presented the factory like this in 1986: 

 “Protein is a necessary part of the diet of both man and animals. Many countries don't have enough land or a suitable climate to grow sufficient ICI has developed a single cell protein process using Methanol as a substrate. The product which is called Pruteen contains about 70% protein and has been used effectively in the diets of animals as a replacement for traditional protein sources[ii].”

However, even if the production worked it was never economically viable – it could simply not compete with soya and fish, and the site was blasted with dynamite. On the site of the Pruteen factory there is now a much smaller factory for a continuous fermentation process for the production of Fusarium venenatum biomass, marketed as Quorn, a vegetarian alternative to meat, with a price higher than meat.

Few people seem to realize that also so called lab-food needs a feedstock. Energy can't be created out of nothing, and even less can proteins etc. be that. All synthetic foods grown are using biologically derived materials as feed stock. It's not like you can take oil, nitrogen from the air, phosphorus from the soil crust and shake it and you have high quality food. I am sure that there are technical possibilities to do something like that, with massive investments (Mironov in South Carolina wants a billion dollars to develop his process). But nature already does it. And there are few signs that our labs can make it better. To grow corn for feedstock for artificial food or for the production of chicken is in a way not a big difference. Chicken production, as it looks like in many parts of the world, is already landless production, a kind of (disgusting) feed converter factory. And it is obvious that you can do a similar thing with fungi or bacteria. It is not obvious, however, that the process will be much more efficient. Perhaps more appealing for vegans; the only argument for synthetic meat that holds to date is that one wouldn’t have to kill animals[iii]

In a last data check for the book I look up if Mironov has been successful with his carnaries, and see that the University locked his laboratory in 2011. The latest recording I find of him on the internet is from September 2013, where he promised to develop 3D printing of human organs in Russia[iv] - another rabbit to be pulled out of hats.

(the text is a draft from my new book, tentatively called Global eating disorder - the true cost of cheap food)

[iii] Personally i believe there are enough natural plants to satisfy vegans, and I were a vegan I would not like to eat a product that mimics what I don’t want to eat.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Why the GMO promises are hollow

Resistant weeds in a soybean field, Pana, Ill 2012
Many promote GMOs as a main solution for future food production. However, among those engaged in actual farming you rarely hear such bold statements. For sure, the uptake of GMO crops in the United States and a few other countries is great. But we are not talking about any break-through technologies here; we are talking about technologies that can save farmers a few dollars per acre, in the same way as pesticides. The reality in the field is, so far, very far from the discussion about feeding the world that is used by GMO proponents.

There is a growing problem with weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate, the most common herbicide used by American corn, soybean and cotton farmers. New strategies are needed to combat them, according to David Mortensen, professor of weed ecology at Penn State. During the period since the introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops, the number of weedy plant species that have evolved resistance to glyphosate has increased dramatically, from zero in 1995 to 21 in 2013. The reported acreage infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds has risen from 32.6 million acres in 2010 to 40.7 million acres in 2011 and 61.2 million acres in 2012, according to Mortensen[i].

When I visited farmers in Illinois and Mato Grosso in Brazil 2012, I realized that the “new strategies” is to combine roundup with nastier herbicides such as paraquat in Brazil or atrazine in Illinois. Paraquat was banned in the European Union since 2007. The ingestion of small to medium amounts of paraquat may lead to heart failure, kidney failure, liver failure or lung scarring within several days to several weeks. If a person survives the toxic effects of paraquat poisoning, long-term lung damage is highly likely. People with large ingestions of paraquat are not likely to survive according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention[ii]. It is exported from Switzerland where its use also is forbidden. More than 3 million liters of paraquat is used in Brazil, mainly in GMO soy plantations. According to the rhetoric for GMO proponents, use of herbicides would be lower when herbicide resistance crops are grown, but this is clearly not the case. In Brazil, the use of herbicides has increased from 7 kg per hectare to 10 kg and a survey in the state of Paraná show that farmers growing GMO soy use more pesticides than farmer that don’t grow GMO soy[iii]. Atrazine, which is commonly used in United States to deal with glyphosate resistant weeds in corn is also prohibited in the European Union. It is an estrogen disruptor and is suspected of causing birth defects. Atrazine was found in 80 percent of drinking water samples taken in 153 public water systems in United States[iv].

