Market forces have readily met the demand for cheap food through the efficiency of production and ultra-processed products that are easy to transport, prepare and eat. Sounds like a success story until we dig a bit deeper.
It turns out that I like pickled onions.
They go into almost every lunchtime salad. Only not any pickled onion; it has to be the sweet pepper variety sold in Coles supermarket.
I have scoured and tested the bewildering choice of tangy delights to find my preference. In the case of the sugary but acidic onions, through much trial and error.
So while they are still on the shelves, sometimes they are sold out, I go with my favourite.
People want to eat
People eat a lot, given the opportunity.
The most recent WHO estimate from 2016 is that 1.9 billion adults over 18 were overweight, which is 39% of the global population. In the last 40 years, obesity rates have tripled to 13% of the adult population.
Worse still, in 2019, an estimated 38.2 million children under 5 years were overweight or obese.
People want to eat what tastes good. Typically that involves sugar, salt and fat with a grain carrier; preference for such dense calorific intake is programmed in from our evolutionary past.
We cannot easily override our DNA and the psychologies coded in it. Food manufacturers, supermarkets and fast-food chains have cottoned on to deliver on our wants. They know we want the sugary burger, soft drink and salty fries still hugging the fat that cooked them.
Of course, there are powerful influences on people’s choices. That pesky evolution also gave us a brain susceptible to persuasion when we see a reward for a choice.
‘Would you like to upsize that?’ has to be the easiest sell ever invented.
The demand side of food, at least in mature economies, appears driven by what people want, and for several reasons, not all of them conscious, they want to eat a lot.
It is tempting to view this as the market responding to the need.
People like sweet, salty and fatty food, so supply foods with those tastes at a competitive price, and the market does what it does best, it solves a resource distribution challenge. It meets a demand.
Intensive agriculture allows market players to meet demand with cheap food—grains, sugar, seed oils—that can be processed and ultra-processed into a bewildering array of products people like. This is not a coincidence.
Over human history, around 7,000 plant species have been cultivated for food but modern agricultural practices have whittled this down to roughly 170 crops grown on a commercially significant scale. Just three crops, rice, wheat and maize, supply more than 40% of our daily calories.
Remember that the market is efficient.
It harnesses competition to find the fastest, most efficient ways to get sales that return a profit. For cheap food, the most efficient is to apply economies of scale from size and simplicity at the production end combined with processing a small number of core ingredients into great complexity at the consumer end.
A supply chain is created that is super efficient at meeting the demand for food that people like.
The market met the need with supply…
And the rates of obesity climbed.
People have to eat and, when given a choice, eat what we like. Only too much of what we like upsets our physiological balance, so meeting demand with empty calories meets the market requirements but not the human health need.
The market has a much simpler task than maintaining a healthy human body. It generates cheap food that people can afford to buy as efficiently as possible to make a profit along the supply chain.
Markets see demand as an opportunity for sales.
Aided and abetted by a massive energy subsidy from fossil fuel use, many players enter the market and rush to the bottom to find the cheapest foods most likely to sell. Grow what people like and make it easy for them to consume what they like. Everywhere this becomes a combination of grains, sugar, meat and eggs with small amounts of fruit and vegetables that becomes bread, cake, pies and any meat that goes with rice or sadza.
As competition at the bottom increases, value is added by maximising the efficiency of supply—a uniform crop grown at the biggest possible scale—and by processing the crop into ever more fanciful delights that are easy to differentiate in the marketing buzz.
Production is simplified to increase efficiency, and complexity is added in processing to compete for customers.
The irony is that those grain crops—rice, wheat and maize—that supply nearly half the calories eaten are on supermarket shelves in a staggering variety of forms.
None of this has anything to do with what people should eat, but it satisfies what they want to eat so efficiently that the 1950s human population has quadrupled.
Simplistic demand was met and resulted in more demand.
Consequences of cheap food
This simplification of ingredients across diverse products is going on all over the world. The cheap industrially produced grains can be processed and transported everywhere. Wherever they arrive, the people eat them.
The highlands of Papua New Guinea have young fertile soils and a cool tropical climate with regular rains that are just perfect for root vegetables. Locals eat sago, sweet potato (kaukau), taro, taro leaf, cassava, breadfruit, and edible leafy greens. The national dish is Mumu composed of pork, sweet potato, rice, and vegetables.
I took this picture some years ago on the way out of Mount Hagen airport. It is a supply run for a remote village in the highlands of PNG.
Apart from tins of meat and vegetables plus the ubiquitous cans of Coca-Cola, most of this shipment is rice and wheat in the form of dried noodles.
Even in remote villages two days’ walk from their neighbours, with no road access and centuries-old subsistence food production from the forest and gardens around the village, it is cost-effective to fly in a carbohydrate subsidy.
Painful as this might be to hear, once that subsidy is started, it must continue because those extra calories produce more people.
What sustainably FED suggests
Market forces have readily met the demand for cheap food through the efficiency of production and products that are easy to transport, prepare and eat.
What we like to eat is available, affordable and abundant. At least for the 2 billion plus people with ready access to funds to buy food.
Not what we need to eat, but what we like. And for many people, restraint is hard when cheap food is tasty and cheap.
Market forces have also made food available to the middle 4 billion people who are not flush but have some disposable income. These people spend around half their earnings on food, but for the most part, the supply chains work to make purchases possible. Some can grow their vegetables, fruits and livestock, but cheap grains and sugar are an easy default when the money is tight.
In short, markets fail to feed everyone well even as they claim great success.
And I need to avoid the sneaky sugar in the pickled onions.
Hero image from photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels