How Food Explains the World

From China’s strategic pork reserve to a future where insects are the new white meat, 10 reasons we really are what we eat.

They say you are what you eat. And that applies to countries and cultures as much as individuals. The food in our mouths defines us in far more fundamental and visceral terms than the gas in our tanks or the lines on a map. So it’s not surprising that the most important questions of global politics often boil down to: What should we eat?

The Strategic Pork Reserve

China is a porcine superpower as well as a human one. The Middle Kingdom boasts more than 446 million pigs — one for every three Chinese people and more than the next 43 countries combined. So when there’s a major disruption in the pork supply it hits the economy hard; the “blue-ear pig” disease that forced Chinese farmers to slaughter millions of pigs in 2008, for example, drove the country’s inflation rate to its highest level in a decade.

To prevent further disruptions, the Chinese government established a strategic pork reserve shortly afterward, keeping icy warehouses around the country stocked with frozen pork that can be released during times of shortage. The government was forced to add to the reserve — taking pigs off the market — in the spring of 2010 when a glut led to prices collapsing.

Cornering the Chocolate Market

Labeled “Chocfinger” and “Willy Wonka” in the media, British investor Anthony Ward has emerged over the last decade as the undisputed king of the global chocolate market. In 2002, Ward purchased more than 150,000 tons of cocoa, or around 5 percent of global production. He did it again in the summer of 2010, buying upwards of 240,000 tons — enough to make about 5 billion chocolate bars — to give him control of about 7 percent of global production. It was the largest delivery of cocoa on the London exchange in at least a decade, and Ward became the go-to source for chocolate manufacturers looking for beans. Other investors cried foul, claiming that Ward was driving up prices on a commodity that had already increased in value by more than 150 percent over the previous two and a half years.

Ward isn’t just a mad chocolate fiend; he has also made a long-term bet that supply problems in West Africa will continue to push prices up. The demand for cocoa has risen about 3 percent annually over the last century and has spiked sharply during this year’s political turmoil in Ivory Coast, which grows about 40 percent of the world’s crop. It also turns out that demand for chocolate is countercyclical: Hershey’s profits jumped 40 percent in 2009 during the global financial crisis.

Bug Bites

The developed world’s ever-increasing appetite for meat is turning into a genuine environmental catastrophe, as the raising of livestock to feed that appetite now generates up to 20 percent of the greenhouse gases driving global warming, according to the United Nations. Many environmentalists advocate vegetarianism — or at least eating less meat — as a solution. But the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is asking consumers to consider another option: eating insects.

An insect-based diet could provide just as much protein as meat (plus key vitamins and minerals) with far fewer emissions, the FAO says. And breeding insects such as locusts, crickets, and mealworms emits one-tenth the amount of methane that raising livestock does, scientists say.

The idea isn’t as far-out as one might think. More than 1,000 insects are already known to be eaten in about 80 percent of the world’s countries, though the idea remains a source of revulsion in the Western world. The FAO  is putting its money where its mouth is, investing in insect-farming projects in Laos, where locusts and crickets are already popular delicacies. A world conference on insect eating is planned for 2013.

Hummus Wars 

A lesser-known and thankfully less destructive front of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the ongoing fight for bragging rights over who can produce the world’s largest batch of hummus. Israel for years had held the world record with a 900-pound bowl of the popular chickpea-based dip. But Lebanon, which claims that Israel has appropriated a traditionally Lebanese dish, struck back with a 4,532-pound hummus plate in 2009. Israel retaliated just two months later when a crack group of Israeli chefs whipped up an 8,993-pound dish. Then, in 2010, Lebanon retook the crown with a 23,042-pound batch. (Apparently no one stopped to consider the Dead Sea-sized slice of pita bread it would take to eat all that dip.)

The fight doesn’t appear likely to end anytime soon. Lebanese hummus producers have threatened to charge Israel with copyright violation, relying on the precedent of a European Court of Justice ruling that gave Greece exclusive rights to make feta cheese. The two sides have also fought bitterly over the world record for the largest vat of tabbouleh.

The Doomsday Pepper Vault

Where should you go for a good meal after the apocalypse? Try Svalbard, a remote island archipelago more than 600 miles north of mainland Norway, where a unique facility has been built inside a mountain to safeguard the world’s future food supply in case of catastrophe.

Officially opened in 2008, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is built 426 feet under the mountain’s surface. The $6.7 million facility will eventually store 4.5 million frozen seed samples from more than 100 countries. Many countries host their own food banks, but the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an international coalition dedicated to food security, decided to build the facility as a backup. The site was chosen for its remote location, low temperatures, and low level of seismic activity.

