Michael Pollan writes that the food business once lamented what it called the problem of the “fixed stomach”””it appeared that demand for food, unlike other products, was inelastic, the amount fixed by the dimensions of the stomach itself, the variety constrained by tradition and habit. In the past few decades, however, American and European stomachs have become as elastic as balloons, and, with the newly prosperous Chinese and Indians switching to Western diets, much of the rest of the world is following suit. “Today, Mexicans drink more Coca-Cola than milk,” Patel reports. Roberts tells us that in India “obesity is now growing faster than either the government or traditional culture can respond,” and the demand for gastric bypasses is soaring.
Driven by our bottomless stomachs, Roberts argues, the modern economy has reduced food to a “commodity” like any other, which must be generated in ever greater units at an ever lower cost, year by year, like sneakers or DVDs. But food isn’t like sneakers or DVDs. If we max out our credit cards buying Nikes, we can simply push them to the back of a closet. By contrast, our insatiable demand for food must be worn on our bodies, often in the form of diabetes as well as obesity. Overeating makes us miserable, and ill, but medical advances mean that it takes a long time to kill us, so we keep on eating. Roberts, whose impulse to connect everything up is both his strength and his weakness, concludes, grandly, that “food is fundamentally not an economic phenomenon.” On the contrary, food has always been an economic phenomenon, but in its current form it is one struggling to meet our uncurbed appetites. What we are witnessing is not the end of food but a market on the brink of failure. Those bearing the brunt are, as in Malthus’s day, the people at the bottom.
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