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The Problems With Abundance

As some of you know, I recently started a twice-monthly column for The Washington Post's Food section on the politics and policy of food. Today's outing focuses on the problems -- and the current, crude, solutions -- to abundance:

Archaeologists say the modern human originated in East Africa about 200,000 years ago. For the next 199,950 years or so, this intrepid organism spent most of its time trying to avert the devastating consequences of insufficient food and drink. Various strategies were developed and employed. Evolution. Civilization. War. Agriculture. The exchange of round bits of metal and rectangular pieces of paper. Drive-through windows.

Over the past 50 years, however, some privileged humans have been faced with a largely novel problem: the consequences of too much food and drink. For a while, the primary impact seemed to be extra lumps of flesh, which had their downsides so far as mating went but, overall, weren't too bad. But in recent years, the problem has become much worse. In particular, the modern, privileged human has developed such chronic ailments as diabetes and heart disease. Unlike acute starvation, these diseases kill slowly, painfully and, above all, expensively.

The rest of the piece focuses on food taxes and calorie labeling, which seem to be the solutions du jour but are probably still insufficient to the scale of the problem. Give it a read.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 15, 2009; 11:50 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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Comments

The New York program is certainly interesting and I look forward to the day when mere information disclosure about what people are selling us to eat is so mainstay that even the most strident libertarian doesn't bat an eyelash.

But, I'm very interested in the price distortions in agriculture and it's effect on diet. Not just quantity, but quality. Most of the caloric intake that could be called 'excessive' is usually derived from nutrient-low types of food, yes? So this begs the question, would a change in food quality produce much of a gain in this area as well? What is the effect of price subsidy on the quality profile of our food? Would the elimination of price subsidy do enough to improve our lot, or do we need to swing in the other direction and design a subsidy scheme toward a health-oriented end rather than an industry-oriented end?

Posted by: MrLynne | July 15, 2009 12:57 PM | Report abuse

"For the next 199,950 years or so, this intrepid organism spent most of its time trying to avert the devastating consequences of insufficient food and drink."

What nonsense. Do we really have a lot of evidence that hunter-gatherer and nomadic (not at all the same thing) societies greatly suffered from dietary privation through most of human pre-history? The idea that civilization/agriculture in the forms of cities and cultivated fields was a material advance for the typical human is more a product of a naive combination of the broader Enlightenment concept of big-P Progress and its more specialized offshoot of Marxism.

Stalin decided on perfectly scientific grounds that the solution to the 'backwardness' of central asian nomadism was just to settle everyone into 'advanced' agriculture. Result? Starvation as people were transitioned from sustainable economies to ones that given the environmental conditions were not.

I took a very eye-opening course thirty years back that focused on nomadism. It turns out that nomads and other live-stock based economies occupy the comfortable center when it comes to either consumption or labor while crop-based agricultural societies were more stratified between poor laborers and rich land owners.

In fact I once read a not entirely tongue in cheek study that suggested that settled agriculture and so civilization as normally defined originated around the need to protect the slow growing crops used to produce beer and wine. In terms of pure quality/quantity of food consumption it may well have been a step backwards.

Seriously I am currently rereading E.P. Thompson's 'Making of the English Working Class' and it is astonishing how much of our current intellectual framework around the issues of pre-historic humans scrabbling for subsistence derives from the early nineteenth century need to justify then current abject poverty and starvation among the newly industrialized proletariat by 'explanations' that it used to be worse and that the farther back in time you went the worse it was. Well maybe, but that is something to be shown and not just assumed because it was in an argument convenient to Manchester School Economists and/or Karl Marx in 1848.

Posted by: BruceWebb | July 15, 2009 1:09 PM | Report abuse

"The rest of the piece focuses on food taxes and calorie labeling, which seem to be the solutions du jour but are probably still insufficient to the scale of the problem."

In his authoritarian little heart of hearts, Ezra wants to ration food. You know that's where this is all leading.

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 15, 2009 1:21 PM | Report abuse

I like how these opening paragraphs echo the opening of The Hitchhiker's Guide, except with a serious tone - nicely done.

Me, I say if evolution created this problem, then evolution can bloody well fix it, too: http://judson.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/14/coping-with-excess/.

Posted by: polakl | July 15, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

"If trends continue, health-care costs will chew up 100 percent of the gross domestic product by the end of the century."

http://xkcd.com/605/

Posted by: tito1 | July 15, 2009 4:49 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 
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