Thinking globally about food

A billion people are at risk of starvation this year, according to United Nations estimates on the impact of rapidly rising food prices. Over half the increase is in major U.S. agricultural commodities like corn (heavily subsidized by U.S. government policy), arising from the conversion of production to “biofuel” products like ethanol. The latter has been championed by George W. Bush — his simple-minded solution to reliance on Mid-East oil. Actually it costs as much energy to make biofuel as is produced when it burns. Fill up an SUV with ethanol and you will consume enough food to feed a child for a year.

It would be a mistake to think that the farmer gains much from this higher demand for corn. To meet the increased demand with higher yields per acre, the farmer must invest (often borrow) substantial funds to buy higher priced genetically modified seeds. The increased profits go mainly to the ag-biz processing monopolies like Archer Daniel Midlands — which controls over 40 percent of U.S. “bio-processing” and marketing resources — and, of course, the energy giants: Exxon Mobil, Chevron, etc.

It is difficult to separate the crises of food and fuels.

All food processing, whether on seeds or “finished” product, consumes energy. Exxon’s profits are huge. The war in Iraq is creating shortages. So are lagging production facilities in the Middle East, Latin America and Russia, which are trying to capture the gains from refining in addition to income from just their oil resources. Looming also are fears from both the reality and increased perception of oil as a finite resource. Control of energy resources becomes a national security question in many nations. Thus it’s hard to separate the crises of food and energy from war.

Transnational corporations boast their ability to produce food in large scale — but their control has frustrated instead of satisfied the unstoppable aspirations of the emerging nations, including their desire for meat and automobiles, tokens of advanced culture.

Years of refusal by rich nations to lower protectionist barriers to food imports has condemned poor nations to the least productive farming methods. (Seventy percent of the world’s work is still agriculture.)

Against the transnational famine pressures, some emerging nations are imposing export surcharges on rice. Combined with increases from U.S. and European Union monopoly speculation, this too exacerbates the famine threat in food-poor nations. There are food riots in Egypt, Pakistan, Philippines, Haiti and elsewhere.

What are the solutions? 1) A massive and immediate aid program for food-poor nations. 2) Ending the “bio-fuel” madness. It is not saving energy, nor is it the path to world peace. 3) There can be no half-hearted, wait-and-see approaches to energy research and policy reform to weaken the oil industry’s grip on energy policy. 4) A U.S. government fully committed to reforming the inequities of globalization — it is only in the global arena where the power of transnational corporations can be constrained and balances restored in energy and food. 5) Pursuit of alternatives to war that make peaceful management of the allocation of food and energy possible.

There is something we can do locally as well. Thanks in part to the propaganda of the world’s greatest chefs and their local independent farming friends, new, scientific methods and study are giving a rebirth to locally grown foods, including beef and chicken. It used to be that folks ate chickens in summer, beef in winter. Spring, summer, fall all had their own special vegetables and grains. You produced your own food or bought it locally. You still can! If you have not read it already, check out Michael Pollan’s great book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

It’s true that local-scaled agriculture could deliver the seasonal or regional menu of your choice throughout the year. But we all know it’s not the whole story, and never will be. Without reforms to globalization that can only be realized by the commitment of all nations to stronger international institutions, war and starvation will rob us of all this, and the dinner plates will be empty.