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Fighting for Food

David Spero

August 6, 2008

It’s hard enough taking care of ourselves and our families when things are going well. What do you do when the price of food and everything else is rising fast? Our dietitian Amy Campbell recently wrote about affording healthy food (see "Nutrition On A Shoestring [Part 1]" and "Part 2"). But this economic crunch is going to last a long time, so we may want to give it even more serious thought.

Why Are Prices Rising?
This food crisis is much bigger than we realize. There have been food shortages before, and the market usually corrects them after a year or two. This is different. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute writes:

“The tight food supply is driven by…global demand and supply. On the demand side, the trends include the…addition of 70 million people per year to the earth’s population, the desire of some 4 billion people to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products [meat], and the…use of grain to produce ethanol for cars. Since 2005, this last source of demand has raised the annual growth in world grain consumption…roughly 20 million tons.”

On the supply side, Brown says, “Prime cropland is being lost to both industrial and residential construction and to the paving of land for roads, highways, and parking lots for fast-growing automobile fleets.”

Water for irrigation is also getting scarcer. Finally, soaring oil prices raise the cost of chemicals, transportation, and many other aspects of modern technological agriculture. Global warming is also damaging crops. For example, glacier melt in the summers has filled the rivers of Asia for 10,000 years. But the glaciers are shrinking, leaving the land much drier in the summer.

Feeding Cars Instead of People
Overpopulation and rising living standards are natural processes. But making ethanol and biodiesel—turning grain into fuel—is not a natural process. It’s insane, at least from hungry people’s point of view. For big grain farmers, it’s been a huge money-maker. A whole ethanol industry has sprung up.

Raising grain and converting it to ethanol takes almost as much as energy as it produces. There’s only a small net gain. Meanwhile, the increased demand raises prices and takes land away from food production.

Some biofuels could be very helpful to the environment. Weeds like kudzu (”the weed that ate the South”) are very starchy and could make good fuel. Switchgrass is another plant that could produce a lot of energy without raising food prices. But for reasons of profit, the biofuel industry has focused on corn and soy. This amounts to a conspiracy to raise food prices.

How Will This Affect Us?
Energy prices aren’t likely to come down much. China, India, and other poor countries are getting richer. They’re driving more, eating more meat, and have fast-growing industries. Americans continue to drive all over the place. As long as we use coal and oil as our main sources of energy, energy prices will continue to rise. As long as we use so much energy growing our food, food prices will rise.

What to do? Readers shared good ideas in the comments section of Amy’s blog entry from June 2. Some other ideas: Eat less meat. But a lot of us are trying to eat more protein and fewer carbs, so that’s hard. However, there are vegetable proteins such as tofu and nut butters, which are cheaper and perhaps healthier than meat. (Perhaps not.)

Making your own food (cooking, baking bread) is cheaper and healthier than buying packaged food. Of course, it’s also a lot more work. Perhaps you can share cooking or share bulk-buying, as one of Amy’s commenters suggested. To buy produce, you might be able to shop at farmers’ markets, or join a community supported agriculture (CSA) group. In a CSA, people subscribe to a farm and receive a shipment of food every week. There are also food co-ops that can save you money. Start a garden and grow some of your own food—you’ll get some exercise.

And absolutely do not buy bottled water, unless your local water is condemned or something. Bottling and shipping water wastes tons of energy.

One good thing is that, as energy prices rise, the cost of commercial food (which depends more on energy) is going up faster than the price of organic food (which depends more on labor.) So organic is getting closer to commercial in price. This is good, because organic is better for you and better for the planet. And please write your representatives and demand no more government support for corn/soy biofuels.

Of course, the less you drive, the more money you will have for food. Maybe we’ll do a blog entry about how to drive less, but for now, what are you doing to save on food and driving and keep it healthy? How is it going?



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