December 16, 2016

"There are two reasons we shouldn’t shift away from a system where most calories come from staples and few from vegetables, even if we could..."

"Vegetables are too expensive, and they require too much land," writes Tamar Haspel, and oyster farmer and food-policy commentator (in WaPo).
For last month’s column on whether nutritious food is more expensive than junky food, I looked at the costs involved in growing broccoli and corn. One estimate from the University of California at Davis estimates the costs of growing broccoli at about $5,000 per acre, whereas corn is about $700. Factor in that corn delivers 15 million calories per acre to broccoli’s 2-ish million, and the cost to grow broccoli (25 cents per 100 calories) is 50 times larger than corn (half a cent per hundred calories). And that’s just the difference on the farm. After harvest, that broccoli needs to be refrigerated and transported to where it’s going before it spoils. Broccoli has nutrients that corn doesn’t, of course, so it’s a good thing that we eat some. But an all-vegetable, or mostly vegetable, diet is prohibitively expensive for most people.

The land issue is directly related. When you can grow many more calories per acre, you need fewer acres. The closer we get to maxing out our farmland, the more important that calculation becomes.....

The inescapable reality is that the inherent costs involved in growing, storing and shipping vegetables often make them a luxury food. The backbone of a diet good for both people and planet is whole grains and legumes: oats, barley, wheat, corn, beans, peanuts, lentils.
So is eat your vegetables terrible advice? I looked into the comments section over there for the answer I expected and found it as the second "most liked" one:
I think this is a valuable discussion when it comes to food security, aka making sure people aren't starving to death.... But if you're talking about the average American and those around the world with an increasingly American/western diet, I think it's a disservice to our health and economy to think that we can continue with grains and cereals as a nutritional backbone....
It's one thing to feed the billions of people in the world. Give them their oats, barley, wheat, corn, beans, peanuts, lentils....



... but we Americans expect better things — a well-balanced, nutritious, healthful, tasty, and virtuous diet. And please don't bother us with notions of virtue that demand that we live like those people out there somewhere in the world where it's a struggle to pack in enough calories to get by.

42 comments:

David Begley said...

Hey, let's export our grains to China and China can send us iPhones.

Mick said...

Why, exactly, does the "law prof" read "WAPO", a known progenitor of "Real Fake News"?

Bart Hall (Kansas, USA) said...

My technical training is as a soil chemist, and I have nearly fifty years' experience as both a consulting agronomist (in a dozen countries) and as a vegetable farmer. News FLASH! You don't eat veggies for the calories.

The overall food system has four important components:

a) Calories, which come from the big four (rice, wheat, potatoes, maize) as well as oils and fats (palm, soya, olive, canola, and animal fats).

b) Proteins, which come from livestock, fish, and assorted pulses (=beans, etc)

c) Minerals, which come primarily from vegetables and fruits. [my primary area of technical expertise is in the bio-availability of essential micro-nutrients involved in enzyme precursors and co-enzymes ... so don't get me started here]

d) Pure enjoyment, which varies incredibly from person to person and culture to culture, but is hugely important to the overall food experience. It might be chocolate. It might be roasted grasshoppers as is the case in rural Uganda. It might be a well-brewed IPA.

Wilbur said...

Living in South Florida, Mrs. Wilbur grows a lot of back yard fruits and vegetables. Kale, onions, mangos, avocados, cucumbers, et al.

80+F. degrees here yesterday.

lgv said...

AA, the key word in your comment was virtuous. The highly rated comment makes little sense. It is not a disservice to our health and economy. First, it is only a disservice to those who have no food insecurity and there are still plenty of those people below the poverty line. They don't starve because we have plenty of cheap non-veggie calories. Second, it is a disservice to our economy to waste efficiency on broccoli. The definition of economics is the allocation of scarce resources. Peddling the over-indulgence in veggies is a poor allocation of scarce resources.

Bob Boyd said...

Most people, especially Americans, should be eatin' bugs, for their own good and for the planet. Plus, it will boost our economy too because our amazing innovators will come up with many ways to package and serve bug.
If you have you a good enough sheepskin, you can go to Whole Foods and get broccoli and some raisin bran with no sugar and some well-brewed IPA's and things...but no meat.

Bob Boyd said...

Think of how many people could have good tech jobs repairing and maintaining the machines that haven't even been invented yet that will help us convert to a bug-eater economy. For example, some smart man or woman or something will come up with a machine to pull all the legs off. There's not much meat on a bug's legs anyway and people don't like to feel those legs in their mouths usually. They're kinda like...scratchy.

