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Fuel v. Food

post #1 of 2
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There was an interesting piece in the NY Times a few days ago on food crises happening all over the world.  It puts a very real face on the fuel v. food situation.  And it's definitely bad news for the global poor...


"Rising prices for cooking oil are forcing residents of Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai, India, to ration every drop. Bakeries in the United States are fretting over higher shortening costs. And here in Malaysia, brand-new factories built to convert vegetable oil into diesel sit idle, their owners unable to afford the raw material." (K. Bradsher, "A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories," 19 Jan 2008)

post #2 of 2

Here's another article along those lines.  This one's from WorldChanging.


"In recent weeks, there have been a tremendous number of stories detailing the latest crisis in the world's food system: For much of the world's population, food--the most fundamental necessity of all our lives--is no longer affordable. What's more, food is more expensive, almost everywhere, than ever before. The evidence is overwhelming:


In September, the Economist reports, the world price of wheat rose to $400 a ton, the highest level on record. That's twice the inflation-adjusted average price of wheat for the past 25 years, and twice as high as it was in May. Last year, the price of corn also hit a record of $175 a ton--more than 50 percent above the average for the previous year. Other staples, such as rice, have also hit records, ricocheting off the price of other staples as farmers switch land to high-paying commodities from other uses. Interestingly, prices have reached record highs during a time of equally record abundance: cereal crop yields last year were higher than ever, an outcome the Economist attributes to two trends: Growing demand for meat in (increasingly wealthy) China and India (livestock production requires more crops for feed); and skyrocketing demand for corn-based ethanol. As farmers have shifted croplands to feed America's growing demand for ethanol, the cost of other crops goes up, and stockpiles go down; last year alone, the United States' grain stockpiles decreased some 53 tonsTK. Demand for ethanol, meanwhile, is fueled by a massive program of government subsidies, distorting food markets ever further. (Incidentally, the grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank could feed a person for a year--that's a nice little stat to have on hand when arguing against government subsidies.)


In affluent countries like the US, the ready abundance of cheap, highly processed carbohydrates have pushed obesity and diabetes to epidemic proportions. As Mark Winne notes in his excellent new book Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty (a book I hope to review in more detail here soon), food obsessions such as veganism, freeganism, organic, grass-fed, humane, and local are irrelevant bourgeois luxuries to the poor, who must deal with much more immediate concerns: "getting to a food store where the bananas weren't black," for example, or "having enough money to buy any food at all."


Indeed, according to a new report by the US Department of Agriculture, low-income households up to 130 percent of the US poverty line are generally unable to budget an adequate amount for fresh fruits and vegetables, and only after wages rise significantly will low-income people allocate more money to healthy foods, as opposed to frozen convenience foods and meats. (The report suggests these foods provide convenience and higher value than more time-consuming and energy-poor foods such as fresh produce.) Not surprisingly, surveys show that more nutritious foods are more expensive and less prominently displayed in grocery stores than their calorie-dense, but nutrient-light, substitutes--candy, crackers, and the like.


So what's the solution? The Economist suggests that, in developing countries hit hard by high staple-food prices, subsidizing wages is superior to subsidizing food purchases directly, because it helps farmers and distorts price signals less. Fair enough, but it strikes me that living wage movements and--much more importantly--an end to market-distorting government subsidies would go further in the long run than short-term price supports. Ending corn subsidies might push up corn prices in the short run, but it would force some sanity into the US food system, and help marginal and smaller-scale producers recover in a market that has benefited large factory farms to the detriment of family farmers.

How to deal with the fact that fresh produce costs so much compared to its processed caloric equivalent (and if THAT doesn't sound appetizing, I don't know what does)? One very promising answer lies in the field of urban agriculture--which, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, already provides food to as many as 700 million city dwellers and could improve food security and even produce small amounts of surplus income (up to $3 a day) for the 60 percent of people in developing countries who will live in cities by 2030. Urban farming holds significant promise for city dwellers with little access to fresh, healthy food; the more you control your own food system, the more you control your health and wellbeing."


(Erica Barnett, High Food Prices: Challenges and Solutions, Jan. 16, 2008)

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