Of cheap cheese and hungry cities

Unasked, possibly awkward, questions

It isn’t a good idea to complain that someone else hasn’t treated some topic in the way you would have treated it. Nevertheless, I want to put down a marker. I listened to two podcasts this week each of which, in my opinion, left a big question unasked.

Cheese Changes Everything was the first substantive episode in a new podcast from a company called Agricultural Economic Insights. It was my kind of story, looking at the ramifications of one decision — Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highways Act — on a whole lot of other things, most notably the US dairy industry. Better roads mean bigger dairy plants, sucking in milk from a wider area, which gives an edge to larger, more “efficient” dairy herds. They also mean fast food joints close to the highway, which means greater demand for more standardised cheese-like products, which means bigger dairy plants, which …

Fascinating stuff, but although the episode did mention the tragedy hidden in the miracle of practically continuous 3.5% annual growth in the cheese industry since 1956, the thousands of small farms that went under because they were “uncompetitive,” it said nothing about any of the externalities that accompanied relentless growth. Although the human costs are huge, my primary concern here is the cows. In 1935, the average cow produced 434 US gallons of milk a year. In 2017, the figure was 2675 US gallons a year.1 Is that really an improvement? The modern cow lasts less than three full lactations, less than a quarter of a cow’s natural lifespan. I’m not asking dairy farms to become old-cows’ homes, but with the cost of replacing a milking cow second only to the cost of feed, I wonder why it pays farmers to cull cows so soon.2 One reason may be that replacements have superior genetics and are even more productive.3

Knotty problems, for sure, and there are no simple answers in an industry where cheaper is the only metric with any value.

Hungry cities

Then there was Laurie Taylor’s effusive interview with Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University. Glaeser co-wrote Survival of the City: Living and Thriving in an Age of Isolation, which “reckon[s] with how cities are changing in the face of existential threats the pandemic has only accelerated”. Cities as breeding grounds of innovation and disease alike is familiar turf, and we romped quickly through the impact of successive plagues, culminating culturally in the Black Death and its godchild the Renaissance. Will covid do the same? Maybe; your guess is as good as anyone’s.

The things that covid really did bring to the fore — the innovations that kept people fed, the fragility of (food) supply chains, even the drop in food insecurity as a result of government aid — were not mentioned. Converted factories growing microgreens notwithstanding, cities are utterly dependent on their hinterland to feed themselves. When that hinterland comprises the entire globe, feeding competing cities starts to look precarious indeed. Glaeser argued that inequities in health care and education are magnified in cities and threaten their continuation. Maybe so, but I would really like to have heard more about how successful cities are going to forestall hunger.

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