High Cost Causes and the role of Food Media

Out of all of the articles and news stories talking about the causes for the rising prices of, I’ve only encountered one that hits all of the points succinctly. From Tim F over at Balloon Juice:

* First, the price of fuel. We have hit the point where oil stops being an elastic commodity (e.g., production can be upped to meet demand) and switches to a catch-as-catch can resource. Atrios had a post a few days back about how that shift will necessarily make the price of gas go crazy. We won’t see cheap gas again unless the entire planet stops driving or we find a magic spell that turns CO2, water and soot back into light sweet crude. Since modern agriculture has been described as the process by which petroleum is converted into food (fertilizers, harvesting, packaging, transport and most of the other steps depend on hydrocarbons) that can be a real problem.

* Climate doesn’t need to get tremendously warm to cause major problems, weird will do. The major problem here is that food production isn’t the sort of thing that can just chase clement weather wherever it happens to be from year to year – if farmers can’t predict the right crop to grow in a given region year in and year out then a lot less food will come out of the ground. Drought in regions that grow rice, for example, is devastating because cultivating rice demands more water than any other kind of agriculture. CO2 climate warming will gradually shift agriculturally productive regions, but in the much shorter term it will have the equally dangerous effect of making local climate less reliable. Regarding reversibility, even if we stopped emitting CO2 today inertia and positive feedbacks will keep warming the planet for a decade or more. We’re not going to do that, so we might as well treat warming and climate instability as a given.

* More demand for food in China and India. At the same time that global population is growing, the two most populous countries on Earth have starting upgrading from a third world diet. In China’s case that is only the beginning of a potentially titanic shift from a carefully managed reduction in living standards (China invests most of its revenue in foreign currency rather than bread, circuses or infrastructure) to something more appropriate for their GDP. In India it is more of a symptom of the country’s rising prosperity. In the case of neither country would it be very useful to ask them to go back.

* Collapsing fish stocks. The cost-to-benefit ratio of commercial fishing is getting increasingly silly as more ships work harder to chase rapidly decreasing stocks of fish. Many species have already crashed to the point where harvesting just isn’t feasible, and there is ample evidence some overfished ecosystems have radically changed for good. Species near extinction may recover, but a) not for a very long time, and b) not before fuel prices make commercial fishing impractical. Fish farming is as much a shell game as growing meat on land – to get a pound of protein you need to throw in a bucketful of feeder meal.

He then goes on to offer some good news, which I recommend you check out when you have a moment.

But getting back to the initial point, why is it so difficult to find this information in the food press? Sara Dickerman, in a recent article on Slate, noted:

In combination with a looming recession and the deflation of the real-estate market, these high prices mean that the everyday grocery bill is overwhelming Americans. And yet a happy hedonism still dominates the food media; turn to the food section of your city paper and you’ll learn where to spend $120 a pound on jamón ibérico or where to taste a flight of pricy olive oils.

In my own opinion, the state of our food press is currently focused less on reality and more on fantasy, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. A point I have made repeatedly to anyone who will listen is that the majority of people who read The New York Times restaurant reviews, or read of Gourmet trips to far off lands will never follow in the footsteps of the writers. The writing might as well be about going on an African Safari, or an authors recent experience in Antarctic for all of amount that the reader will be able to relate. The readers know this before even finishing the first sentence; the food media likely far less so.

Let me be clear, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, as clearly there’s a market for it. Millions, if not Billions of dollars have been made by writing that take this approach. And full disclosure – I admit to writing in this vein myself.

The problem with this genre is that it never can adequately reflect the reality of the great majority of people’s kitchen. It can’t, almost by definition. And those who do try to reach those dealing with budgets and/or minimal food knowledge are mocked mercilessly (See Rachel Ray and Sandra Lee). Again, I acknowledge my own behavior here.

So now a great many of us find ourselves in a situation where we have to deal with budget restrictions and higher food costs. The question that now arises is this – Can the current state of food writing and other medias continue to succeed when the chasm between the fantasy that they present versus the reality of the recession hit home?

I’m not argue that food media should reflect reality. The market will decide that in the next few years. But it will be interesting watch how this media, which some can argue is a result of recent American prosperity and excessive consumption culture, will react when prosperity is in decline and excessive consumption is called into question.