Rising food and gas prices have been much on my mind lately. Unlike many Americans, rising gas prices do not bother me that much. I feel like we have been getting discount rates for gasoline for far too long. The effect has been counterproductive, encouraging urban sprawl and environmental degradation. I would like to see gas taxes raised to encourage conservation and to fund research into clean transportation solutions. It sure will not happen if we suspend federal gasoline taxes, a harebrained proposal that was endorsed by both presidential contenders John McCain and Hillary Clinton.
Rising food prices though do bother me. As I am one of the more economically fortunate Americans, I am not personally put out much by the rising cost of food. However, I do know that rising food prices are affecting many Americans. It has reached the point where some are going hungry who never went hungry before. Community food banks are running low, affected by both increased demand and fewer contributions. The drop in donations is due in part to the rising cost of food.
Cross our borders and the rising cost of food is not a minor cause for concern, but a major problem. In some poorer countries, it has morphed into full-blown crises. In Mexico, the cost of maize has increased 30% since the start of the year, making the simple corn tortilla almost a luxury item, and beyond the budget of many of Mexico’s poorest. Food riots in Haiti last month forced a change in government. The Washington Post documented the malnutrition and starvation occurring now in Mauritania, one of many poor countries with this problem. In Egypt, ten people died recently in fights in bread lines. The Philippines, which imports much of the rice it needs to feed its burgeoning population, is finding the supply of foreign rice scarce. What rice is available is far more expensive and unaffordable to many. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the rising price of food a global crisis.
What is driving up the cost of food? As you may know, there are two primary factors. One is that more of the world is becoming industrialized. With more money in their pockets, these newly emboldened consumers are consuming more food. Principally they are eating a lot more meat. In addition, rising oil prices are “fueling” the growth of renewable energy sources like ethanol. Biofuels that come from food sources mean that there is less food on the market to be consumed, which is contributes to the fast rising price of food. If these factors were not enough, rising oil prices are also contributing to the increased cost of growing food. It costs more for the gasoline to till the soil, plant and harvest crops. It also costs more to transport crops to market.
There may have been times in our past when food prices were this high, but I cannot recall them. In my memory, American farms have always produced far more food than could be consumed. Billions of metric tons are still shipped overseas to feed a growing world. The U.S. remains the world’s biggest food exporter, but that is changing. Now, with 6.5 billion humans across the world to feed even our surplus is not quite enough. Moreover, world demand for petroleum seems unstoppable. It appears that the world is in for a turbulent and hungry period, with hundreds of millions if not billions of people at risk of malnutrition or starvation.
I know that I will survive largely unaffected. I have the income to weather any food or energy crisis. Yet, my lifestyle also has the indirect effect of causing other people to go hungry. When I fill my gas tank with 5% ethanol, I am encouraging this industry. If people are going hungry, I would rather pay higher prices for gas without ethanol in it. I would prefer to divert these crops into food for consumption by my fellow human beings. If we are going to make the choice to use renewable fuels, then we must make sure these crops go to feed hungry people first. I have no problem with using open space that is currently not being farmed to grow non-food crops like switchgrass that can be made into renewal fuels. However, the lives of hungry people must first. If we need to expand food production in order to keep people from starving, we should choose this over cultivating crops for biofuels.
In addition, we in the developed world need to rethink our addiction to meat. I mentioned in an earlier post that vegetarianism is good for the planet. It is not only good for the planet; it is good for anyone who values human lives. The majority of corn and soy grown in our country goes not to feed humans, but animals, who we then slaughter for their meat. According to this New York Times story, it takes two to five times as much grain calories to fatten livestock for slaughter compared to humans consuming the grain directly. In the case of cattle on feedlots, the ratio goes as high as ten to one. While we need protein to survive, Americans typically consume about twice as much protein as they need. The protein we do need can just as easily come from plant sources as from meats. Despite high grain prices, grains are much cheaper per calorie than meat.
I do not plan to give up meat altogether, but I do feel the ethical imperative to start consuming less meat. My steaks, which are already rare treats, will be fewer and smaller. I plan to go without meat one day a week for a start, and then see if I can make it two days a week. Perhaps I can take some wisdom from my daughter, who eats comparatively little meat, but consumes plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There is ample protein in peanut butter, and it is loaded with the good kinds of unsaturated fats, not the bad ones. If I feel the need to consume an animal product, an egg or a slice of cheese is a better ethical choice.
Now I am more aware that by driving down the demand for meat, I am helping animals of all species. However, most importantly I am helping my fellow human beings survive. It is not much, but it is a start.