As a rule, GMO technology has a limited potential to radically increase yields; there is simply no “high-yield” gene that can simply be put in place in the various crops, if there were such simple traits, they certainly would already have been developed through the normal process of evolution[v]. High yields are a result of many synergetic factors of which the genetic factors are only a small proportion and the genes involved are many. The same is the case for many other GMO promises. Frost tolerant potatoes have been talked about for decades, but are still far away. There is apparently some progress in draught tolerant corn, but the size of the challenge is perhaps best understood when realizing that ag-tech giant Monsanto has to team up with competitor BASF in order to have the muscles to realize this, and again, there will be trade-offs. Draught tolerance will come at some kind of “cost” for the plant, or for the farmer[vi]. “One can never change only one thing” as Garret Hardin says. And in few areas is that as apparent as in our food and farm system. 

GMOs have the potential to solve certain technical problems, problems that in most cases have also other solutions. And those other solution compete with GMOs for research funds and attention. The biggest danger with GMO in my view is perhaps not health effects or super-weeds bringing havoc to nature. Bigger dangers with GMO are the increased reliance of farmers on purchased proprietary technology and that because of very high development costs, GMOs will lead to fewer varieties and even more monoculture. In addition, the outcrowding effect of GMO research is massive. BASF is investing around EUR188 million annually in plant biotechnology research[vii] and Monsanto invested more than US$1.5 billion in 2012 on research of which a very large proportion is for biotech[viii]. It is a field that can much more easily attract funds than solutions based on local resources and on-farm solutions, as there is no money to be made from such solutions, while the GMO solutions are based on proprietary technologies. It may also make people complacent in facing the problems we actually have. If the knee-jerk response to any agriculture challenge is that we will fix it with GMOs we are in serious problems.

Lately the strategy of GMO proponents is to promote them as a solution for poor farmers in developing countries. In this way they use moral arguments against the opponents, making it look like that those that are against GMOs are to blame for that people are starving or that some are blind because of vitamin A deficiency. As explained above, I think they have no basis for their claims. I have worked long enough in developing countries to know that the problems poor smallholders face are of a different nature and more often rooted in economic and social conditions than in agronomy. In any case, existing technologies can very well solve the problems which GMOs are supposed to fix. 

Some proponents of GMOs dismiss the objections with that they are not really rooted in fear that GMOs would be harmful for environment or for human health but that the resistance is a protest against capitalism, privatization and globalization. I tend to agree with that. I don’t exclude that GM technologies could produce some useful traits in the future. I am not convinced that it can justify the risks and the enormous investments. And in general I believe that the patenting of genetic materials, GMOs or not GMOs, is fundamentally wrong, unjust and yet another step towards full privatization of nature. GMOs or not GMOs is essentially a political and ethical choice and not a choice of technology.

This is an draft extract from my upcoming book.

[i] Brown, Diane, 2,4-D and dicamba-resistant crops and their implications for susceptible non-target crops, Posted on November 7, 2013 Michigan State University Extension, accessed 13 December 2013.
[iii] GM crops push up pesticide sales in Brazil, AgroNews, 13 Augusti 2012
[iv] Still poisoning the well, Wu, Mae, Mayra Quirindongo, Jennifer Sass, and Andrew Wetzler, NRDC, April 2010
[v] Bengtson, Jan, In which ways could modern biotechnlogy be part of sustainable agriculture, , Sveriges Utsädesförenings Tidskrift 1-2013
[vi] Bengtson, Jan, In which ways could modern biotechnlogy be part of sustainable agriculture, , Sveriges Utsädesförenings Tidskrift 1-2013
[vii] May 23, 2013, 7:11 a.m. EDT, BASF, Monsanto to launch new GM corn in U.S.
[viii] Monsanto Corporate Profile 6 September 2013,

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Vote for the title of my new book

I am busy writing a new book with the Title: ??? - VOTE !!!! (see poll on the side)
Industrial food and farming have been very successful in producing more food, and cheaper food. But it has come at a very high price. The practices have wrecked havoc in important biological systems, in particular in bio-diversity and the nitrogen and carbon cycles. It also squanders its own resource base and the most precious resource on the planet, the soil. Animals are treated in a disgraceful way. While food is abundant, the distribution system, the market, fails to reach 1 billion people which are hungry. More and more people are opposing the modern food system, a few have the energy to build a new different parts of a new system.

??? - VOTE !!!! explains how our food and farm system developed into the system we have today, and how interdependent our food system and society are. Gunnar Rundgren demonstrates how farming and food processing technologies, how and what we eat have transformed our lives and our relationship not only with nature, the plants we grow and the animals we raise, but also the relationships among ourselves.

