4.23.2008

King Corn and the food crisis

I've spent the last week collecting articles about the worldwide crisis caused by rising food costs. The crisis is bigger than just us in the US paying a dollar more for a dozen eggs, or $4 for a gallon of milk. The rising food costs are affected by everything from Mideast gas prices to America's government food policy, and the poorest in our country and overseas are now finding it difficult to feed their families.

Like I said, lots of articles.

The Food Bill

For months now, the Food Bill has been up for renewal. It's stalled in Congress. This is a wide-reaching bill that does everything from give funding to food stamps to deciding what farmers will grow. How can the government dictate what private farms grow, you may wonder? The Food Bill gives farmers subsidies for specific crops (corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton ... and maybe one more.). Once-upon-a-time, these subsidies supported food prices, making sure the market never got inundated with a bumper crop of one commodity and caused the price to fall- the subsidies (then, loans) encouraged the farmers to hold back their excess crop until prices were higher. Now, the loan turned into a payment, and encourages farmers to grow these specific crops, even at a time of the highest prices for the crops ever.

TIME - House passes Farm Law Extension
TIME - Wholesale Costs Spiking Inflation

Why is this all bad? Corn is our staple, right? Well, yes, corn is a staple because of the Food Bill. If it weren't for the government intervention, there wouldn't be so much corn out there. Because there's so much corn out there, food companies have to figure out what to do with all of it. Corn flakes. Corn syrup. Corn bread. Soda? Liquid corn. Corn starch. Baking powder. Xanthan gum. Caramel coloring. Corn oil. A huge list of ingredients. And then there's our meat: Naturally, cows eat grass. (Remember from music class? "All Cows Eat Grass" Yes, that's ALL I remember from music class.) What do most cows eat now? Corn. Lots of it. It takes 6 pound of corn to produce 1 pound of beef. What do pigs eat? And chickens? Corn.

So, again, why is this bad? First, corn isn't that nutritional- and it's all we eat. Second, along with food, corn is starting to be diverted for our cars to consume too, in the form of ethanol. The poorest in the world are competing with our SUVs for food. That bothers me.

CNN - Food crisis a silent tsunami
CNN - Soaring food prices elicit creative solutions
Indy Star - Pumping up corn demand
USDA - Corn prices near record high, but what about food costs?
Reason magazine - Feed SUVs and starve people?
PBS - King Corn

The world is impacted. It's our SUVs that are eating the poorest's food, and they notice. In Haiti. In Egypt. In North Korea. In China. In Bangladesh and Mozambique. All over.
"In just two months," Zoellick said in his speech, "rice prices have skyrocketed to near historical levels, rising by around 75 percent globally and more in some markets, with more likely to come. In Bangladesh, a 2-kilogram bag of rice ... now consumes about half of the daily income of a poor family."

The price of wheat has jumped 120 percent in the past year, he said -- meaning that the price of a loaf of bread has more than doubled in places where the poor spend as much as 75 percent of their income on food.

"This is not just about meals forgone today or about increasing social unrest. This is about lost learning potential for children and adults in the future, stunted intellectual and physical growth," Zoellick said. - CNN


And it's not like these rioters are eating a lot of food. Check out this Flickr set of what a family eats in a week, and what it costs.

So what can we do?
Sometimes it feels like we can't do very much. After reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, we've decided to try to find grass-fed beef when we can. I'm acutely aware of what's in my food, now. I look at ingredients of things and wonder if I could go a whole week without corn or corn-fed food. I want to learn to eat on a "shorter food chain" - less processed food, more from my garden, more local, less meat. I'm learning, but I'm not there yet.
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Sorry. This was a bit of a rant. And I didn't even talk about the environmental impact of growing corn (or any crop) on the same soil every year, the fertilizers involved, or the transportation and processing costs associated with the way we eat.

2 comments:

jjeaton said...

I definitely disagree with these farm subsidies. They only help a small percentage of the population, while the rest have to deal with the consequences.

It's not just the U.S. either. The EU has awful farm subsidies. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the largest item in the EU Budget.

Stephanie said...

I'm not sure how many people see the big picture on all this, but they do know it is affecting their pocketbook.

There are so many new gardens being tilled around here. The lady at the farm store said she thinks about double the people are gardening this year.

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