Of food and fuel

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Food prices have been in the news quite a bit lately.Publications everywhere are warning of a coming crisis as thecost of food continues to rise. The increase in price can belinked to several factors, among them an increasingpopulation, more demand in developing countries for meat,global warming and the move towards bio-fuels as areplacement for petroleum.

The foundation of the worlds food supply is grain. Almost50 per cent of the world's diet consists directly of grain in one formor another. Less developed countries are more reliant ongrain than developed countries which eat a larger percentageof meat. Eating more meat, however, does not free up grainfor others, in fact it uses up more grain. In the case of beef ittakes about 25 calories of grain to get one calorie of beef. Inother words, as far as daily calorie intake goes the grain thatit takes to feed enough beef to supply one person with theirdaily required calories, if directly fed to people instead ofbeef, would feed 25 people. As more and more people canafford to buy meat and do, fewer people have enough to eat.

Add to this an increasing population with shrinking grainsurpluses, toss in weather related crop failures linked toglobal warming, and it is understandable why the price offood is rising and poor people around the world are finding itmore difficult to afford food. Add to that the diversion ofcrop land and crops to the production of fuel and it getseven worse.

Recently Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food and AgricultureOrganization said that there are 37 countries in the worldwithout enough affordable food. Also recently there havebeen food related protests or riots in Peru, Mauritania,Yemen, Burkina Faso, Bolivia, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Haiti andBangladesh. In the last two years the average world foodprice has risen by 80 per cent. What is ironic is that the U.S. andCanada, places that can most afford increased prices, onlywent up around 4 per cent last year.

It is the countries that can afford it the least that are takingthe big hits, compounded by an overall decline in the amountof foreign aid coming from rich countries. In the U.S. the average household spends about 10 per cent of its incomeon food. The poorest one fifth, according to the New York Times, only spends 16 per cent. The average Canadian (in 2003) spends about 12 per cent. Compare this to Albania and Armenia that average 69 per cent, or 21 other countries averaging between 50 to 73 per cent, and many between 40 to 50 per cent. Double digit increases in their food costs are not a good omen for world stability.

In an editorial on April 10 the New York Times said that whatwas needed was an increase in agricultural productivity in thedeveloping world. They miss the point. The world is alreadyproducing at a rate greater than can be sustained. What isneeded is less production. This, of course, leaves us with thequestion of how to deal with the food problem if we don'tproduce more.

Shifting grain from animal food would be a start. It wouldrequire changing diets in the developed world. It would meanshifting the agricultural production in the developing worldfrom what is now going to export crops, to crops for localconsumption. That would mean a change in diets for thedeveloped world that have become hooked on cheapimported food, and a larger percentage of income going intothe food budget.

Giving up on the bio-fuel madness would be another. Thatwould mean much higher fuel prices and an end to theconvenience of travelling everywhere almost at will, and evenair travel.

And, increasing foreign aid to help prevent instability causedby starvation must also be part of the solution. That ofcourse would mean higher taxes, and more careful spendingof revenues. Squandering billions on needless wars insupport of U.S. geopolitical ambitions would have to end.

The question is, can we do it? So far the indications are thatgovernments and the interests that support them are stillclinging to the idea that they can finesse their way out of thismess instead of making the sacrifices that sooner or later willhave to be made. There is a saying that says that generalsprepare for the previous war rather than the one coming. Itmay be that we have a political and economic establishmentstill applying 19th century thinking to 21st century problems.

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