Food & drink

Fat taxes: fat chance

Taxing cigarettes was once an outrageous idea. Now it seems just about any kind of tax can be considered. Hungary taxes hamburgers, Denmark taxes fatty food and Americans are debating taxing soda. So it’s no surprise that both Britain and Australia are contemplating fat taxes. They argue, rationally enough, that obesity and the resulting chronic illnesses are costing the economy and, if these products were made more expensive, people would buy less of them.

As always, people point to examples of where the fat taxes seem to work. Denmark, for example, introduced a tax on products that could harm the environment or health, such as tobacco, ice cream and soft drinks. It is now considering introducing a tax on products high in saturated fats. Even so, the Danish are a comparatively healthy bunch, with a smoking rate of 19% and obesity of 13-4%, compared to the European average of 15%. (Americans have not seen this low rate since the 1970s.) But there’s more to it than just tax: Denmark has a very strong social support system, with free or low cost childcare, education and healthcare.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support the idea that raising the cost of unhealthy food deters people from buying it. An American study found a moderate decrease in soft-drink consumption, but made no difference to obesity levels because people just had something else sugary. Another reason is purely economic. Demand for food is fairly inelastic: a 10% increase in price only reduces consumption by less than 1%.

Social commentators believe the fat tax would unfairly discriminate against poorer people, who are more likely to eat cheaper junk food, pay more of their incomes in sales tax, and reduce their intake of other foods to be able to pay for what they enjoy. In this case, nobody wins, because high taxes will not combat obesity or diabetes. Fat taxes, like many other kinds of tax, are little more than revenue raising and the companies that stand to lose from such taxes will, like the soft drink companies in the UK recently, fight to maintain their source of wealth.
Ref: New Scientist (UK), 22 October 2011, Obesity’s match. M Nestle.
Spiked online (UK), 11 October 2011, David Cameron’s unpalatable nannying. P Basham and J Luik.
Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 15 October 2011, Anyone for a great big fat tax? C Marriner.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: Denmark, fat tax, obesity, soft drinks, fat, health, income, Finland, Ireland, behaviour, marketing, BMA, junk food, social engineering, diabetes, Australia.
Trend tags: Obesity

Water wars

When water comes out of a tap, it’s very easy to distance yourself from the source. When Pakistan flooded, it was hard to believe the country has a critical shortage of fresh water. This is not only devastating for its citizens (they have only 30 days’ worth of water as a buffer against drought), but it’s a threat to American security. This example also explains why many commentators believe the next wars will be fought over water.

The problem is not just in Pakistan. The Middle East and north Africa contains the 16 most water-troubled states in the world, all using more water than they receive (Libya uses 700 times more). As the population increases, the aquifers become dry and the oil for desalination plants runs out, creating a triple crisis in water, food and energy. These three will always be inextricably linked. While the global population increased by a third in the 20th century, demand for water increased by six, most of which ended up on fields.

Northern China is also in the grip of drought, the worst for 60 years. Beijing went for over 100 days without rain or snow – the driest patch since 1951. More than 2.5 million people lack drinking water and China, like India, needs rain: it is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of wheat. These conditions threaten steep price hikes as well as provoking social unrest. China is the largest importer of “virtual water”, all the water needed to produce food and other goods brought into China. One response is to buy land in wetter places to grow food and then import it home – but who can afford to give up their valuable land to other nations? (See Giving up your land for soybeans, below.)

Water is what The Guardian calls a “vanishing lifeline”. The shortage will take a lot more action than plugging leaks, recycling water and taking short showers. The real culprits are a lot more scary – stop using massive amounts of water to irrigate and live in desert regions, stop growing crops that are not suited to their environment, stop keeping pristine lawns. And stop pretending that nothing has changed.
Ref: The New York Times (US), 15 August 2010, Drowning today, parched tomorrow. S Solomon.
Yahoo News, 4 February 2011, China’s drought may have serious global impact.
The Economist (UK), 29 January 2011, The drying of the West. Anon.
The Guardian Weekly (UK), 1 July 2011. Food from water. J Watts.
The Guardian Weekly (UK), 8 June 2011. Vanishing lifeline. D Carrington.
Source integrity: Various
Search words: water, drought, Middle East, north Africa, Mexico City, China, shortages, “virtual water”, desalination, Pakistan, India, wheat, Hoover Dam, desert, demand.
Trend tags: Water

Giving up your land for soybeans

China has an insatiable demand for soybeans to feed chickens, hogs and people and can no longer rely on its own land. Farmers in Brazil have struck a $US7 billion deal with China to product 6 million tons of soybeans a year – and this is one of many deals. Meanwhile, Brazil, Argentina, Philippines and sub-Saharan Africa are becoming nervous about China buying up huge chunks of their farmland.

