19 May 2008

Standard Food

What is "traditional" food?

In developing countries, it's the food that people have grown for hundreds or thousands of years. "Modern" food is industrial, monocropped, standardized. In developed countries, traditional food is industrial, monocropped, standardized. "Modern" food is local, organic, etc.

Industrial, monocropped, standardized food requires more water, chemical fertilizers (oil), pesticides, GMO seeds, machines (more oil), etc. Although this type of food has higher yields (on average), it comes with more risk of disaster and an unsustainable dependency on mined inputs. Even worse, it's not biodiverse, seasonal, etc.; cheap and cheerful is not necessarily healthy.

Standardized food allows businesses to simplify their operations, accounting, etc. Standardization allows analysts to project inputs, outputs, market trades and technology budgets with more precision than an operation that uses unique plant genomes that sell under irregular contracts (e.g., farmers markets), are impossible to trade on commodity markets, need to be explained to wholesale/retail buyers, etc. Even worse, they may require more labor or more skilled labor -- something agribusiness avoids like the plague.

Michael Pollan makes the point that we only spend about ten percent of our income on food. Although cheap food certainly leaves more money for big screen TVs (and gas!), it is not necessarily the bargain that we think it is. Consider how sensitive we are to the quality of the car, school, hairstylist, hotel, etc. Why is it that most people look at food as a commodity to be purchased as cheaply as possible? Because they have learned to see food in the same way that industrial agriculture sees it: standardized, maximized, homogenized and sanitized. That view is myopic and tragic: Food is more important than car model, but we give it less attention. If anything, we should pay more attention to what we eat, where it comes from (US, Mexico, China -- that is not an issue for me, but "local" matters to some people), and how it compares to other varieties of the "same" food. Is milk just milk?

Bottom Line: It is useful to apply some conceptual frameworks to other parts of our life, but food is not the place to apply "quantity over quality." Standard may be cheap, but it may also be the lower common denominator. Is that what you want to eat?

Have you changed the way you eat (or drink!) based on quality? Please comment on what have you done/not done, why, and whether it made any difference in your life.


  1. Well said David. Have you seen Mark Bittman's presenation on TED?

  2. Great presentation. Watch Mark Bittman on "What's wrong with what we eat" here.

  3. I'm not the best to comment since I don't cook often, so I typically only buy end-of-the-line food products like meals at restaurants, etc. Such products are clearly highly differentiated. But anyway....

    I don't think that most people "look at food as a commodity to be purchased as cheaply as possible." The existence of high and low quality restaurants is a counterexample to this claim. If McDonald's was no different from [insert your local gourmet restaurant here], why would there be a price differential?

    If you make your statement more specific and say “most people look at ‘basic foods’ as commodities to be purchased as cheaply as possible” then it would be more correct. Here I am thinking of basic foods as those which are harvested from farms like rice, potatoes, etc. Maybe this is the kind of food you were thinking of in the first place, but I wasn’t sure since your post seems to suggest that people (relatively) don’t care about quality of the foods they eat, which is a different statement.

    Anyway, so considering consumers who purchase rice, potatoes, etc. I think a non-empty subset of consumers care and a non-empty subset of consumers don’t. The subset who don’t care is probably larger than the subset who do.

    There are some people who can tell the difference between produce from different regions and such. It’s almost like having an exquisite taste for wine. Some consumers (me) barely know the difference between a regular potato and a sweet potato. The same goes for somewhat processed foods like milk. The movie Napoleon Dynamite actually has a joke about people who can tell the difference between many, many kinds of milk.

    Ultimately, I don’t see this as a problem. Every consumer has to choose what products they really want to learn about and what products they don’t want to learn about. I don’t cook, I eat out a lot, and so I don’t know anything about produce, and I live each day in happy ignorance. I do care about the quality of the final foodstuffs I purchase, but that’s a slightly different issue (i.e. I don’t really care about the kind of potato used in the baked potato soup, but I care about the preparation).


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