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Wednesday January 17, 2018

Our food system is still "broken," apparently, at least according to multinational food corporations Unilever and Danone, celebrity chef Alice Waters, global environmental activist network Greenpeace and, at last count, about 13 million internet sites, among others.

As Farmer Goes to Market reported previously, the gloom is best summarized by a quartet of high-profile food-system activists in a Washington Post editorial from three years ago, titled "How a national food policy could save millions of American lives." Former New York Times columnist turned professional gardener Mark Bittman, Berkeley journalism professor and Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan, Union of Concerned Scientists senior scientist Ricardo Salvador and former U.N. human-rights lead Olivier De Schutter wrote in the Post:

“Because of unhealthy diets, 100 years of progress in improving public health and extending lifespan has been reversed. Today’s children are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. In large part, this is because a third of these children will develop Type 2 diabetes, formerly rare in children and a preventable disease that reduces life expectancy by several years. At the same time, our fossil fuel dependent food and agriculture system is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other sector of the economy but energy. And the exploitative labor practices of the farming and fast-food industries are responsible for much of the rise in income inequality in America.”

To be sure, writes head of the ag economics department at Purdue Jayson Lusk in the September issue of the scholarly journal Applied Economic Perspectes and Policy, America still faces some pressing problems in food and agriculture. But, is the worrisome and pessimistic picture about the state of food and agriculture painted by Bittman et al really that dire?

Lusk lists the following counter conventional-wisdom statistics about the health of the U.S. food system (along with sources):

  1. Agriculture's productivy growth rate is one of the fastest of any sector in the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, on a global scale, increasing agricultural output has increasingly come from improved productivity rather than putting more land under the plow. (Source, Source, Source)
  2. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture only accounts for about 9 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, far fewer emissions than the electrical generation, transportation and industry sectors. (Source)
  3. Technological improvements and better production practices have substantially lowered the energy use, water use and greenhouse gas impacts of food production per unit of output over time. (Source, Source, Source)
  4. Compared to the 1950s, the amount of land needed to farm has fallen 26 percent, even as the ouput generated by those farms has grown 180 percent. (Source)
  5. The amount of weedkiller used by American farmers has remained relatively steady for the past 35 years, and the use of bugkiller has dropped by 77 percent since 1970. Meanwhile, the average toxicity of those pesticides has significantly fallen. (Source)
  6. Soil erosion has declined substantially since the 1980s, falling more than 40 percent. (Source)
  7. Farms today are increasingly using cover crops and practice more no-till farming, thanks in part to biotechnology, and the vast majority of corn, wheat, and soybean farmers practice crop rotation (Source, Source, Source, Source)
  8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show the average hourly earnings of all employees working in food services and drinking places for 2016 was up 31 percent since 2006, to $13.26 per hour. To get an accurate picture, any discussion of inequality in wages must consider not just the wage rate, but also government support, non-wage benefits and inequality in consumption, not simply wages. (Source, Source)
  9. The prevalence of obesity is high, but the rate of increase has slowed and even reversed among some subgroups in the US population (Source, Source)
  10. While the prevalence and new incidences of diabetes rose from 1990 to 2008, there has been no significant change from 2008 to 2012, and if anything new incidences appear to be falling; only 0.71% of the adult population was newly diagnosed with type 1 or type 2 diabetes in 2012. (Source)
  11. Age adjusted cancer deaths and incidence rates have been falling in recent decades. (Source, Source)
  12. Death rates attributable to cardiovascular disease declined more than 30 percent from 1998 to 2008. (Source)
  13. Data from the Centers for Disease Control indicate US life expectancy overall continues to increase; small declines observe in some subgroups (e.g., white women) are primarily explained by issues related to drug and substance abuse, which are largely unrelated to food and agriculture. (Source, Source)
  14. The quality of diets in the US significantly improved from 1989 to 2008. (Source)
  15. Globally, the percent of the world population living in absolute poverty declined from 44% in 1981 to under 10% today. The share of the word population that is undernourished fell by half since 1990, and reductions in hunger are strongly, positively correlated with agricultural industrialization as measured by agricultural labor productivity (Source, Source)

Is this, finally, the end of the supermarket's dominance in American food distribution?

  • "Although many people don’t realize it yet, grocery shopping and cooking are in a long-term decline," claims a September Harvard Business Review feature. "They are shifting from a mass category, based on a daily activity, to a niche activity that a few people do only some of the times," according to author and CPG consultant Eddie Yoon. "The supermarket and grocery business is likely to suffer strong headwinds in the future, due to long-term shifts in consumer behavior."
  • For the first time ever, according to USDA as quoted by an online markets analyst, the amount spent eating out has surpassed what U.S. consumers spend on food at home. "...Spending on food at home and food away from home have been converging over the past 60 years," he writes, "with traditional home-cooked family meals on the decline."
  • The Washington Post, in March 2015, pronounced at long last the death of the home-cooked meal.