The last few hundred years, and in an sharply increasing pace, width and depth, the global market revolution fueled by oil and coal, and shaped by endless competition and rent-seeking has been the factor that has determined the whole food system, from the prairies to the supermarket shelf, from the production of margarine to the emergence of fast food chains. It even transformed the act of eating from an act of confirmation of social relations to individual satisfaction of real or imaginary dietary needs. The meal is replaced by the micro-wave. 

But it left us, the animals and the planet unhappy. Most people feel a profound discomfort over how their food is produced and how this affects both the quality of the food and the world we live in. As a response to this organic farming, local foods, fair trade and alike has developed. However, these systems are by and large still subject to the market imperatives of competition, profit and constant labor productivity increase, and increasingly so the more successful they are. This limits their transformational power.

Real change of our farm and food system must be linked also to changes in social institutions, in particular the market. This has already started with efforts such as community supported agriculture, local food movements, participatory guarantee systems and urban farming. A truly regenerative food and farm system will close loops of flow of energy, nutrients and most importantly meaning and culture. It will also have to reflect the role of our agriculture system for management of the planet at large.

??? - VOTE !!!!  shows a path forward. A path of regeneration and co-production of resources, innovation, knowledge and meaning embedded in new social and economic relationships. 
The book mixes reports from my own experiences and other case studies with solid research. Five special chapters deal with the real heavy weights in human agriculture: Grazing animals, grains, sugar, fats and chicken, all showing important aspects of how our food system evolved. Each chapter starts with a recipe related to the theme. 
This is a presentation of my present book project. I am deep into research now, plan to have manuscript ready by end of the year.  Help me with the title by voting, or posting comments. 
Publishers are more than welcome to contact me for a discussion...
oops, the bread is burning, have to go!!!

Tentative table of content

– 1 – Introduction 4

Part I: What farming is and how we eat and how we farm belong together 8
– 2 – Let there be light 8
– 3 – From foragers to farming civilizations 11
– 4 – Green 16
– 5 – From sickle to combine harvester 17
– 6 – Grain 22
– 7 – Population 25
– 8 – Sweet 29
– 9 – The food revolution 34
– 10 – Fat 42
– 11 – The Earth is Flat 44
– 12 – Crunchy 52
– 13 – The Food Chain 55
– 14 – The Emperors new dish 59
– 15 – Cooking and eating 63
– 16 – Nutrition 68
– 17 – Follow the money 73

Part II: How modern farming threatens our existence 75
– 18 – The greatest single experiment in global geoengineering ever made 75
– 19 – The biological war 78
– 20 – Ecosystem services 81
– 21 – Agriculture and Energy 85
– 22 – Water 89
– 23 – The thin skin of the planet 92
– 24 – Growing hunger 95
– 25 – Speculation 98
– 26 – Food manipulation 101

Part III: discussion 102
– 27 – Productivity in Farming 102
– 28 – Will there be enough food in the future? 106
– 29 – Cars, animals or people? 109
– 30 – New Rabbits 113
– 31 – The agriculture treadmill 116

Part IV Food and farming for the 21st century 121
– 32 – Alternatives 121
– 33 – Where shall the food come from? 125
– 34 – Consumption and life style 128
– 35 – Political solutions 129
– 36 – Economic solutions 131
– 37 – Towards a Land and Food Ethics 132

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The art of supporting agriculture

A few countries stand out with different food and agriculture policies. The Swiss constitution was amended in 1996 to explicitly include a reference to the multifunctional nature of agriculture – that agriculture contributes to food security, resource conservation, landscape and rural settlements.
As of today various support and remuneration from the government constitute more than half of the farmers’ income. This gives you an idea of how strong the forces of competition are on farms. Certainly this level of support comes at a price. First, much tax money is spent and secondly, there are high tariffs to protect Swiss farm produce. Meat had an average tariff of 126 percent and milk of 102 percent in 2012, which is reflected in very high consumer prices – but also in that Switzerland is almost self-sufficient in these produce. The self-sufficiency rate for animal products was 95 percent in 2009 while it was just 48 percent for the less protected plant products (some if which are imported as feed to the animals) [i].