The Chinese invested $US15.6 billion in the year to May 2011 in Latin America, nearly three times more than in the previous year. Brazil received 60% and Argentina 40%. Not all this investment is in farming, China spent 70% of its investment in the last three years on energy and minerals. But it also plans to grow wheat, corn, fruit, vegetables and wine grapes for export to China.

Brazilians are very concerned about foreigners buying up their land and have put restrictions in place. Yet China itself does not allow private foreign ownership of land or welcome large-scale or long-term leases to foreign companies. It also bans foreign ownership of oil fields and mines.

Even so, China will continue to invest in Latin America for long-term food security as well as other industries like manufacturing, infrastructure and finance. Food security, like water scarcity, will continue to be a crucial concern. Some $US15 billion of investment projects in farming and forestry have already been suspended in Brazil in response to fears about land grabs. We will see other governments working to protect their own citizens in preference to furthering the survival of other, more wealthy nations.
Ref: Wall Street Journal (US), 20 June 2011, China snaps up farmland in Argentina. S Romig.
New York Times (US), 28 May 2011, China’s interest in farmland makes Brazil uneasy. A Barrionuevo.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Chinese, investment, Latin America, Argentina, Brazil, soybeans, farmland, manufacturing, production, food security, foreign ownership.
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Kitchen 2011

If you were cooking for your family 30 years ago, the most popular choice was roast dinner, followed by sausage and mash, then jacket potatoes. Don’t mock. Today’s mum will be pressured to cook spaghetti Bolognese first, followed by those three old favourites, roast dinner etc. You might think not much has changed.

But according to a survey for Birmingham Food Fest, today’s mums know 25% more recipes than those in the 1970-80s, know 21 recipes by heart, and are more likely to include foreign meals, such as Mexican fajitas, chicken tikka masala, homemade pasta dishes and pizzas.

While mothers used to rely on their friends or women’s magazines to pass on recipes and tips, today there’s a surfeit of cookery information, gourmet and basic. The survey found 40% of mothers follow celebrity chefs, 33% have celebrity recipe books, and many watch celebrity cookery shows as well as looking for recipes on the internet.

With all the information available, it is perhaps surprising that the big favourites are still the old fashioned ones. Whether this is a function of British cuisine, or just human attachment to childhood tastes, we do not know. But food clearly plays a nostalgic role for many of us. Perhaps the next trend will be nostalgia food for Baby Boomers.
Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 14 September 2011, Your mother wouldn’t dream of doing that in the kitchen. Anon.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: generations, foreign meals, British cuisine, chops, roast, shepherds pie, Mexican fajitas, pizza, pasta, chicken tikka marsala, celebrity, cooking, recipes, internet.
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The future of wine

Thanks to the big retailers, who have used impossibly thin margins to push out small wine sellers, wine growers have been forced to find new markets for their wine. These include bars, pubs and restaurants. This is not to say that their new markets are any easier, in fact, restaurants can afford to be very picky about who they have on their wine lists. Since restaurants make very little margin on the food, they have to choose exactly the right wines to entice their patrons back again and again.

One commentator notes that most restaurants no longer carry red Bordeaux (it has to be bought young and matured for years). But there has been a surge in wine with few chemical additives, similar to the trend for food to become more “natural”. One of the main reasons why a restaurant takes on a particular wine is often because of the relationship between the seller and the sommelier. The consumer buying wine is more likely to look at price, quality or payment terms.

The best wine lists will carry a range of merchants, rather than being dominated by one, and they will be relatively short. It is better to have a short list that changes regularly, than a long list gathering dust and many menus change on a daily or weekly basis anyway. Printing out a new menu is no longer a complicated affair. We will also start to see more wines available by the glass and a recently available size – the 25cl carafe (third of a bottle). This makes sense for people who are trying to reduce their drinking without having to resort to the house red.

On another note, the Chinese in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland are rapidly buying up the hideously expensive range of Chateau Lafite. Two bottles of the 1945 vintage recently fetched $US49,914 compared to a catalogue estimate of well under half that amount. Lafite has become a Chinese status symbol and there seems to be no limit to what they will pay. They do not buy for investment apparently, but to impress. One wonders what will be next on their wish list.
Ref: Financial Times Magazine (UK), 2-3 July 2011, Changing tastes. J Robinson.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: wine, Bordeaux, chemicals, tastings, wine list, size, Chateau Lafite, Chinese, Sotheby’s, status, China
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