Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Age of the Food Economy.

Google "Food Riots" and get to see the stories coming in from Egypt, Morocco, Senegal, Cameroon, Thailand, the Philippines, Burkina Faso, Haiti, and many other countries as people scramble to find food for their families. Commodity prices have risen 25-50% around the world. Each year more grain crops have been diverted into ethanol production and the practice has finally hit the tipping point: people are starving and food is being sold to the highest bidder. The highest bidder, of course, is the fuel production industry where a pound of corn can be converted to fuel with a 50% profit margin.

In the past 10 years we have all been exposed to the vegetarian idea that it takes 8 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. Here is a new and more disturbing idea: it takes 450 pounds of corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol. If eating meat for a day means that 7 other people go hungry that day, then using 1 gallon of ethanol means that 449 people will go hungry that day for EVERY GALLON OF FUEL USED. Use 3 gallons....1347 people go hungry....Fill up an SUV tank....near 9000 people go to bed with an empty stomach. Even if you only fill up with 10% Ethanol Blend (10EB), you directly contribute to 900 people going hungry.

American know we need to move away from petroleum products and we have invested billions of dollars trying to do that, but ethanol is like many other "Green" ideas I have seen recently....FAKE GREEN. I seen the beginning of this movement and made a very accurate prediction more than 20 years ago, "People will starve to keep American cars on the road." When I first predicted that many of my Peak Oil friends laughed it off. 20 years ago no one thought that it would ever be worth turning corn into was just too expensive to even think about. Yet, here we are....the fuel industry is actually willing to pay MORE for corn than the food industry can afford.

Ethanol, and most the the rest of the "Green" movement is powered by the same motivation that lead to Love Canal, Hanford, strip-mining and deforestation...GREED. BP isn't getting on the Ethanol band-wagon because they want to "do the right thing." BP is making money. Toyota isn't producing hybrid cars because it wants to save the Earth, they are doing it to make money.

And these companies are making money like crazy....billions of dollars in profits, driven by GREED with little thought to their impact to future generations. It doesn't matter what 3rd world population suffers starvation, or mercury poisoning, or birth defects as long as the stock-holders get a good return on their investment.

The problems with this wild GREED are just starting to come to light: people in poor nations are starving. American farmers have turned away from traditional crops to grow for higher profits. The USA now imports 50% of our food crops from other countries and that number is expected to rise to 90% by 2012. That prediction may not work out though if the people growing all those fresh fruits and veggies for us can't afford wheat, corn or rice for themselves. The lag time between grain shortages in Mexico, Chile, and China will be 1 to 2 years at the most, then we will see fresh produce skyrocket at the supermarket. 50% increase in the price of corn will be a small thing compared to 200-300% increases in the price of fresh foods we depend on in the US.

When reading the news of food shortages and price increases in other countries, keep in mind that those increases directly affect the wholesale cost of growing food to send back to us and by the time our food finally gets to the market the cost is going to be astronomical.

I am thinking of growing a little more in my garden this year and much more next year. I don't know when fresh foods are going to become un-affordable but I can guarantee that it is just a matter of time.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dieting on a Budget

It has been noted that many poor people are also obese. There are many reasons for this but the number 1 reason is that healthy food can be a lot more expensive than "regular food." Really this is a matter of perception because some of the healthiest foods are also quite cheap: rice, beans, pasta, root vegetables, corn meal. Frozen vegetables are always available and are very cheap when on sale. Once we leave the store our perceptions kick in and if we are well-to-do we serve up pilaf, steamed root vegetable medley or polenta. If we come from a background of poverty we will probably be serving up red beans and rice, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cornbread or hush puppies. Same ingredients, same cost, different perceptions.

Put your kitchen on a diet: Clean out 1 cupboard and 1 drawer in the fridge. Put the healthy foods in those and use the other less healthy foods sparingly or better yet clean all the junk out of your kitchen and start over. Junk includes liquid and solid fat(cooking spray is ok and extra virgin olive oil is ok if you use if for what it is meant for---not for deep frying!) Sugar is out. Baking Mix is out. Boxed Mac n' Cheese and Rice a Roni is out. Stuffing Mix is out. Baking supplies are out. American cheese, Velveeta, canned cheese are all out. Spam, canned corn beef and vienna sausages are out. Canned ham is out. The average food-stamp recipient has over $100 worth of junk food in their cupboard--use it up and stop buying it!

Learn to eat better: Stop buying greasy, salty, sugary foods and replace them with healthier alternatives. If you are worried about healthier foods costing more then eat less. Make portions smaller so the cost evens out per meal or make 1 meal a day super-super low cost.

5 Healthy Low Cost Meals:
(Remember-these are not meant to be your whole diet. These are ideas to help us eat healthier and still stay on budget.)