But if true, this could be the longest death rattle in history.

Granted, restaurants and away-from-home dining are big, making up 4 percent of the total US gross domestic product. More than 1 million dining establishments did an estimated $782 billion in business last year.

And it is true that USDA showed the average household's percentage of income spent on food away from home first passed the percentage spent on food at home in 2015. But, as with most "trends," the devil is in the details.

Harvard Business Review's Yoon bases his contention on his own in-house surveying. "...consumers fell into one of three groups: (1) people who love to cook, and cook often, (2) people who hate to cook, and avoid that activity by heating up convenience food or outsourcing their meals (by ordering out or dining in restaurants), and, finally, (3) people who like to cook sometimes, and do a mix of cooking and outsourcing, depending on the situation," he writes. According to that research, done 15 years ago, the sizes of the three groups were about 15 percent, 50 percent and 35 percent, respectively.

Repeating the same study today, he says, finds the numbers have shifted: "Only 10 percent of consumers now love to cook, while 45 percent hate it and 45 percent are lukewarm about it. That means that the percentage of Americans who really love to cook has dropped by about one-third in a fairly short period of time."

It's an interesting idea, according to North Carolina State food sociologist Sarah Bowen, "but it's a lazy analysis."

"You could say (as the author does) that the percentage of people who love cooking has dropped by one-third," she writes, "but a more accurate headline would be: 'Very few people loved cooking 20 years ago, and that is still true today.'"
A change of only five percentage points, from 15 percent to 10 percent for the "love to cook" category, is hardly significant enough to make broad conclusions, she argues. "Meanwhile, this author does not mention the fact that the same 'study' finds that the percent of people who are 'so-so' about cooking (i.e., who don't love it but still try to do it) has increased by 10 percent and the percentage of people who hate it has decreased by 5 percent. I'm not convinced that we are seeing important trends here."

Gallup, likewise, shows Americans' tendancy to choose restaurants is little changed from 10 years ago. Six in 10 U.S. adults recently reported eating dinner at a restaurant at least once in the past week, but that figure is nearly identical to the 60 percent who said the same nearly 20 years ago, in 2008.

 

The averages also mask some highs and lows that are important in assessing the health of eating at home. U.S. households in the top one-fifth of income spent an average of $12,350 on food in 2015, 49 percent of which went toward food away from home. On the other end of the spectrum, households in the lowest 20 percent of income spent $3,767 on food, but only 34 percent of that was for food away from home.

And even if this is a problem for grocers, author Michelle Moon argues it's no "new" problem.

"There was never a time when a majority of (let's be honest) women really loved cooking. I'd argue in this study that the rise of really good quality prepared food in recent years - I'm looking at you, Whole Foods hot bar, and also at the likes of Trader Joe's grab-and-go and quick-heat entrees - has allowed people who marginally liked cooking for the quality to move away from doing it except as a hobby," writes the author of Interpreting Food. "I'd say the future of grocery is definitely in the dream of the 1890s - good quality, ready-made, prepared food at a decent price."

USDA statistics backs that interpretation up. Even if restaurants are slowly eating into the supermarket's share of sales, the retail grocer still owns the healthfulness category. USDA says meals and snacks based on food prepared away from home contained more calories per eating occasion than those based on at-home food. Away-from-home food also tends to be higher in fat and saturated fat and lower in calcium, fiber, and iron than food prepared at home.

  • Austin, Texas', 10th annual Austin Bug Eating Festival in June brought out hundreds of kids and adults to "tour of the exciting new culinary world of insect cuisine," as the show promoters put it. Detroit's Wayne State University held a similar conference in May 2016, a three-day, first-ever, international, interdisciplinary conference on the topic of insects as food and feed.​ (In a bit of news that may restore your faith in Nebraska common sense, Lincoln holds its own similar annual Bugfest, but without a single mention of the gourmet aspect of bugs.)
  • The usual annual freaky fair fare now includes, at this year's Wisconsin State Fair, cricket nachos. The vendor, All Things Jerky, says it has been selling insect snacks at the fair since 2011, including chocolate-covered scorpions and ant lollipops.
  • "Ecological entomologist" Marcel Dicke's TED talk pitching a case for adding insects to everyone's diet includes delicacies like locusts and caterpillars, which he claims can compete with meat in taste and nutrition, while offering an environment-friendly alternative. His online video is approaching 1.5 million views.
  • The Nordic Food Lab, featured in a November 2016 issue of London's Independent, is the brainchild of a Michelin-starred chef and a culinary entrepreneur to promote "a holistic approach" to eating. "We try to work with every type of produce," explains Roberto Flore, Head of Culinary Research and Development  at the lab." Insects, blood, jelly fish, fermented products and even feces are fair game. "It’s about giving people more confidence with different produce and reconnecting with the process of producing food." 

