Sentences of wisdom

by on April 26, 2007 at 4:31 pm in Food and Drink | Permalink

The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the
cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to
grow.

That is Michael Pollan, here is much more.

subrosa April 26, 2007 at 4:59 pm

Sounds like a good project for an aspiring experimental economist. If fresh fruits and vegetables were priced equally with junk food, would lower income families continue to consume more junk food than families at higher income levels? My guess is yes. Why are lower income people more likely to smoke even though it is an expensive habit?

Bernard Guerrero April 26, 2007 at 5:43 pm

I heard Pollan on Bloomberg last night, though, and he mixed in some pretty dumb sentences along with the wise ones. For instance, he imagines that farmers are especially loath to cut production at times of market disequilibrium as compared to, say, manufacturers. I nearly started shouting “Big Three!” and “you can’t get back opportunity costs!” at the radio.

Also, he was tossing around a lot of “The free market in food has failed” tripe which somewhat contradicts the article.

vm April 26, 2007 at 7:28 pm

Sigivald–

You seem to suggest that if a person can afford something that they desire they will automatically purchase it. But this is simply not true–it goes back to the whole problem of unlimited wants and limited resources. My own (food) example:

Strictly speaking, I can afford to increase the intake of fish in my diet (and as both a lover of fish and as someone very aware that fish is among the most healthful foods we can consume, I would do just that in an ideal world). But fish is more expensive than my fish-substitutes: beef, chicken, pork. Consequently, either my savings would go down or I would have to reduce my spending somewhere else. But I don’t want to change my spending/saving habits–I would like to think that given my current budget I am maximizing my utility exactly as things stand.

Even if a poor family can both afford and desires healthier food, that does not mean they automatically purchase that healthier food. For that family, the discretionary income that could be used for healthier food might bring greater utility if spent any number of areas: transportation, savings, housing, clothing, or any of the infinite goods available for purchase in the American marketplace.

The point the author was making was the the choice between paying for healthy food or paying for [good x] is distorted by America’s amazingly screwy farm policy.

Brian April 26, 2007 at 9:03 pm

I respect Michael Pollen and his food sensibilities. But he knows little about farm policy, is no economist, and is clueless about the food purchase decisions of the poor.

Until 1995, US farm policy was as much designed to control supply as it was to subsidize farm income. Farmers were paid to idle as much land as Washington deemed necessary to balance supply. The 1995 legislation changed this, and also de-coupled payments from production, meaning that a corn farmer could raise asparagus and still receive his corn subsidy. Today there are still some payments that are tied to production, but for a large part, Pollen is precisely backward in his thesis on farm programs. Also, it is highly unlikely that ending farm programs would raise world commodity prices. If subsidies end, the cost of inputs, especially land, would fall and production would continue at a lower cost(price).

Industrial agriculture in the US has been a boon to the environment, reducing the overall environmental footprint of food production. E.g., since 1960 we have doubled the production of milk while halving the number of dairy cows.

Clearly one of the reasons people are fat is because food is so incredibly cheap. But you can be healthy and cheap if you are savvy. Bulk rice and beans are still the cheapest thing going. Unfortunately, they just don’t satisfy like a coke and a twinkie (or the $ menu at Mickie D’s.)

Jake April 26, 2007 at 10:29 pm

Mollan wrote: “Enlightened eaters also recognize their dependence on farmers, which is why they would support a bill that guarantees the people who raise our food not subsidies but fair prices. Why? Because they prefer to live in a country that can still produce its own food and doesn’t hurt the world’s farmers by dumping its surplus crops on their markets.”

Not subsidies but fair prices? Are price supports not considered subsidies?

I don’t think he even mentioned the high price of sugar (due to protection) and the low price of corn (due to subsidization … excuse me, “fair prices”) which result in increased consumption of corn syrup versus much healthier sugar cane.

This article could have been much better.

eddie April 26, 2007 at 11:59 pm

How is that sentence wise? How is it any less a tautology than the sentence “The reason red shoes are the cheapest is that those are the ones being subsidized”? The sentence seems to imply something profound about the health qualities of food and government policies, but it really doesn’t say anything at all.

It certainly doesn’t establish that the foods being subsidized really are unhealthy. It doesn’t even suggest, let alone demonstrate, that there’s some reason the supposedly unhealthy foods are the ones that have been chosen for subsidies.

Nancy Lebovitz April 27, 2007 at 12:57 am

Mark Seecof, it’s possible to have healthy food (especially the veggies) without doing the prep work or paying restaurant prices by getting it at a salad bar.

I suspect that part of the perceived cost of healthy food isn’t the money–it’s that it takes longer to feed yourself if you’re eating high fiber food. This makes a difference for people with extremely tight schedules, and it might make a difference to people who are used to getting their calories at a high rate.

Slocum April 27, 2007 at 7:25 am

So: why does a Twinkie cost less per calorie than a carrot? Because carrots are naturally very poor sources of calories

Yes — what a lame, dishonest move to compare twinkies and carrots.

With or without subsidies (which, yes are a scourge), calories from grain are going to be the cheapest (and much cheaper, BTW, in 50lb bags of flour than in twinkies).

If you want a more reasonable comparison (which Pollan obviously does not) compare the cost of a 150 calorie twinkie with a 150 calorie banana. In most supermarkets the banana is probably as cheap or cheaper than the twinkie.

Mark Seecof April 27, 2007 at 1:00 pm

The most precious thing in a supermarket is shelf (or floor) space (can you say “slotting fees?”). The second most precious thing is labor. Wholesale cost of goods comes in way behind. Fresh vegetables are mostly water. They perish easily. They harbor and attract insects. They are very heavy and bulky and require a lot of labor to stock, rotate, sell (must be weighed), and carry out but contain few calories. Of course their price-per-calorie is high.

Henry April 27, 2007 at 3:30 pm

Pollan is right that the farm bill has disasterous unplanned consequences, but he cannot see clear of his a priori assumption that the fair market is worse. Thus:

“This perverse state of affairs is not, as you might think, the inevitable result of the free market.”

Amazing. Who is the “you” who would think that?

At the end of the article appears the passage that Jake extracted above. It’s the looking-glass version of Juliet on the balcony:

What’s in a name? that which we call a subsidy
By some other name would smell just fine;

In arguing for a fairer, better “food bill” Pollan happily ignores history: the fact that the current farm bill is founded on arguments just as noble and fair-minded as his own.

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