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James Wanless

this is where I write

A reversable food crisis

The biggest problem with the current food crisis is not that it exists, but that it never should have happened in the first place and can definitely be reversed. And it’s not just the wrong-headed rush to create biofuels, but the products our food system produces the most of (and how it produces them), which exacerbate the reduced availability of crops to directly feed people.

Biofuel

When you consider that the 25% of US corn crops currently used to produce ethanol will rise to over 30% next year, and is mandated by George Bush to double present levels by 2015, there would seem to be no relief on the horizon. As the flavour of the day, Corn’s price is going up and farmers are beginning to convert other crops to corn in order to cash in. It’s an answer to high oil prices, but it hardly seems the right one. We use roughly the energy we produce in making biofuel, and there are environmental impacts to that production, too.

The reduction in other available crops as food, in turn, drives their prices up. Basically, there’s a shortage of everything, it’s becoming more expensive and a lot of it is related to biofuel. Canada has been insulated from these price increases due largely to a strong dollar. This is about to end. Plus, it’s not really us in North America who are truly feeling the pain. When the price of maise, rice or wheat doubles it’s others who are really paying the price.

On this particular issue, the only question I really have is why we should do it in the first place. Sure, they’re cleaner burning, but given the current state of affairs their production is not without significant issues. It almost feels like we’re in a tug-o-war between climate change and starvation of the world’s poorest people. And, while countries like Canada pony up money for the food crisis with one hand, we enact energy policies mandating the production of biofuels with the other.

Food production systems

It’s not just the growth of biofuels and diminishing availability of other crops causing problems. In particular, the agricultural methodologies of multinationals like Monsanto and the resulting loss of biodiversity due to some of these same approaches will affect the planet’s ability to produce food. Some even make the argument that climate change in general is creating food shortages.

Calorie conversion

While I’m a vegetarian, I don’t like to rail about meat-eating, as I feel people need to make their own choices. In the developed world, we have a lot of options if we choose not to eat meat. However, the fact is that most of the world will eat whatever they can and simply cannot afford to be choosy. When looking at the efficiency of meat production, though, there’s really little room for debate.

A calorie conversion ratio of 54:1 means that you get one calorie of edible meat for every 54 you put into the process. This factors in all energy put into the process, such as the burning of fuel, but doesn’t account for the ethical or environmental problems associated with meat production. When you allow for ground water pollution, transport-related air pollution, loss of first-growth forest and jungle, the impact on indigenous societies in the developing world, the horrific conditions of your typical factory farm and the health impacts of a protein and fat-rich, omnivorous diet I’m just not sure that liking the taste of meat adequately makes amends.

Plus, the developing nations of the world, while often not getting enough to eat, don’t develop the western health problems related to a meat and dairy centred diet. That is, until they begin to eat more like us. Meat is sexy and symbolic of affluence. Rising methane levels for the first time in a decade might mean world demand for meat is on the rise. Sure, there are scientific advances which may make traditional animal husbandry and slaughter irrelevant, but in truth how many people do you know who would want to eat their meat if it was made in a lab? If we get to that point, let’s just please all become veggies – it’s far less creepy.

Putting it all together

As long as oil prices continue to rise, countries defend biofuel production, and more people eat more meat, this problem will continue and worsen. So what to do?

  • Governments must start feeding grains directly to people, instead of cattle and SUVs.
  • While vegetarianism is a difficult argument to make for many people, we must eat lower on the food chain. Our bodies, our planet, our pocketbooks and the world’s poor will all benefit.
  • Ride a bike, take public transit or walk. Even just one less car trip per week by each of us would make a huge difference in the demand for fuel.

Do we really want children being sold because their families are hungry and poor? Just one of the seemingly disconnected consequences of a planetary food for fuel swap that has reached utterly unsustainable proportions. The UN is demanding change because it knows that we are headed for catastrophe.

Are we smart enough to avoid it?

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