And those are just the tip of the anthill. From Bloomberg to The Economist, Slate to Huffington Post, entomophagy—the practice of eating insects—has become the rage. More than 2,000 insect species are eaten around the globe, mainly in the tropics, and new-food advocates want many of them to come to a supermarket near you.

Advocates for edible insects as an alternative protein source for people and animals promote them as improvements over animal-based meat because they produce lower greenhouse gas emissions, convert feed into protein more efficiently, use less land and can transform low-value organic matter into high-value protein.

No less than Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nationas in a May 2016 interview surrounding the Paris climate-change summit sang their praise. "We cannot continue the way we are producing and consuming meat.... And of course there are alternative sources of protein.... [Instects] make up part of the diet of two billion people and are commonly eaten in many parts of the world. Eating insects is good for the environment and balanced diets."

"I'm not sure if it will be in five years or 50," argues Austin Miller, owner of Oregon's Craft Crickets, "but we'll all be eating insects eventually."

Bugging consumers to turn to bugs is part of the wider green-shaming movement to turn your shoppers against meat. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Washington-based animal-rights advocacy Humane Society of the United States, for instance, details the group's plans to support marketing of meat alternatives in his new Humane Economy. HSUS has already invested half a million dollars into Beyond Meat, a startup dedicated to disguising non-animal products as meat, and the organization has a long history of promoting animal-based protein as disgusting and gruesome—although, to Pacelle's credit, the organizations appears to see bugs more as fellow beings than as food source, a paradox many bug-eating vegans may eventually come up against.

Plenty of strong arguments can be made—and have been made—about the flawed underlying assumptions about the environmental dangers of traditional, animal-based meat. But the real problem with converting consumers to bugs is less cerebral: Ick. Need we say more?

"While eating insects seems to be a rational solution to the challenge of efficiently supplying animal protein to a growing world population," writes Tulane food marketing professor Eric Hamerman, "many people—especially those in the Western Hemisphere—are unwilling to even contemplate eating insects. In the United States, those who do eat insects tend to do so as a dare...rather than for their nutritional value."

Inconsistent and illogical though it may sometimes be, Hamerman says, disgust at eating bugs is a deeply ingrained food aversion. Shoppers willing to at least consider trying bugs may be convinced to eat them by increasing their familiarity with them in the kitchen. But, he writes, "If someone is extremely disgusted by the thought of a dead insect being served as food, ...no amount of cooking can transform the bug-based ingredients thoroughly enough to...convince him or her to re-categorize it as non-disgusting food."

What would it ever take to get shoppers past that disgust factor? Here's the long list Dutch tropical entomologist Arnold van Huis spells out in his review of the future of bug-eating in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society:

Try it, you'll like it? People who have eaten insects before have a more positive attitude towards entomophagy than the people who haven't, he writes. However, he doesn't elaborate on which comes first, willingness to eat a bug or satisfaction at having done so.
Appeal to higher purpose? Providing information about the nutritional and environmental benefits of edible insects should sway them, he believes. Will consumers really shop their conscience by eating maggots? The jury is out.
When in doubt, disguise? Baking termites and lake flies into crackers, muffins, sausages and meat loaf can make them more salable—if shoppers are advocates for bug eating from the start, van Huis says. He also suggests slowly ratcheting up the concentration of hidden bug parts in flour until one day there's less flour and more bug.
'Hey, Orkan Man?' Using the right celebrity spokesman might convince disgusted consumers, he suggests. Topping his suggested list: the U.N.'s Annan and the chefs of some of the world's best restaurants.

A pig is a cow is a fly is a cricket? Bug marketers may succeed by, in van Huis' words, "Indicating the systematic proximity in animal classification between insects and crustaceans." In other words: "Shrimp" is just Old Norse for "giant pill bug"—really tasty giant pill bug.

Is this worm antibiotic-free? Surveys show half of respondents in the United States consider germs and disease as a risk in eating insects. Although he argues science and government can get them over that hurdle with more and better information, that assumption remains debatable in a country where eight in 10 consumers stubbornly persist in concerns about nonexistent hormones in their chickens.

Cook it, and they will come? van Huis points to studies arguing rational pitches about environment and nutrition will never bring consumers over to the bug. The only way to make insects acceptable is to make them delicious. Good luck with that.

Dime a dozen? Safe, high-quality and affordable, van Huis argues, will eventually bring shoppers around to bugs, just as it does with any food.

