Was I happy that Russia and Ukraine appeared last week to have agreed a deal to allow some grain exports to leave the Black Sea ports? Of course I was. Was I surprised that Russia bombed Odessa less than 24 hours later? Not really. Recent bleats that “Russia has weaponized food” ignore the fact that food has always been a weapon, in peace and in war. I’m still hopeful that grain shipments from Ukraine will resume soon, but I’m also not impressed by meetings between Russia and Egypt (and other African countries).
We shall see.
Hustling to get the Oceans of Grain episodes out the door while actually out of Italy myself took its toll, hence the lack of Eat This Newsletter for the past few weeks. The material, however, kept accumulating. Here is part of the stock, briefer than usual.
We all know how fiercely independent and patriotic farmers in the US are, scourges of socialism and enemies of big government.
This year, farmers (on net) will derive almost 40 percent of their income directly from the U.S. government. Forty percent.
That’s from Marion Nestle’s look at some reports on agricultural support policies in the US, Do farm subsidies help alleviate poverty?. As always, the headline question answers itself, in the negative. Government help to buy food, rather than to grow it, does increase food security and reduce poverty.
In light of cost increases, maybe it would make sense to redirect more of the $20 billion in agricultural support each year to provide people with better nutrition at affordable prices.
A long read in The Guardian promises to explain how South Africa’s black farmers were set up to fail. It makes a convincing and dismal case that I read with increasing gloom. As Eve Fairbanks concludes:
The apartheid government was almost bankrupt when it handed over the reins to black people. It was partly a relief for the last white leaders of South Africa to pass the buck. Instead of giving up a prize, you could say De Klerk managed to sell a used car on the verge of a breakdown to a family that only realised, when they got in to drive it, that it was a piece of crap. But the family had no other options, so it became necessary for them to convince themselves they’d got something of great value.
I have no desire to undermine the tragedy of what is happening to agriculture in South Africa, but I do want to point out that, for agriculture at least, it could have been different. Instead of attempting to fill the intensive, productivity-biassed shoes of big white farmers on big white farms, the country could have re-invented its entire agricultural policy. It could have promoted smaller-scale efforts to grow nutritious crops that would have improved health, connecting them to markets that would also grow local economies. In 2021/22 the country will need to import about 44% of the wheat it needs, which I hope it manages to do, although it is almost self-sufficient in maize. Sure, there might eventually be a need for an Emperor of Chicken, but if even a white farmer cannot make a go of it, as Fairbanks relates, maybe that shouldn’t be the goal. Yet.
The latest in-depth piece on plants and human culture from Dumbarton Oaks and JSTOR Daily dives into craft beer and its essential ingredient: hops. It is by no means a pretty story, featuring all the usual suspects — racism, misogyny, profiteering — and though the article goes beyond merely recounting the horror stories to indicate recent attempts to redress the balance, problems aplenty remain. I’m not going to link to the various round-ups of misogynistic labels, although I will note that I was kind of horrified to be served a Raging Bitch IPA a week or two back. Big-time breweries are still disguising the true origins of some of their offerings and continue to swallow smaller fry. Racism I know far less about (unsurprisingly) but I believe those who say that beer has a whiteness problem.
If you would like to listen to some earlier podcasts on the subject, I can offer Hoptopia with historian Peter Kopp and Who owns whom in the food industry with Philip Howard, who tracks concentration in food and drink.
Surely there are important things I missed; let me know.