A negative effect of the high support levels is that it can trigger surplus production which has to be dumped in global markets, thereby suppressing the world market prices. While there are some such effects of the Swiss agriculture support there are small and shrinking. It shall be noted, however, that the forces of competition also works inside the country and that ultimately, Swiss farmers quit, farms get bigger also through these internal forces. There were 90,000 farmers in 1990 while in 2011 there were 58,000 farms of which 41,000 could be considered full-time operations. Still, small farms persist, or as expressed ina 2013 report from the OECD, “Switzerland’s heavy support sustains inefficient farming structures”. Almost one third of the considerable Swiss agriculture support is explicitly for ensuring domestic food supplies. Switzerland, contrary to most other countries, still maintains emergency food reserves for several months for a variety of food stuffs[ii].

It is hard to assess how good the Swiss support is and how it plays out in reality. Also, Switzerland is a very wealthy country and many countries would find it hard to extend this level of support. It is still interesting to compare the developments in Switzerland and in other countries. For example, in my native Sweden, which through the EU already has some support and protection, but not at all on the level of Switzerland, we import half of our meat, despite the fact that the farming conditions are quite good.

In the 1980s, the World Bank investigated agriculture policies in eighteen developing countries and found that in most of them, Brazil being an exception, governments extracted more resources from their agriculture sector than they supported them with, a striking difference to OECD countries[iii]. To make matters worse, the money that does get spent is often spent on in­efficient and/or harmful subsidies, especially subsidies for chemical fertilizers. Of the farm budget in Zambia 80% is used for fertilizers and price support to maize. In 2012 Zambia had a surplus of maize it couldn’tsell for the price they ask, and mountains of maize were rotting. In India, subsidies reached new record heights in 2009. The Food Corporation of India used US$ 10 billion for food subsidies and the Ministry of Fertilizers used US$ 20 billion dollars for subsidies of chemical fertilizers. To this one can add federal support for food security and crop insurance as well as state programs for energy, seeds, seed­lings, livestock, tractors, pumps, irrigation, etc. Despite all support measures, Indian farmers are under huge stress. Just in 2007, 16,600 suicides were reported among Indian farmers (Tehelka 2009).

All in all, shaping agriculture policies is hard. Often citizens and politicians want to combine low cost policies with cheap food based on free trade with extensive care for environment. But sorry, it isn't working and we should stop fooling ourselves. Unlimited competition is simply not sustainable.

[i] The Agri-food Situation and Policies in Switzerland, Peter Jarrett, Charlotte Moeser, OECD 2013
[ii] The Agri-food Situation and Policies in Switzerland, Peter Jarrett, Charlotte Moeser, OECD 2013
[iii] Feeding the World, Giovanni Federico, Princeton 2005

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The fast food sandwich

In the 19th century, bakers obtained their yeast from beer brewers. However, beer brewers slowly switched from top-fermenting to bottom-fermenting yeast and this created a shortage of yeast for making bread. Therefore a prize was offered in 1845 by the Association of Vienna Bakers, for the independent production of a good yeast. Adolf Ignaz Mautner won the prize for the production of his cereal press-yeast in 1850. Meanwhile there was a rapid development in milling technology. The mills of Budapest, erected or enlarged between 1865 and 1869, had 500 run of stones, and 168 walz sets (of three pairs each) of steel rollers, with a a capacity of about 1,000,000,000 pounds of wheat per annum. 

The yeast and the new mills changed the baking-industry throughout the Austrian empire, and at the Paris Exposition in 1867 the Vienna bakery was recognized as the best in the world. This was all so sensational that the US government printed the Report on Vienna Bread by Eben Norton Horsford in 1875. He stated that the purity, whiteness, yield and keeping qualities of the wheat flour of Austria was not equaled by that of any other country. But this was all to change. All followed in the footsteps of Austria. 

The new roller mills allowed the production of a white wheat flour meal, which wasn’t really possible with the stone mills. In modern mills wheat is passed through a series of rolls rotating at different speeds. These rolls are set so that they do not crush the wheat but shear it open, separating the white, inner portion from the outer skins. At the next step the fragments of wheat grain are separated by a complex arrangement of sieves. White endosperm particles are channeled to a series of smooth 'reduction' rolls for final milling into white flour. Coarser pieces of bran with endosperm still attached go to a second break roll, and stages 1 and 2 are repeated until the flour, bran and wheatgerm are completely separated. The result is a number of flour streams containing white flour, bran and wheatgerm. To produce wholemeal flour, all the streams must be blended back together.
This industrial development had two main effects. Wite wheat bread in all forms is a real fast food, it is quick to eat, has not to much own taste and can be complemented with various forms of smears or covers, and with industrial yeast it was also quick to produce. That it gives a bigger volume, is more porous, in baking combines the two benefits that it is quicker to chew and that it gives the consumer a bigger bread for the same amount of flour.

