I acquired a laissez-faire attitude toward food that, I learn from Michael Pollan, resembles that of the Australian koala. The koala contents itself with the eating of eucalyptus leaves, choosing to ignore whatever else shows up in or around its tree.Mt Lapham and P. J. O'Rourke might find common ground making mock of overpriced starvation-chic eateries, although they'd likely disagree on whether plenitude as symbolized by food is a good thing.
Similarly, the few primitive tastes met with before my 10th birthday -- peanut butter and jelly, creamed chicken and rice, the Fig Newton -- have remained securely in place for the last 66 years, faith-based and conservative, apt to be viewed with suspicion at trendsetting New York restaurants, in one of which last winter my asking about the chance of seeing a baked or mashed potato prompted the waiter to remove the menu from my hand, gently but firmly retrieving the pearl from a swine.
The judgment was served à la haute bourgeoisie, with a sprig of disdain and a drizzle of disgust. Thirty years ago I would have been surprised, but 30 years ago trendsetting restaurants hadn’t yet become art galleries, obesity wasn’t a crime, and at the airports there weren’t any Homeland Security agents confiscating Coca-Cola.
It was my failing to remember that I live in a consumer society, one more interested in the fine furnishing of its stomach than in the interior decoration of its mind, that encouraged the waiter in New York last winter to repossess the menu. Here I was being offered the chance to eat money -- equivalent in the American scheme of things to the body and blood of Christ -- and I was refusing the sacraments.And now, thanks to the weather and the mandates of technocrats, that corn on the cob is going to cost more.
Fortunately for the self-esteem of America’s moneyed noblesse, the signs of Mammon’s good grace are certain to become increasingly conspicuous. Between March 2010 and March 2011, the average cost of food in U.S. cities rose to a 40-year high -- iceberg lettuce up 48%, coffee 30%, bacon 24%, beef 21%, potatoes 14%.
We could be staring at a crisis in a matter of weeks. A poor crop would send food prices sharply higher. In the U.S., we would pay more for meat, milk and other grain-intensive luxuries. For the world's poorest citizens, the most basic diet would become ever-less-affordable.Prices function to allocate resources. Is a more comprehensive policy required?
It's hard to imagine the president standing by in the face of starvation. Suspending ethanol production would increase the supply of food, moderate prices and relieve suffering. But it also would send gasoline prices soaring, putting a drag on the economic recovery and inviting a backlash at the ballot box. Given how his biofuel policy has backed him into a corner, the president better hope for a couple of months with normal rainfall and seasonal temperatures.
Even if Obama gets through this dangerous summer without a crisis, he can't keep running the same risks. The Oxfam International development agency recently predicted that global food prices will more than double within 20 years, citing everything from climate change to flat-lining yields. Breathless reports designed to sound an alarm naturally invite skepticism, but the biofuel part of Oxfam's analysis rings true.
The U.S. needs a comprehensive energy policy that ends our reliance on food for fuel. We need it now, and we will need it all the more in the future.