Thursday, April 24, 2008

The shortage of food

Today, volume discount chains Sam's Club and Costco announced that they will begin limiting the amount of rice that people can buy.

This is just one manifestation of a problem that is sweeping the world: a global food shortage. In many countries where rice is a staple of the diet for millions of people, the price has spiraled to the point that there are literally riots in the streets as people cannot afford the food they need to survive on. But it is more than just rice. The price of nearly every kind of food has increased. Even here in America, as the recession deepens and increases the demand on food banks, many food banks are having trouble getting enough food to keep up with the demand.

There are a lot of reasons for this. The most obvious one is that production of food hasn't been sufficient to meet the demand. Bad weather is one factor, as storms and drought in many parts of the world have destroyed some crops (though as we enter a period of global climate change, it would be hasty to assume that the bad weather is limited to this year-- there is also a good chance that it represents the new 'normal.')

The cost of energy is also a factor. Except for food grown right where it is consumed, food must be transported from one point to another. But with energy costs up across the board, those costs get translated to the supermarket. We can see this here in the United States, as diesel costs for trucks are now well over four dollars per gallon, and the price to the stores which receive their cargo, and eventually to the consumers who buy it, has to rise in order to cover the increased transportation cost.

One reason that is cited, but I'm not sure accurately, is the production of bio-fuels. It is certainly true that every acre of agricultural land that is used to make cleaner burning fuels is not used to grow food. But as I just alluded to there is a cost to not making cleaner fuels as well. Further, I would argue that to blame biofuels misses the most fundamental reason for the food crisis: poor use of land.

Right now our government pays subsidies to farmers to not grow certain crops in order to keep the price up. Well, it is certainly up right now (for all kinds of food) so it may be time to end those subsidies and let the farmers grow and sell as much as they can.

But even that is dwarfed by a much more daunting problem: the overreliance in the western diet on meat. It is true that some marginal land is not suitable for growing crops and grazing is about the only practical agricultural use. But most food animals are fed grain that was produced in fields that could just as easily grow food to feed people. It is true that the food animals are eventually slaughtered for meat, but in fact it takes about sixteen pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat.

I confess, that I love eating meat. But the truth of the matter is that every time I eat a single quarter pound hamburger, it is using up as much as four pounds of food which could easily feed a family for a day.

I'm not proposing radical solutions such as quit growing biofuels or having the Government force everyone to stop eating meat but we do need to consider what impact these things have on the food supply and how we can make sure that there is an adequate food supply to everyone in the world, and that may require some changes in our own lifestyle.

Or we could ignore it, and in time the rationing of rice at these stores could expand to other stores and to other products as food becomes scarcer and more expensive, while in the meantime hunger and rioting spread across the third world.

Let's consider alternative policies that boost food production.

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