May 21, 2008

Pick Any Two

The so called "project triangle" is usually referenced in the realms of project management and design.  Your choices are fast, good or cheap and you can pick any two. 
Your choice obviously impacts the overall project in relation to the third:  i.e., you sacrifice quality, time or money.  With a small amount of distortion you can apply the triangle to our current system of food production and more broadly to the ongoing global food crisis.  Many of us who dine predominantly in America have, for quite some time, approached the triangle with a "pick any three" attitude.  We want our food to be cheap, we want it to be of high quality and we want it fast, or rather we want what we want when we want it and seasonality or markets be damned.  

"Cheap" and "good" are extremely relative terms when it comes to food.  In America, on average we spend around 13% of our income on food expenditures, although that can go as low as 7% and as high as 40% dependent upon which end of the earnings spectrum you fall into (according to the 2005 Consumer Expenditure Report (pdf), the latest to be released).  Regardless of where you fall on said spectrum we all feel we have a right to cheap food and most shop with that goal in mind - just keep an eye out for all the designer handbags the next time you are in Costco or Sam's - we all want to spend less on food.  Eating is necessary for survival and no one should go broke surviving, or so we say/think?  Globally, the term becomes even more relative.   "Good" or "quality" are equally relative when it comes to food.  Are you shopping for maximum calories, nutrient content, organic, local, "name brand" - whatever your criteria most of us go down the aisle or into the market seeking to maximize our good.

These aren't new or revolutionary thoughts, and in fact I've said all that to eventually get around to talking about bread.   I am a baker of sorts, which is to say I'm a want-to-be baker.  I love the process of making bread, love the mystery of getting that perfect loaf to show up once in a while and then the pursuit of trying to chase it down once again.  Serious bakers love to expound upon the necessity of using high quality wheat and by the time they have woven together their tales of all of the mysterious interactions between enzymes, glutens, and yeasts it is hard not to believe that the sorcery of baking does indeed require the purest of ingredients in order to coax the proper loaf into existence.  However, relationships between bakers and wheat growers have not always been chummy and they are apparently becoming even less so now.  Bakers, like all of us, have wanted to choose not just two of the three options -fast, good, cheap- but all three of them.  They want the highest quality wheat, for the lowest possible price, and they want farmers to grow it all the time no matter what else the market says would be more profitable.  

So, here is a look at the dilemma from opposite sides of the debate.  First, here's a voice from the farmers:
Wheat Growers have a message for America's baking industry: We told you so.

For years, farmers warned that the milling and baking industry was pursuing policies that would eventually create wheat shortages. This year, faced with short supply and high prices, the baking industry has asked Washington to ban all wheat exports. It also wants CRP land to be released so that farmers will grow more wheat on it.

It's not that simple. Many farmers stopped growing wheat years ago because the milling and baking industry always demanded top quality at prices that many times were below the cost to produce it. We converted our acreage to other crops because it simply was no longer profitable to produce wheat.
Interpretation:  you've been trying to pick all three and we told you that wouldn't work, so we're picking for you.  Now, here's the baker's perspective on the same issue:
Here at King Arthur, we’re doing all we can to hold the line on prices by making our business as efficient as possible. Despite our best efforts, there’s no way for us to entirely absorb the impact of the current record-breaking wheat market. We’ve reluctantly had to raise our flour prices.

But at the same time, we’re making sure that the price you pay for King Arthur Flour is money well spent.

Last time America faced a wheat challenge, many flour companies around the country uniformly purchased lower-quality, less expensive grain, thus compromising the bakeability of their flour. But to us, that’s artificial savings. Flour milled from reduced-quality wheat means trouble in the kitchen. Bread won’t rise; cookies fall flat; muffins shrink.

Here at King Arthur, we refuse to compromise on flour quality–ever. We’ve already purchased the wheat that will become the flour you bake with this coming fall and winter. And we assure you: when you use King Arthur, you’ll see no drop-off in the success of your baking.
Interpretation: we'd still really like to pick all three but it looks like we can't so somebody else is going to have to pay for it.  I've already outed myself as a baker, of sorts, and I suppose I also fall into the category of a farmer, of sorts, so I'm not going to pick sides in this one.  However, I continue to be of the opinion that somethings got to give pretty soon when it comes to food production.  Pick any two.  I have my biases and I also have the luxury of choice, but I wonder how much longer that will be the case.  Apologies for the rambling post.

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