 

It's the kind of breathless nutrition journalism you've come to expect in today's 24-hour, always-on news cycle's thirst for sensation:

  • "Low-fat diet could kill you, major study shows," says the headline in London's Telegraph.
  • "Eating a low-fat diet increases your risk of dying young by 25%," according to The Sun.
  • "Everything we thought we knew is a lie," says one women-centric news website.

Hair-afire journalism aside, the findings of the new study just published in the medical journal The Lancet are contradictory to conventional wisdom on saturated fats, to say the least. Canadian medical epidimiologist Mahshid Dehghan and more than 200 other investigators from around the world undertook an "ambitious" study that collected data on more than 135,000 people from 18 countries across five continents, following their diet and health for an average of 7.4 years.

Here's what they found. On average, those people who got more than a third of their daily calories in the form of fat demonstrated a reduced risk of dying vs. those who got the lowest amount from fat, or about 11 per cent. And as you'd expect—since the only other meaningful dietary source of calories is carbohydrates—people who obtained more than three-quarters of their daily calories from carbohydrates had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying than people who got less than half their energy from carbs.

"Once again," write the Lancet editors in a commentary on the study, "This lack of definitive evidence has left clinicians, scientists, and the public uncertain about the best foods to [recommend] and to eat."

Why this abrupt reversal in thinking about saturated fats, flying in the face of, in the editors' words, "the most enduring and consistent diet advice..to restrict saturated fatty acids, by replacing animal fats with vegetable oils and complex carbohydrates (and more recently whole grains)?"

Because it really wasn't a reversal, at least as far as the science is concerned.

In The Lancet article, Dehghan echoes the opinion of a growing number of scientists: The common advice to restrict saturated fatty acids, which has even been incorporated into USDA's dietary guidelines, “is largely based on selective emphasis on some observational and clinical data, despite the existence of several randomised trials and observational studies that do not support these conclusions.” The Dehghan study only reinforces what common-sense nutritional recommendations have long understood. An extremely low-fat, high-carb diet is at least associated with, if not a cause of, an increased risk of death from something other than heart disease, but moderate fat and carbohydrate intakes were not associated with increased risks. In a separate Lancet article, the same group reports that eating specific carbohydrate groups—fruits, legumes and raw vegetables—was associated with a lower risk of death. So the bottom line: Once again, it's likely processed carbohydrates, including added sugars and refined grains, that may be driving the increase in risk.

When it comes to the common sources of saturated fats, the case has never been closed on their relative value vs. their risk of contributing to heart disease. Here's what we know:

Eggs: Eggs have one of the lowest ratios of energy to nutrients as any food, writes British nutritionist Bruce Griffin, and a protein quality that's as good as dairy and better than steak. That must certainly qualify them as good, so the burden of proof has been to settle the question of whether their high cholesterol offsets that good. What we're now coming to understand about the difference between dietary and blood cholesterol has tipped the question in eggs' favor. "After 60 years of research," he says, "a general consensus has now been reached that dietary cholesterol, chiefly from eggs, exerts a relatively small effect on serum LDL-cholesterol and [heart-disease] risk, in comparison with other diet and lifestyle factors. Although some question may still remain about their risk in people who are diabetic, it's likely other dietary components have unfairly clouded that picture against eggs.

Milk and dairy. Despite milk and dairy foods contributing about a quarter of saturated fat intake in western diets, evidence from prospective cohort studies does not support a detrimental effect of milk and dairy foods on risk of heart disease, according to nutritional researcher Julie Lovegrove. The majority of prospective studies and meta-analyses examining the relationship between milk and dairy product consumption and risk of cardio-vascular disease show that milk and dairy products, excluding butter, are not associated with detrimental effects on dying or risk biomarkers that include serum LDL-cholesterol. In addition, there is increasing evidence that milk and dairy products are associated with lower blood pressure and arterial stiffness. These apparent benefits of milk and dairy foods have been attributed to their unique nutritional composition, and suggest that the elimination of milk and dairy may not be the optimum strategy for heart disease risk reduction.

Red meat? Scottish nutritionist Laura Wyness notes red meat has earned its spot in the evolution of the human diet by providing a rich source of not only protein, but protein that's easily available to the body to digest and use. It's micronutrients, particularly iron, are also more bio-available. But what of its notorious saturated fat? Dietary advice to limit red meat has gone too far, write nutritionists from Canada's beef and pork associations in the scientific journal Meat Science—even to the point of causing unintended health consequences. Even as dietary advice to limit red meat has remained standard in developed countries, energy intakes from processed foods have increased dramatically at the expense of nutrient-rich foods. They argue, as the Lancet authors suggest, that research implies the jump in obesity and associated disease in recent decades should be laid at the feet of carbs, not saturated fats in red meat. "It is time for dietary advice that emphasizes the value of unprocessed red meat as part of a healthy balanced diet," they say.

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