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Omnivore’s Dilemma

The fast food industry wants to make you fat. Um, yeah, like that’s news to anyone. And after Morgan Spurlock‘s Super Size Me, we know that they want to kill us as well. But why? Sure, it’s good for any individual company to get us to eat more, and the way to suck us in is through overly large portions rich in salt, fat and sugar. But why?

I’m reading Michael Pollan‘s Omnivore’s Dilemma, and I think I am beginning to grasp an idea of why. The current production system rewards farmers who produce more corn, which depresses prices, which forces other farmers to grow more corn to maintain their current incomes, which reduces prices, which forces farmers to grow more corn… End result is an overproduction of corn – increasing from 4 billion bushels* in the 1970s to 10 billion* when Pollan wrote the book. For normal consumer good, higher prices drive down demand, lower prices drive it up. That isn’t generally true for food. When food prices are high, you still need food. When food prices are low, there’s a limit to how much food you can eat. Population growth in the US is around 1%*, which really isn’t an acceptable rate of growth for the food industry. There are two ways to raise income – increase food production, or convince people to pay more for their food.

It’s easy enough to see how companies convince people to pay more for food. People pay more for convenience, they pay more for organic, they pay more for all sorts of “premium” products. Sure, it’s a bit of a scam, but no more than most consumer goods. The other option, to get people to eat more, is far more disturbing. It has obviously worked – people are getting heavier and eating more. But the question of responsibility is more important. Can we really say that the food industry set out to get people to eat more as a tool for their economic growth? That I don’t know, that I can’t say. But the idea has its appeal.

*The numbers are from Pollan’s book – I haven’t verified them, but I don’t have any compelling reason to doubt him.

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