Karen of Texas said...

Can someone factor in the cost in terms of the medical fallout? I can't eat many of those staples without my body breaking - badly. Many of those staples negatively impact those with various illnesses. But that's okay, right? Big pharma has a drug for that. Take 2 2x a day. Schedule a blood draw with our lab. We'll call and schedule a follow-up when the labs come back. Thank heavens we have affordable, universal health care - eat more staples!!

markshere2 said...

"maxing out our farmland" ?!? We're not even anywhere close to utilizing all our arable land.

There are millions if not billions of acres of temperate land that are not being farmed.

Karen of Texas said...

Cricket. Fantastic source of protein. Cricket flour - it's a thing. Cricket protein bars - they do exist.

Bob Boyd said...

I'm not sayin' we have to throw all the legs away. I'm sure somebody will come up with a way to mash 'em all up and make something out of 'em that people would eat. It's just a matter of having the right policies.

Bob Boyd said...

Crickets stink. Did you ever notice that? I mean you can't smell just one cricket, but if you've ever been in someone's house whose raising crickets? Pew!
Cows don't smell that great either though so...

traditionalguy said...

And then God created the Salinas Valley. Vegetable win hands down.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

GMOs. Let's up the nutritional value of the inexpensive-to-grow staples.

Karen of Texas said...

@BobBoyd - yes, I know they stink. Periodically we get overrun with mass quantities, generally in the August timeframe. They congregate at entry ways to businesses, schools, yada... Stepping leads to smashing. Squashed crickets stink to high heaven. Fortunately they've managed to remove the smell factor from the baked goods. ;)

campy said...

Soylent Green is the food of the future.

Basil said...

Of course those who work efficiently and effectively should obtain more rewards. How could there be justice without consequences for bad behavior? Virtually all third world poverty is due to political or cultural stagnation. How about we get the whole world to follow the Anglo American model of economics and political organization? Then watch poverty disappear and vegetables flourish.

MadisonMan said...

Eat the vegetables that you grow yourself -- so transport costs are minimal. Bonus: They're more likely to have retained their nutrients.

Drawback: rodents will eat stuff first. And if you live in Madison, you can't shoot squirrels or rabbits.

MadisonMan said...

Cricket flour - it's a thing.

Cricket pieces in flour is also a thing.

John said...

So is his recommendation that we eat more oysters?

Won't that lead to a population explosion?

(Old joke: I ate 12 oysters on my honeymoon night and only 9 of them worked)

John Henry

Bob Boyd said...

"Of course those who work efficiently and effectively should obtain more rewards."

When I said you'd get raisin bran, I meant "raisin" bran.

h said...

Thanks for the insightful comments of Bart Hall at 5:53 a.m.

There is a worldwide conundrum of feeding the billion or so who have inadequate calories, while discouraging food intake by the billion or so who have health problems associated with overconsumption of food.

In my opinion the former problem is more serious because it is involuntary -- underconsuming calories because they are too poor. It does seem to really bother a number of highly published experts (Michael Pollan, for example) that so many people over eat because they like the taste of foods that are bad for their health. But I'm not sure what the solution is: I don't think these people are "misinformed" or "uninformed" ("if only they knew what eating that cake was doing to their health they would immediately stop" -- I doubt it); I am positive that stamping one's feet will not change behavior (though it presumably makes the food stampers feel better about themselves; I really have serious doubts if could tax "bad food" at rates high enough (and subsidize "good food" at rates high enough) to make much difference in people's eating habits.

Quaestor said...

Vegans are Nazis. I'll say it again, louder this time: VEGANS ARE NAZIS!

Yesterday in London there was a cheese festival where producers and sellers of such wondrous things as Stilton and Cheshire gave free samples to the attendees. Unfortunately for the cheese lovers a bunch of Nazis showed up, fucking up the fest quite nastily. Many who came didn't even see a cheese, let alone enjoy a free nibble.

Damn them all to Hell. Anyone with vegan tendencies should be put into a re-education camp run by retired Marine Corps dill instructors. (Eat yer goddamned hamburgers, maggots! Or I'm going to shove sausages down yer throats and jam starving dogs up yer assholes!) Recidivist vegans should be condemned to eat nothing but broccoli. That should be amusing.

Bob Boyd said...

