The ‘Ick’ Factor

I was reading an item over at AgWeb about what appears to be a growing interest in raising insects for animal feed <click the link to read the item>. Now you wouldn’t think that there would be any interest in feeding bugs to cattle. Cows, after all, are herbivores, they eat grass, grain. And they do. But cattle also need protein, especially if you want them to grow quickly for meat or if you want them to produce milk. Most rations for beef and dairy cattle both have some kind of added protein, often in the form of fishmeal or soymeal, but sometimes other types of proteins derived from animal sources. (Until the discovery of BSE (mad cow disease) including animal protein and bone meal derived from waste from cattle processing facilities was fairly common.)

In the US and EU feeding cattle insect derived proteins is illegal, but it is a common practice in other parts of the world, and there seems to be considerable interest in the practice. There are attempts to start up companies that produce insect proteins (usually some kind of larvae) specifically as a cattle feed supplement. There seems to be some justification for the practice. It would be relatively environmentally sound because the insects would be raised mostly on organic waste that would have otherwise been discarded. They can be grown in controlled, sanitary conditions. And there’s no doubt that it could produce feed supplements that would work just as well as other supplements.

But there has been some rather strenuous objections, especially in the US and the EU, over the practice. Mostly for reasons that aren’t really all that logical. This seems to be changing, but I suspect that many of the arguments against the practice aren’t due to logic, but to the ‘ick’ factor.

In Western cultures we’ve been raised to see insects as dirty, filthy, carriers of disease, to be disgusting, horrible things that should be killed on sight. We’ve been trained to be scared of insects rather than look at them as beneficial animals that have their own and very necessary niche in nature.

This kind of cultural

Yummy yummy blutwurst

conditioning takes place in all cultures, of course. Every society, every culture, has it’s own ‘ick’ factors. Heck, I probably eat things, and enjoy them, that would make you gag. Like blutwurst or blood sausage. And yes, it’s made with real blood. Headcheese, which isn’t cheese, but is made with heads. Raw fish…. And I’m sure you eat things that would make me shudder. My sister used to dip sardines in milk. I have no idea why. And yes, she’d drink the milk after.

I’ve always been fascinated with this ick factor, why some people are disturbed, even disgusted by some things, while others find the exact same thing not at all disturbing, even kind of nice. And with how it changes in individuals, including myself.

If thirty years ago someone had told me that I would one day love squid, octopus, raw fish, eel, I’d have questioned their sanity. But I do. If they had also told me that I would one day find chicken so disgusting that just the smell of it would make me retch, I’d have told them the same thing. But I do.

People are weird.


Meal Kits? What the heck is a meal kit?

Yesterday I ran across an item over at Mother Jone’s website talking about meal kits, which are supposed to be the hot new thing in the food service industry. These things started up a fairly short time ago, offered by companies like Blue Apron, HelloFresh and many others, and according to the press (some of it anyway, not all) meal kits are the best thing ever.

So what exactly is a ‘meal kit’? The idea is this: Every day a box arrives on your doorstep. Inside of it are all the raw ingredients to make a dinner. Everything you need from the entree, to side dishes, to seasonings,to condiments are pre-portioned and individually packaged. And a recipe telling you how to make it.

And that’s it. You get a box full of raw ingredients and a recipe.

You still have to cook it. You still have to use a stove, oven, etc. You still have to mix and stir. You still have all of the dirty dishes to deal with.

Well, they at least deliver it to your door so you don’t have to shop, right?  Uh, well, no, because these are only dinners. Unless you’re eating breakfast and lunch at a restaurant every day, you still have to go shopping for food.

So you still have to shop. You still have to mix, stir and actually cook. You still have to clean up afterwards and deal with the dishes. So this is useful for, well, who, exactly? People who can’t plan a meal, I suppose?

Then there is the cost. These things seem to be just a wee bit on the pricey side. We’re looking at anywhere from $9 to $50 or more per meal, per person depending on the service you’re talking about. Now I don’t know what restaurant prices are like where you live, but around here that basically means you’d be paying more for a box full of raw ingredients that you have to cook yourself, than  you would pay for a comparable meal at a restaurant, even at the low end of the meal kit price structure. I took a look at some of the menus from these places and figured that one chicken based meal they were sending out for $9 per person could be made for about $3.75 per person.