And if you were worried that your food would be bland in the post-apocalyptic future, fret no more. In 2010, a delegation of U.S. senators delivered a collection of North American chili peppers, including Wenk’s Yellow Hots and San Juan Tsiles, to be preserved for all eternity.

Superfood of the Incas … Stolen by Yuppies

The trendiest new staple at your local Whole Foods is probably quinoa, an Andean grain so high in minerals, protein, and amino acids that the FAO says it can be substituted for mother’s milk. Quinoa was introduced to the North American market three decades ago, but since 2000 it has really taken off, with the price jumping nearly sevenfold. That’s great news for the Bolivian farmers who produce the vast majority of the world’s supply, but it may be bad news for the country’s health. With their country now exporting around 90 percent of its quinoa crop, many Bolivians simply can’t afford it anymore. Domestic quinoa consumption has fallen 34 percent in the last five years, and health officials fear a rise in obesity rates as Bolivians abandon the highly nutritious grain they’ve enjoyed since the time of the Incas and switch to imported staples like rice and white bread. President Evo Morales’s government has even designated quinoa a “strategic” foodstuff and included it in a subsidized food parcel for pregnant women. But more drastic measures may be needed to keep up with the insatiable demand of Western foodies. Let’s hope for Egypt’s sake that the Whole Foods set doesn’t develop a taste for koshary anytime soon.

The Gold (Cabbage) Rush

South Koreans take their national staple, kimchi, very seriously. There’s a museum dedicated to the fermented cabbage dish in Seoul, and servings of it were shot into space along with the country’s first astronaut. So in the fall of 2010, when kimchi prices began soaring because of poor weather conditions and a bad cabbage harvest, Koreans predictably freaked out.

As prices increased nearly fourfold — it normally costs $4 to $5 for a meal — consumers began referring to the dish as geum-chi, the Korean word for gold, and demanded the government take action. Pundits lambasted President Lee Myung-bak for suggesting that Koreans try eating cheaper North American cabbage. To head off potential unrest — or even a kimchi revolution — the Seoul city government began a kimchi bailout program, assuming 30 percent of the cost of an emergency supply of cabbage it purchased from rural farmers. The national government also grudgingly reduced tariffs on imported Chinese cabbage, betting, successfully, that more cabbage would bring prices back down. Fear of Chinese dominance over their national food supply, it turned out, didn’t trump Koreans’ love of spicy vegetables.

 Canada’s Hunt Country

There are few political statements more striking than plunging a carving knife into one of the world’s cuddlier endangered species and eating its raw heart on camera. That’s just what Canadian Governor-General Michaëlle Jean — then Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in the Canadian government — did during a 2009 visit to indigenous communities in northern Canada, a few weeks after the European Union slapped a ban on Canadian seal products.

Indigenous Canadians are legally permitted to hunt a small number of seals per year, as they have for centuries. But, more controversially, commercial fishermen are allowed to kill up to 280,000 seals per year. Seal meat is an increasingly popular delicacy in Montreal’s chicest restaurants, and the issue has become a matter of national pride for Canada’s Conservative government, which invited chefs to serve seal meat in the Canadian Parliament cafeteria in 2010 to protest the EU ban.

Scientists call animals like seals and whales — which are controversially hunted in Japan and Iceland — “charismatic megafauna” because their appearance and appeal to humans have become a survival advantage. But with the world’s human population and food prices skyrocketing, cuteness may not be enough to save these animals for much longer.

 R U Hungry?

It might seem inconceivable that people with no access to food would own cell phones, but as prices fall and phone ownership becomes more of a necessity of modern life, it’s not as unheard of as one might think. This may be a sad reflection on the modern world, but it also provides aid agencies with a rare opportunity to help those in need.

In 2007, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) began experimenting with cell-phone-based aid when it sent around 10,000 text messages to Iraqi refugees living in Syria, alerting them to a new food distribution program. In 2009, the wfp began a pilot program to deliver vouchers for food aid via cell phone to refugees living in Damascus. The agency initially targeted about 1,000 refugee families, who received a $22 voucher every two months that could be exchanged for staples like rice, wheat, and chickpeas at selected shops.

Surprisingly, though many families had difficulty keeping food on the table, the WFP reported that nearly all of the 130,000 refugees receiving food aid from the broader program owned a cell phone. The program was a success, and in late 2010, it was expanded to thousands more refugees living outside the capital. With more than 379 million cell-phone users as of 2009 in Africa, the world’s poorest continent, the potential for growth is nearly limitless.

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