Brown Rice for breakfast. Eat all you want as long as it is brown rice with nothing but SweetNLow & a bit of milk. Buy brown rice in large bags to save even more money. 2 cups for breakfast is a huge meal for about 400 calories that costs around 30 cents.

Baked Potatoes: Bake a few potatoes and keep them in the fridge for cheap healthy food. Reheat and top with low fat salad dressing or butter salt(like the kind for popcorn) or slice into 1/8ths and re-bake for tasty Jo-Jos. 2 fist sized potatoes are about 400 calories for 20-30 cents.

Cabbage Soup: This is the mainstay of many fast weight loss diets and is very cheap too. Steam a couple of wedges(1/4 of a whole cabbage) in a broth of chicken bullion or veggie bullion. Tasty and cheap! Add other veggies that you have on hand to make this a more elaborate meal. 1/4 of a cabbage is about 40 cents and 50 calories.

Ramen Quiche: cook 1 package of ramen noodles WITHOUT the salt package. Drain the noodles and pack into a loaf pan (4 inches x 8 inches x 3 inches) Drain 1 can of spinach or other cooked greens-mix in 1 large egg, 1 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of pepper and 1/2 cup of cottage cheese or 1/4 cup of feta cheese or 1/4 cup of cream cheese or 1/2 cup of shredded hard cheese(2 ounces). Pour this mixture over the Ramen and bake at 350 for 30 minutes until browned on top. This feeds 2 people for $1.25 and 400 calories each.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A New Reason to Grow Your Own Veggies

We all know that food growers constantly try to "Improve" their crops but the commercial grower's idea of improvements usually include: more plants per acre, faster growth, bigger produce, more uniformity in the produce and longer storage tolerance. The one thing that NEVER enters the equation is nutritional content. In fact, the quality of nutrition in commercial foods has been steadily declining since the USDA first started keeping nutritional content records in the 1940's. Periodic updates to these records show that produce available in grocery stores may contain only half the vitamins and minerals compared to the produce grown and tested in the 1940's. Even worse, the USDA hasn't required food companies to update the nutritional information on food labeling and most food is still labeled using the oldest nutritional information rather than the more accurate but much lower numbers.

I recently pulled a can of spinach out of my cabinet to compare to the USDA food value tables and found the label showed 50% more Potassium, 30% more protein, and 40% more vitamin A than the current USDA food tables for canned spinach. It would be nice to think that Popeye Spinach took pride in beating the USDA averages but really they are just using very old information to make their product look much better than it probably is.

Interestingly, the USDA also shows 20% more calories than the can label and a higher Carbohydrates From Sugar level. This is also a current trend: nearly all fruits and vegetables in the grocery store have higher sugar contents than their 1940 counterpart. The reason for this is that higher sugar levels in produce make the fruits and vegetables more resistant to cold in the fields and help them store better in cold storage. Lower sugar fruits and vegetables tend to be more susceptible to freezing and has a higher spoilage rate in storage.

From World Watch Jan-Feb 2008 Worldwatch Institute

Farmers today can grow two to three times as much grain, fruit, and vegetables on a plot of land as they could 50 years ago, but the nutritional quality of many crops has declined, according to a new report from The Organic Center, a group based in Boulder, Colorado.

In Still No Free Lunch, report author and Worldwatch Institute food expert Brian Halweil notes that today's food contains 10 to 25 percent less iron, zinc, protein, calcium, vitamin C, and other nutrients than it did historically. Researchers from Washington State University who analyzed 63 spring wheat cultivars grown between 1842 and 2003 found an 11 percent decline in iron content, a 16 percent decline in copper, a 25 percent decline in zinc, and a 50 percent decline in selenium.

"Less nutrient-dense foods, coupled with poor food choices, go a long way toward explaining today's epidemics of obesity and diabetes," says The Organic Center's chief scientist, Charles Benbrook.

Plants cultivated to produce higher yields tend to have less energy for other activities like growing deep roots and generating phytochemicals (health-promoting compounds like antioxidants), the report explains. And conventional farming methods, such as close plant spacing and the application of chemical inputs, can cause crops to absorb fewer nutrients and have unhealthy root systems.

Using organic methods, on the other hand, means plants "develop more robust root systems that more aggressively absorb nutrients from the soil profile, and produce crops with higher concentrations of valuable nutrients and phytochemicals," says Benbrook. Organic food may have up to 20 percent higher nutritional content for some minerals and 30 percent more antioxidants on average than conventional fare, the report concludes.

Update: August 21, 2008 WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Health regulators have approved the use of ionizing radiation for fresh spinach and lettuce, saying the technique already approved for other foods can help control harmful bacteria and other pathogens.(story)