Another, possibly bigger effect was that with earlier technology the oils of the wheat germ was set free in the flour and caused it to rancid with a foul smell if stored for a longer term. The wheat kernel itself can be stored for a longer time, even if the often repeated story of 3,000 old wheat seeds from Pharaonic grave germinating is a myth. Wheat flour was thus a fresh product, milled daily and households bought small quantities from local mills to have fresh flour. The white wheat flour didn’t contain the germ and therefore, was possible to store for a long time.

This was the start of a rapid consolidation of mills, aided by the railroads, which enabled big mills to both source grain ans sell flour in a dramatically bigger area than before. This further industrialization of milling created new opportunities, but also its own set of problems.Whole wheat flour is more nutritious than refined white flour and contains the macronutrients more fiber,  protein, calcium, iron, selenium, folic acid, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. 

In this way, white wheat flour came with most of the signs of the industrial food industry: denaturated food stripped to a basic components, longer shelf life, ease in further preparation, large scale processing, storage and handling and lower nutritional value. 

(extract from the draft of a new book in the making)

And I still like my sandwich!

Monday, November 18, 2013

The six-winged chicken

At the beginning of this century three quarters of global chicken production is in the hands of agri-business companies. In the United States, Tyson process 41 million chickens per week, the PHW group in Germany has a 40 percent market share of chicken, 70 percent of the market for chicken breeding and control 80 percent of the market vaccines for poultry production[i]. In 2013, Seara Brazil’s 32 plants slaughter about 1.7 million chickens daily, according to the company’s website[ii]

And it is in light of this we should see that chicken consumption has increased five times in hundred years in the USA and ten times from 1961 to 2009 globally[iii], while beef consumption is more or less stable[iv]. Globally diners still eat more pork—some 114m tonnes a year compared with 106m tonnes for poultry. But chicken consumption is growing faster—by 2.5% a year compared with 1.5% for pig meat. Chicken is also to a much larger extent a traded commodity, some 13.3m tonnes a year is shipped compared with 8.6m tonnes of beef and 7.2m tonnes of pork.[v]

The birds themselves are torn into pieces and reconfigured in a multitude of products such as nuggets and strips. As the Smithsonian Magazine says: “chicken farming has been a vast national experiment in supply-side gastro-economics[vi]”.  The development of the broiler production was parallelled by developments on the, processing, marketing and consumer side. In 1930, the then 40-year-old Harland Sanders, who never were a real Colonel, was operating a service station in Corbin, Kentucky, and it was there that he began cooking for hungry travelers who stopped in for gas. He invented what's called “home meal replacement” – selling complete meals to busy, time-strapped families. He called it, “Sunday Dinner, Seven Days a Week.”  In 1955, confident of the quality of his fried chicken, Sanders devoted himself to developing his chicken franchising business, Kentucky Fried Chicken. Less than 10 years later, Sanders had more than 600 KFC franchises in the U.S. and Canada. 

In 1964 KFC got new owners. It went public in 1966, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1969 and eventually was acquired by PepsiCo, Inc. in 1986. In 1997, PepsiCo, Inc. spun-off of its quick service restaurants – including KFC – into an independent restaurant company, Tricon Global Restaurants, Inc. Today, the restaurant company (now YUM! Brands, Inc.), is the world's largest in terms of system units with nearly 37,000 in more than 110 countries  and territories. 

Lately chicken wings have gained popularity and in the Unite States 1.23 billion chicken wings were eaten at Super Bowl Weekend. The National Chicken Council laments: “A chicken has two wings, and chicken companies are not able to produce wings without the rest of the chicken. Therefore, the supply of wings is limited by the total number of chickens produced.” Surprisingly there are no genetically modified chicken in the market.  A four winged chicken ready for Super Bowl should not be a tall order – or why not six wings? 

(extract from the new book in the making, or perhaps extract from draft of the new book in the making)

[i] Excessive Industrialization of Livestock production: the Need for a New Agricultural Paradign, Friedrich Ostendorrf in Trade and Environment Review 2013.
[ii] Monday, June 10th 2013 - Brazil JBS becomes largest chicken producer; purchases main tannery in Uruguay,
[iii] How Food made History, B.H. Higman
[v] Henmania, Chicken is set to rule the roost in the global meat market
Sep 14th 2013,
[vi] Smithonian Magazine, How the Chicken Conquered the World, Smithsonian magazine, June 2012,