April 25, 2008

The Food Crisis: Coming to a City Near You?

Well, a new meme burning through the popular news media at a rabid pace is the international food crisis that might, just might, be starting to nudge its way into the land of large waistlines and large TVs, the good old US of A.

First, the global perspective:

Increased food demand from rapidly developing nations such as China, the use of crops for biofuels, global stocks at 25-year lows and market speculation are all blamed for pushing prices of staples like wheat, maize and rice to record highs.

That in turn has sparked food riots in several African countries, Indonesia and Haiti, and the FAO has warned that 37 countries face food crises.

This is not something that came from no where, however:

"The situation we are in is the result of inappropriate policies over the past 20 years. Between 1990 and 2000 we lowered food aid for agriculture by half," U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization Director General Jacques Diouf] said.

Generous farm subsidies in wealthy countries had also discouraged agriculture in the developing world, further aggravating the situation, he said.

"Above all we have not invested in water management in different countries of the third world... In Africa only 7 percent of land is arable," he added.

If you didn’t catch that, the “Generous farm subsidies in wealthy countries” is shorthand for the United States.

Which brings us back to the situation domestically, where food prices are rising dramatically. And it appears that it’s having some perhaps surprising effects. The big box stores, for example, are seeing indications of strange purchasing behavior:

The regulatory clash came amid evidence that a rash of headlines in recent weeks about food riots around the world has prompted some in the United States to stock up on staples.

Costco and other grocery stores in California reported a run on rice, which has forced them to set limits on how many sacks of rice each customer can buy. Filipinos in Canada are scooping up all the rice they can find and shipping it to relatives in the Philippines, which is suffering a severe shortage that is leaving many people hungry.

More about those moves by Costco and Sam’s Club:

The two biggest U.S. warehouse retail chains are limiting how much rice customers can buy because of what Sam's Club, a division of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., called on Wednesday "recent supply and demand trends."


The limits affect 20-lb bags, not retail-sized portions. Costco could not immediately be reached for comment on its limits or whether they are the first ever.

Sam's Club said it will limit customers to four bags at a time of imported jasmine, basmati and long grain white rice.

In the United States, at least, whether this is an indication of any sort of actual crisis, or something altogether different, is unclear:

The move comes as U.S. rice futures hit a record high amid global food inflation, although one rice expert said the warehouse chains may be reacting less to any shortages than to stockpiling by restaurants and small stores.

In a related story, there is a growing backlash against the boom in corn-based ethanol production as a way to alleviate the dependence on oil. In an Earth Day column in the Washington Post, Lester Brown and Jonathan Lewis, of the Earth Policy Institute and Clean Air Task Force, respectively, say it’s time to end the experiment:

…we call upon Congress to revisit recently enacted federal mandates requiring the diversion of foodstuffs for production of biofuels. These "food-to-fuel" mandates were meant to move America toward energy independence and mitigate global climate change. But the evidence irrefutably demonstrates that this policy is not delivering on either goal. In fact, it is causing environmental harm and contributing to a growing global food crisis.

Their charges consist of:

  • It requires tons of energy, mostly coal-based, to produce ethanol
  • Ethanol production produces beau coup pollution
  • It’s driving up the cost of other food staples – that is, exacerbating the international food crisis.

More than a year ago, some researchers from the University of Minnesota, also in the pages of the Post, predicted some of these problems.

Some biofuels, if properly produced, do have the potential to provide climate-friendly energy, but where and how can we grow them? Our most fertile lands are already dedicated to food production. As demand for both food and energy increases, competition for fertile lands could raise food prices enough to drive the poorer third of the globe into malnourishment. The destruction of rainforests and other ecosystems to make new farmland would threaten the continued existence of countless animal and plant species and would increase the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

It’s funny, in a sad sort of way. So many of these things are discussed directly or alluded to in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. I have yet to read his latest, In Defense of Food – I’m desperately trying to actually finish a fiction book – but I did read Pollan’s most recent essay in the New York Times Magazine. It, too, touches on the environment and food prices.

It’s one of those must reads. Exhibit 1:

There are so many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing [about global warming], but perhaps the most insidious is that, whatever we do manage to do, it will be too little too late. Climate change is upon us, and it has arrived well ahead of schedule. Scientists’ projections that seemed dire a decade ago turn out to have been unduly optimistic: the warming and the melting is occurring much faster than the models predicted. Now truly terrifying feedback loops threaten to boost the rate of change exponentially, as the shift from white ice to blue water in the Arctic absorbs more sunlight and warming soils everywhere become more biologically active, causing them to release their vast stores of carbon into the air. Have you looked into the eyes of a climate scientist recently? They look really scared.

So do you still want to talk about planting gardens?

I do.

Seriously. Read the whole thing.

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