This edition is arriving slightly late, because it contains a link to an embargoed scientific paper and I respect embargoes. Other than that, I plan to issue Eat This Newsletter weekly until the podcasts resume, but you know what they say about plans.
Dr. Katherine M. Flegal has written “a personal account” of the abuse she and her co-authors suffered at the hands of public academics for having the temerity to publish results that did not fit their pre-conceived notions of what is “correct”. Those results were that obesity is associated with less than 5% of excess deaths relative to normal weight, and that overweight was “slightly but significantly” protective relative to normal weight.
The critics – academics, journalists and pundits – are, I can only hope, chastened, though I doubt it. More researchers should publish this kind of personal account, although it does require an informed readership not to simply say It just goes to show, you can’t trust science.
The paper is open access. Read it and weep
Last issue, I was less than enthusiastic about Aaron Smith’s calculation that an eight-ounce steak was equivalent to driving 21 miles, or about $1.84 in greenhouse gas externalities per kilogram. This week brings another economist and another set of calculations.
Jason Lusk crunches the numbers on meat consumption in the US:
In the 1970s, the average American ate 14.5 chickens/year, a figure that increased to 22.3 chickens by the 2010s. In the 1970s, the average American ate 0.19 cows/year, a figure that fell to only 0.1 cows/year in the 2010s. Stated differently, it took about 5.3 years for the average American to eat one whole cow in the 1970s; at today’s consumption levels, it takes nearly a decade before the average American eats a whole cow.
He goes on to examine the likely impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and after making various adjustments (for the size of the population and the weight of cattle at slaughter) concludes that
[W]e are, in aggregate, emitting 44.7 million metric tons (MMT) more CO2 from extra chickens but 67.1 less MMT CO2 from fewer cattle. Thus, on net, we are emitting 22.4 MMT fewer CO2 equivalent gasses from our aggregate beef and chicken consumption today than in the 1970s. Thus, it still appears a net carbon “win” even adjusting for population change.
Those numbers need to be considered against the total emissions of all US agriculture of 628 MMT CO2 equivalent in 2019. Nevertheless, I find it hard to disagree with Jason Lusk’s conclusion. “All in all, it seems meat consumption patterns have become much more carbon friendly since the 1970s - that’s not a headline one often sees”.
True. But what about the porkies?
Confession: I have not read The Economics of Sustainable Food: Smart Policies for Health and the Planet, edited by Nicoletta Batini, an economist currently at the International Monetary Fund. But I have read this review, which points out that “the agriculture-food system is the largest industry in the world” and yet food systems have been “largely overlooked” by macroeconomic policy.
The review makes it sound like the kind of book that food policy people ought to read. While they’re about it, they might want to ponder further on free trade and food policy. For example …
“Almost half of the food consumed in the UK — including more than three quarters of fruits and vegetables — is imported.” Trade agreements, then, can make a large difference to the availability and affordability of different foods in the UK diet. That’s the basis for a modelling exercise that concludes that while trade agreements could improve access to healthy and diverse foods, they could equally result in large increases in imports and local production of calorie-rich, nutrient-poor processed foods, with implications for health and disease.
According to the study, “Free-trade deals with the US and Commonwealth countries could triple the negative health impacts of Brexit through greater availability of high-energy foods, leading to increased weight-related risks”. At the same time, “Increased costs for health-promoting and import-dependent foods — such as fruits and vegetables — as a result of Brexit could lead to their reduced consumption and consequently, increased diet-related mortality”.
Of course there is a solution:
These findings provide an important opportunity for the UK to develop nutrition-sensitive trade policy and subsidy reforms to improve dietary health, at a crucial time when trade talks are ongoing.
That paper does not consider the UK-Australia trade deal; how could it, when the details were so sketchy for so long? My old mucker Colin Tudge, however, knows exactly what the trade deal means.
[T]he new deal symbolizes all that has gone wrong with the modern world: the loss of a sense of values, apart from the titular value of money; the loss of any sense of the sacred – a sense that derives from religion but is shared by the non-religious; a sense of what really matters, and of how we judge what matters.
Really, the deal gives Colin a good reason to revisit his vision of an enlightened agriculture and how we got into the terrible state we’re in. As you know, for me the deal symbolises a return to Victorian Values™.
Much as it pains me to admit it, Twitter is often a source of fascinating stories. What I dislike about Twitter threads, though, is that they are hard to read, as stories, and their survival is subject to the whims of both Twitter and the people who contribute to them. So it is always nice to be able to link not to a Twitter thread but to the author’s own website. And so it is with an article on the origin of saffron by Old European Culture, tweeted on 1 January 2021 and shared more widely only six months later.
I like these kinds of conjectures, pulling together threads from far and wide to weave something more substantial. I’m also credulous in fields I don’t myself know well. The kind of bitty presentation that characterises a Twitter thread doesn’t encourage me to careful scrutiny, even when repurposed (i.e. copied) into a blog post. So I skipped gaily through the post thinking, yes, that makes sense, and carping gently to myself only about the misuse of plant binomials.
Take care and stay safe.
p.s. My photo is from Pompei & Santorini: Eternity in a Day, an exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in 2019. It shows saffron crocus, and is from Pompei not Santorini, but I am happy to be able to make the connection.