So just what is the point of all of this? Apparently the only thing this service does is relieve you of the horrible responsibility of — of planning what to have for dinner?

The ads for these places tout the ‘freshness’ of their ingredients. They wax poetic about ‘sustainable’ this and ‘environmental’ that, about how their “chefs” partner with “trusted farmers”. And all of that means pretty much nothing because all of those terms could be applied to just about anything.

The Mother Jones article linked to at the start of this turned up some rather troubling information about these meal kit companies. It seems that I’m not the only one who looks at meal kits with a skeptical eye. Apparently their own customers do as well.

According to independent marketing data that MJ dug up, half or more of the people who sign up for these things cancel the service within the first week. And only 10% or less kept the service after six months. Despite massive injections of venture capital, none of these companies have managed to achieve a positive cash flow from the scanty data I’ve tracked down. They’re continuing to exist only by burning through hundreds of millions of dollars of venture capital as they desperately try to attract new customers to replace the customers who almost immediately cancel the service once they’ve tried it.

The companies themselves vehemently deny that their customers abandon them in droves after trying the service for only a brief time, but refuse to show any data that supports their claims.

Still, the hype goes on. Celebrity chefs are hooking up with these places, the food service press waxes poetic about the ‘potential’ of meal kits. There are services that offer specialty kits, like strictly vegan, or “all organic” or vegetarian or, hell, places that only ship their product in ‘free range’ cardboard boxes, I suppose.

I don’t know, is it just me? Am I the only one who thinks this whole concept is, frankly, ridiculously silly?

Starving Amidst Plenty


Not a day goes by when you don’t see a news item about more food aid being needed somewhere as enormous numbers of people go hungry or are even starving because of natural disasters, political disasters, poverty. If you follow the agricultural media as I do you will see articles about the mega ag companies like Monsanto talking about how they need to get ever bigger, absorb even more small companies, because they need to develop new seeds, new herbicides, to satisfy an ever expanding and increasingly hungry world population. Articles about food deserts in the inner cities in the US and other otherwise prosperous countries. Articles about how we need to cultivate more land, increase the yield of crops because people are starving all over the world.

But then along comes items like this story from AP at AgWeb: Why Is There So Much Food?

The US alone is producing 24 billion gallons of milk a year. We’re producing enough milk every year to fill a good sized lake or two. So much milk that it’s driven the farmgate price down so far farmers are going bankrupt. The US alone has 1.24 billion pounds of cheese in storage and 322 million pounds of butter. USDA has been buying up stored cheese and giving it away to try to keep prices from collapsing.

If milk were the only commodity we have massive surpluses of, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it isn’t. The US has 377 million pounds of strawberries and 313 million pounds of blueberries in storage. In total we have around 1.5 billion pounds of fruit in storage. We have 1.3 billion pounds of turkey and chicken in storage.

If you look at grains, the situation is similar. The 2016 corn harvest is just getting started here in the US, and it looks like it’s going to be a near record breaking crop. And we still have millions of bushels of corn in storage from last year’s near record breaking crop. The price of corn has plummeted to $3.30 or so a bushel, and will probably drop considerably as the new crop floods storage facilities. The story with soybeans is similar. Same with wheat. Eggs, which suffered massive price increases that saw the local stores selling eggs at $1.75 a dozen, have fallen to $0.49 cents in our local grocery store.

Right now we are looking at the lowest prices for ag commodities that we’ve seen in many years. Retail consumer prices are flat or falling. One source I read the other day claimed retail food prices have dropped by 8% in the last six months. The UN claims food prices are at the lowest level they’ve been at (adjusted for inflation) in a very long time indeed. We have a glut of food on the market, so much we don’t have enough storage space for it.

And we still have people going hungry, even starving. Even in the most affluent countries in the world we have large parts of the population who are hungry, who don’t know where their next meal is coming from.

It isn’t agriculture that’s at fault here. It isn’t farming. It’s politics. Petty nationalistic disputes, power struggles in congresses and parliaments. It’s prejudice and discrimination. It’s greed and selfishness.