Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Competition is building between grain for food...

and grain for bio-fuels, between vehicle owners and the world's poor. Guess who wins."

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in The Spectator, my local newspaper. I read his articles periodically but always check out his subject line. Quite often I find myself drawn in just because his story is so readable, sometimes amusing, and consistently thought provoking.

Such was the case, a couple of weeks ago. The byline read Food prices are going up and staying there - I think it is worth providing you with some of the points he makes in this article.

While it may not seem the case when you are at the checkout, globally speaking, we (developed countries) have enjoyed cheap food for quite some time. This is about to change drastically and quickly. During the last 50 years (post WW II), we were spending about 1/10th of our average income on food. Dyer predicts that within the next 10 years, due to conditions ripening now, the average person will be spending 1/4 or more of their income.

Some recent signs of things to come:

  • price of corn (maize) has doubled in a year
  • wheat futures are their highest (in the last ten year period)
  • food prices in India have risen 11% in one year
  • price of corn flour in Mexico went up fourfold in January
Dyer explains the factors that are causing the increase in prices:
  • world population is growing ("about an extra Turkey or Vietnam every year") therefore demand is growing
  • more and more people are eating significant amounts of meat
  • the UN predicts that by 2016, we in the developed countries will be eating 30% more beef, 50% more pork and 25% more poultry
  • these animals eat a grain based diet; logically the demand to feed the animal will require a shift from growing grain crops for human consumption to animal consumption
  • price of grain and meat product will go up
  • U.S. farmland shifted from food production to bio-fuel (industrial corn) increased by 48% in the last 12 months
  • 1/6th of grain grown in the US is considered "industrial corn", that is corn used in the production of ethanol
  • as oil prices rise around the world, profit from a "fuel" crop as compared to a "food" crop becomes all the more attractive to the farmer
  • all of the above is happening as well in other big producers such as China and Brazil

"The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles and world's two billion poorest people." (Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute as told to the U.S. Congress last month.)

As you can see, Dyer's article isn't a feel good read. Pretty depressing. It is not going to take ten years before we start seeing more and more poor people starving. As he says, the impoverished peoples don't care about the price of meat, because they can't afford it now. But if the supplies of food grade grain is diverted to fuels for our cars and fuel to grow our flesh crops, then what chance do they have?

Very grim indeed. Let's not wait for the politicians to do something. We / I must fight the complacency that overtakes us like a gentle fog. I invite you to ponder the dilemma and search for solutions that can be carried out on the individual level. It is the first place to start.

  1. Eat local as much as possible.
  2. Eat mindfully - taking in only what you need to be healthy. (With our wide-spread restaurant servings, all you can eat buffet style establishments, gluttony has vanished from our common consciousness. Speaking of gluttony, wasn't that one of those sins I learned about way, way back in catechism classes in Grade 1 ??)
  3. Conserve energy - all of it - walk more, drive less, consume less.
  4. Go green (vegetarian or vegan) but if that is not for you yet, at least try to reduce your consumption of animal crops.
  5. Support your local eat local communities.
  6. Charity - give to those who are most impoverished - and this can start in your own community.
  7. "We may feel as weak as mice nibbling at the world's fetters. But we are many. The fetters must snap." (Brother Mark Steindl-Rast, A Listening Heart - the Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness)

Print this post


Thành Kính said...

I also read this Dyer article with interest and a bit of worry. The bitter irony is that maize fuel is NOT lowering green-house gas production, as industrial corn production uses a lot of fossil fuel and of course, there is all the trransportation, etc. etc. Apparently, the left-overs of sugar cane cultivation do a better job of creating fuel out of useless vegetable remnants, but of course, sugar cane producers don't vote in the American elections. At the end of the day, we will have to admit, as a society, that our desire for convenience is killing people and ecosystems.

Compassionate Consumption said...

Thank you for your comment; this helps me understand what he meant with the statement about politicians "..doing something useful to combat emissions and global warming (though the claims are deeply suspect)..."