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,

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Is farming efficient?

Farming means favoring a few species in the environment, giving them more space and nurturing them. And even for those plants that are selected, we favor the parts that are useful for us, i.e. we favor the grain over the straw and roots, we favor the meat of a chicken over its bones, which is the reason for why many broilers can’t even walk properly. In this way, we can use a higher proportion of the biological production from a farmed system than from a ‘wild’ system. Despite all the efforts in farming, and the tremendous progress in seed breeding, the advances in farming are all about the control of the factors and the favoring of a certain crop. The basic energy-transformation has not improved; the efficiency of the green leave to convert sunlight to calories has not improved.

In essence the primary biological production is more or less the same for a farmed system as for a wild system. Compare a pasture that is established in place of a rainforest or a field that forms when a swamp is drained. In both cases, the biological production is likely to be higher in the original, natural, system than in the farmed system. Biological production increases mainly when external resources are brought into the system; for example, when irrigation is introduced to drylands or when greenhouses are heated in cool climate or when nutrients are brought from outside the system, productivity can in­crease a lot.

In many ‘marginal’ areas, farmed systems are often not very com­petitive and in many cases directly harmful. Carl Linnaeus, the founder of modern classification in biology, noted more than two hundred and fifty years ago that the ‘Swedish’ settlers had a miserable life—and couldn’t pay any taxes—in the mountains whereas the non-farming, reindeer-keeping Sami people did well under the same conditions. Jarred Diamond observes a similar situation for the Viking settlers in Greenland. When the climate changed, their farming system was inferior to the economy of the Greenland Inuits that was based on extraction of wild resources (Diamond 2005). And this is not restricted only to cold areas. The livestock expert R. N. B. Kay says that humans over the centuries have made clumsy attempts to introduce domestic species of plants or animals into arid regions with catastrophic collapse of the ecosystem as a result. He finds that the East African acacia savannah and bushland can carry roughly a five times greater biomass of wild ungulates than of domestic animals (1970: 271–72).

‘Productivity’ can have a completely different meaning if one counted the impact on ecosystems and the external costs caused by farming. Studies of a wetland in Canada, forests in Cameroon and Mangrove forests in Thailand all showed the total value of these ecosystems hugely surpassed the value of the farming systems once they were converted. But, importantly, the benefits of the systems accrue to different people. Choices are made on the basis of the profitability for the person or entity that has managed to, with whatever means, control that piece of nature (MEA 2005).

So the answer to the question in the title is: Who asks?

(this blog post is part of the process of writing my new book, which still hasn't got a title
A new book is emerging).

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Pot calling the kettle black

Global Trends by Martin Khor
Star, 23 Sept 2013

Food is one of the most important and emotive of all issues.  As consumers, we  can't survive without it.

Agriculture also employs the most people in most developing countries. Ensuring farmers have enough income is key to development and social stability. Some countries that did not achieve this have faced first rural disgruntlement and then upheaval.

Increasing food self-reliance is a goal in many countries.  Food security became a high priority after global food prices shot up to record highs in 2008, and there was a near-scramble for supplies of some food items including rice because of potential shortages.Also, reducing and eventually eliminating hunger worldwide is one of the key development goals adopted by governments at the United nations.

Against this background, there is a remarkable discussion now taking place at the World Trade Organisation, as part of preparations for its Ministerial Conference in Bali in December. Developing countries grouped under the G33 are asking that their governments be allowed to buy food from their farmers, stock the food and distribute it to poor households, without this being limited by the WTO's rules on agricultural subsidies.

However their proposal is facing resistance, mainly from some major developed countries, especially the United States, whose Ambassador told the WTO earlier this year that such a move would "create a massive new loophole for potentially unlimited trade-distorting subsidies". This clash is outstanding example of the how the agriculture rules of the WTO favour the rich countries whist punishing the developing countries, including their poorest people.

It is well known that the greatest distortions in the trading system lie in agriculture.  This is because the rich countries asked for and obtained a waiver in the 1950s from the liberalization rules of the GATT, the predecessor of the WTO. They were allowed to give huge subsidies to their farm owners, some of who do not even carry out farm activities, and to have very high tariffs.   When the WTO was set up, it had a new agriculture agreement that basically allowed this high farm protection to continue.  The rich countries were obliged only to reduce their "trade distorting subsidies" by 20% and could change the nature of their subsidies and put them into a "Green Box" containing subsidies that are termed "non trade-distorting or minimally trade-distorting."

There is no limit to the Green Box subsidies.  So the trick played by the rich countries has been to move most of their subsidies to the Green Box, including subsidies that are not directly linked to production, or that are tied to environmental protection.  But studies have shown that the Green Box subsidies are in fact trade distorting as well. With this shifting around, the rich world's subsidies have been maintained or actually soared.  WTO data show that the total domestic support of the United States grew from US$61 billion in 1995 (when the WTO started) to US$130 billion in 2010.The European Union's domestic support went down from 90 billion euro in 1995 to 75 billion euro in 2002 and then went up again to 90 billion in 2006 and 79 billion in 2009. A broader measure of farm protection, known as total support estimate, shows the OECD countries' agriculture subsidies soared from US$350 billion in 1996 to US$406 billion in 2011.