Did you hear about the vegan that argued with his dill instructor?
He got himself into a pickle.

Peter said...

BUT once you go down the path of "vegetables cost too much (because it takes too many resources to produce them)" how can you avoid the "and don't eat meat" corollary?

Growing something to feed an animal so one can eat the animal is inherently inefficient (more or less, depending on the animal and whether it can and does eat stuff we can't, such as grass). But until veggie-burgers really taste like hamburgers or meat becomes prohibitively expensive, few Americans are going to give up their hamburgers.

tcrosse said...

Somehow, Virtue has migrated from sexual behaviour to diet. There is very little one could do with a consenting adult which would be beyond the pale. But Moral Perfectionism has invaded the world of food.

mockturtle said...

I think that the early Colonists lived largely on corn meal for the first few years on the continent. While not the most nutritious diet, enough of them survived to breed and prosper.

mikee said...

Soylent green is the only real answer. Dahmer was just an early adapter.

traditionalguy said...

The new Secretary of Interior is from Eastern
Washington. It is agriculture heaven. Wheat fruits and sweet peas enough to feed most of the world, and hard work is standard for everyone...labor unions are despised except in big name canneries"

The soils are black 8 feet down..

Seeing Red said...

Actually, the world is getting enough calories.

If people are starving now, it's mostly a distribution problem.

Feed Our Starving Children is a great charity. The founder, in conjunction with ADM, came up with a 2800 calorie food packet, all u add us water. It's bland, but you get more than enough calories in that 1 meal each day. Powdered broth, rice veggies.

Even their promo material sez the world's basic food needs are met.

I even read an article about that within the past couple of years, but it doesn't fit the narrative and NFPs needs jobs and fundraising and a reason to exist.

mikee said...

Soylent green is the only real answer. Dahmer was just an early adapter.

Seeing Red said...

They have a map of the world on their wall, where they do business.

What shocked me was Western Europe.

I even asked about it, and the volunteer - huh?

Michael said...

The important thing to remember, and a good conservative principle, is that circumstances alter cases. The currently fashionable veggie diet (or one that's meat-intensive) is a luxury good, which is perfectly fine for those who like it and can afford it. The difficulties arise when they attempt to use the power of the state or social sanction to impose their preferences on those whose tastes and circumstances may be quite different. The goal, as in most things, should be to make choices available to people and not to impose our choices upon them.

readering said...

It's not a real problem. No amount of education is going to get people to eat green vegetables in the quantities being advocated by FDA etc. If people could respond to education that overwhelmingly we would solve all the world's problems in a month. Meanwhile, everyone eat your veggies.

mockturtle said...

And we have organizations like Greenpiss, etc., trying to dictate to the whole world what they can or cannot do with their resources.

Yancey Ward said...

You should eat whatever you want to eat and can afford to eat.

tcrosse said...

"Somehow, Virtue has migrated from sexual behaviour to diet. There is very little one could do with a consenting adult which would be beyond the pale. But Moral Perfectionism has invaded the world of food."

Well, this is nothing new. Controlling the most intimate acts of survival is a tool of oppressors since the rise of the species.

n.n said...

Vegetables, huh. Vegetarians. Livestock. That's a different take on the clean, green blight.

Gahrie said...

If people are starving now, it's mostly a distribution problem

The world's population is at an all time high, and yet worldwide poverty and hunger are at all time lows............

Rusty said...

I'm supposed to take the word of a guy who basically grows phlegm in a shell?
Nope.
What's the subsidy for oyster farming?

Martin said...

The marvelous thing about a free market economy, if we still had one, would be that all this would be reflected in the price of, say corn vs. broccoli, and if broccoli cost, say 5X as much as corn, the quantities consumed (and hence, grown) would adjust to reflect real economic value to the purchasers.

The idea of "too expensive" is nonsensical--if people are willing to pay for it (and there are no major externalities not reflected in the price), it is by definition NOT "too expensive" at the market-clearing price and quantity. The major such externality is probably the uneconomically low price of water in California, which should be addressed for several reasons.

IF we had a free market economy where prices and quantities responded to market forces rather than government edicts. Which, of course, we do not have.

JamesB.BKK said...

Cows and hogs are walking food growth and storage systems. What's the million calories per acre of feeding these creatures $700/per acre corn to produce delicious protein? Feed them the corn instead of using it to make us (more) insulin resistant and fat.

Ryan McLaughlin said...

Let them eat cake, right?