The effects of continuing rich-country subsidies have been devastating to developing countries.  Food products selling at below production costs are still flooding into the poorer countries, often eating into the small farmers' from incomes and livelihoods. Ironically the developing countries, already the victims of the rich world's subsidies, are themselves not allowed to have the same huge subsidies, even if they can afford it.  The reason is that the agriculture rules say that all countries have to cut their distorting subsidies.  So if a developing country has not given subsidies before, they are not allowed to give any, except for a small minimal amount (10 per cent of total production value).

In other words, if you have given $100 billion subsidy, you have to bring it down to $80 billion and you can transfer the rest to the Green Box, but if you haven't given any before, you cannot give one dollar, except for the minimum allowed. This is where the present WTO controversy comes in.  The developing countries are asking that food bought from poor farmers and given to poor consumers  should be considered part of the Green Box without conditions.

The present rule sets an unfair condition :  that any subsidy element in this purchase scheme should be considered a trade-distorting subsidy which for most developing countries is limited to this minimum amount (10% of production value). Other Green Box subsidies, that developed countries mostly use, do not carry such a condition.

The developing countries merely seek to remove the unfair condition that in effect prevents them from adequately helping their poor to get sufficient food. For example, India's parliament has just passed a food bill that entitles the poor (two thirds of the population) to obtain food from a government scheme that buys the food from small farmers.  But the estimated US$20 billion-plus the government will spend annually may exceed the small minimum amout of subsidy it is allowed, because India was not a big subsidiser before the WTO rules came into force. Other developing countries that provide subsidies to their farmers and consumer, such as China, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia may also one day find themselves the targets of complaints.

For rich countries who are subsidising a total of US$407 billion a year to disallow poor countries from subsidising their small farmers and poor consumers, is really a specially bad form of discrimination and hypocricy.    An outstanding case of the pot calling the kettle black!
Reproduced with the permission of the Third World Network.  

Friday, November 8, 2013

Energy slaves revisited

"If all the energy we currently derive from fossil fuels alone (i.e. not including nuclear or renewables) was suddenly unavailable, and we had at our disposal a few handy nearby planets populated with well-fed healthy adult human males that we could capture as our 'energy slaves', how many of them would we need to allow us to enjoy the same lifestyle currently being provided by fossil fuels?"
Jason Heppenstall ask this question in a recent blog post, where he use, among others my calculations from Garden Earth where I arrive at that we are dependent on somewhere between 120 and 600 billion energy slaves - and that most of our progress and comfort can easily be explained by this. After all, you could live like a nobleman already thousand years ago if you had hundred slaves working for you. The great ancient empires where founded on an agrarian culture where the farm labourer could only feed his/her own family and at the most an equal number of other people, after all 70-80 percent of the population were farming. 

Jason has compiled some other calculations and they differ some, but not radically. Read the rest of his post.  

The point in any case is to give an illuminating perspective of the huge importance the use of energy has for our civilization. It is not the only factor explaining how we can have all those things we have, but it is in my view the single most important factor. And therefore, it is likely that an energy scarce future will have enormous consequences. 

A recent paper in the "Journal of Cleaner Production" U. Bardi. T. El Asmar and A. Lavacchi,  discuss how energy is used in agriculture and how, in the future, we could obtain this energy from renewable sources. The results?
"As you can imagine, it will not be an easy task; but it is not an impossible one, either. As modern renewables (wind and solar) increase in efficiency and come at lower costs, it is perfectly possible to think of integrating them with the agricultural process, first reducing and then fully eliminating the need of locally using fossil fuels." says Ugo Bardi read more

Monday, November 4, 2013

Systematic collapse or collapsing systems? Review of Orlov's The Five Stages of Collapse

In the parking lot of the guest house where I stay in Banga, Burundi, 105 people were killed in the civil war which ravaged the country from 1995 to 2005. It is a coincidence that I read Orlov’s book The Five Stages of Collapse in Burundi. This small, but densely populated country on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, experienced a deadly kind of collapse in the shape of a civil war. Over 200,000 people were killed in that war.

How does Burundi fit into Orlov’s stages of collapse? Not so well, I am afraid.

Orlov does not spend a lot of time convincing people that collapse is imminent. His readers would have already understood it. Orlov says he wrote the book to help us deal with collapse; we can not avoid it, as it is unavoidable, but survive it, and possibly find our way back to a nice society. His second cardinal accomplishment is to provide us with “taxonomy of collapse.”

Stage 1: Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual” is lost.
Stage 2: Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall provide” is lost.
Stage 3: Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 4: Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take care of you” is lost.
Stage 5: Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost.

The taxonomy is quite helpful. The presentation of collapses as stages which occur in a certain logical order is more problematical. For instance, while there are examples of financial collapse which trigger commercial collapse which trigger political collapse, there are also examples of collapse that are mainly driven by political issues, which in turn might influence finances and markets. Burundi is a case of a political collapse, and perhaps a social collapse, coming before the commercial collapse. Some of Orlov’s own examples, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fate of the people Ik, also contradict the idea that a collapse follows a certain order. To my knowledge financial collapse did not trigger the fall of the Soviet Empire.

It may be a fair assumption that a collapse of the current financial global market system - and thus of modern society - will start in financial markets (as has already happened), and cascade further according to Orlov’s trajectory.  Then again, how can we be sure about that?

Orlov’s perspective on the market economy is damning. He analyzes how global competition drives all economic agents into economically efficient behavior, simultaneously making them inefficient from other perspectives. The selling of one’s labor is described as “desexualized prostitution.” Trade and market relations have been allowed to take command of a too large part of our lives. We care for family, friends and kin, and normally do not interact with them as a market, and engage in monetary transactions. Money and market relationships should, according to Orlov, be reserved for dealing with those you cannot trust, and, largely, for non-essential goods. This, today, is turned on its head. 

When Orlov says that a commercial collapse is not so bad, since we can fall back on a gift economy for essentials and use the market only for luxuries, he assumes that the essentials can be provided within the cozy circle of kin and friends. This might be possible, but it also assumes that our essentials do not include a large number of modern products and infrastructure. Are cotton clothes essential? Are sugar, telephones, computers, bicycle chains, etc., essential? None of them would easily materialize in a barter economy limited to kin and friends.

Orlov’s views of how social collapse will unfold are not pleasant. He does not claim to serve us only what is agreeable either. However, I find his views a bit too negative. I also find them contradictory. He makes much of a story of two communities living side by side: one, a typical middle class, well-educated, well-behaved community with law-abiding citizens, and the other, a typical criminal underworld community with its citizens engaged in drugs, black marketeering and crime. He thinks it is apparent that the criminal sub-culture is superior in hard times. To me that seems to contradict his praise for “mutual aid” as promoted by Pyotr Kropotkin(a Russian anarchist), someone whom he attributes many interesting pages to.

Orlov certainly has a point when he writes, “Under emergency conditions, the previously enacted rules, laws and regulations will amount to an essentially lethal set of inflated standards, unachievable mandates and unreasonable restrictions, and attempting to comply with them or enforce them is bound to lead to inaction at best and armed conflict at worst.” There are probably few, if any, good ways to de-complexify complex societies. Perhaps, I just have a higher faith in humanity to adjust, for better or for worse, to new conditions. In discussing social collapse, Orlov puts his faith (!) in religion being the institution that can take us over to another new social contract and civilization. His argument is based on the premise that religions have been able to survive many social collapses and to some extent have provided a refuge for civilization.

The strategy to try to survive the collapse by being self-sufficient is not a viable one. It may work for a few people but “for the rest, it might be better to abandon the idea of finding a safe place to be, and to concentrate instead on discovering a safe way to be—in company with others.”  In other parts of the book, though, he takes a much more individualistic perspective, and the reader is advised to hoard items which might come in handy when financial and commercial systems have made money meaningless. In line with this is also the analysis of who is best adapted to survive a collapse: they should be indifferent to suffering; have the will to survive; have the ability to persevere in spite of loneliness and lack of support from anyone else, and, have “the sheer stubborn inability to surrender in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, opposing opinions from one’s comrades or even force.”

Orlov sees human social bonds and actions as primitive, leading us to act as a herd of sheep. We have to turn to the solitary geniuses for our salvation. They are more highly evolved according to him, and it is thanks to “brilliant loners and eccentrics” that progress is made. Later in the book, he emphasizes family and similar bonds as being of utmost importance and central to humanity. I wonder if I missed something, or, did he?

The contradictions might have been resolved with more critical editing. Orlov also rants and goes off into side-discussions that are only vaguely related to the main thread of the narrative. For example, he dismisses charities and philanthropy as demeaning (they might be, but it is hardly a central discussion for the stages of collapse); he has a distinctly gender-biased discussion about how men and women react to the threat of collapse; and he discusses the merits of various national languages in some detail, without really making clear to us how Chomsky’s Universal Grammar has anything to do with cultural collapse. They do not add much to the main discourse, though some of them can be amusing and interesting. 

Orlov should be credited for daring to challenge many established views and promoting concepts that are not so often promoted, even within the collapseological community. He has the guts to question the prevailing market religion, not only because it is giving undesired results, which many agree with, but more importantly, because it is built on the wrong foundation.

One can easily be provoked by Orlov, but, then again, this seems to be his mission. After all he wants us to think for ourselves and not just accept what he says. The prose is also full of memorable and entertaining statements such as, “The intelligence of a hierarchically organized group of people is inversely proportional to its size, and mighty military empires are so big, and consequently so dumb, that they never, ever learn anything.” I encourage you to take on Orlov’s challenge.

Start by reading the book.

Dmitry Orlov was born in Russia but moved to the US as a teenager. For the past five years he has been experimenting with off-grid living and renewable energy by giving up the house and the car. Instead, he has been living on a sailboat, sailing it up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and commuting by bicycle. He believes that, given appropriate technology, we can greatly reduce personal resource consumption while remaining perfectly civilized.