Corn as fuel has hurt world food supply
BY ANDY KIMBRELL
June 20, 2008
Rising food prices are a hardship here at home, but they're truly disastrous for many beyond our borders. The staggering 83 percent rise in food prices reported by the World Bank over the past three years hits developing nations hardest. It's a complex situation with many causes, but the crisis is teaching us important and urgent lessons.
First among these is what we've learned about biofuels. Once considered the "green" solution to foreign oil dependence, corn ethanol has morphed into a humanitarian and environmental disaster. Diverting one-quarter of America's massive corn harvest from food to fuel has nearly crippled the globalized food system. A bushel of corn fetches about three times the price it did two years ago, one big reason for quadrupling tortilla prices in Mexico. Wheat and soybean farmers, lured by higher profits, switched over to corn. As a result, supplies of those crops are limited and wheat prices have risen an astronomical 130 percent since 2007, exacerbated by poor Australian harvests.
If you thought corn ethanol was at least lessening our dependence on foreign oil, think again: Ethanol displaces only 3 percent of our oil use. Additionally, the journal "Science" recently published research suggesting that biofuels are worsening global warming as well as hunger. High demand for energy crops is driving deforestation, which in turn releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases that far exceed minor reductions provided by the energy crops themselves.
Even those who embraced biofuels so enthusiastically a year ago are beginning to see what a chimera they actually are. Until alternative technologies are embraced, crop-based biofuels will continue to deprive the hungry of desperately needed food.
The second lesson: our industrialized approach to agriculture essentially transforms fossil fuels into human food. Food production American style consumes mountains of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers, over half-a-billion pounds of petroleum-based pesticides, and millions of gallons of fuel to drive farm equipment each year. Processing food and getting it to market consumes still more. The cost of a pound of beef, a gallon of milk or a box of cereal climbs ever higher, entangled with the skyrocketing price of oil.
A third lesson is that biotechnology can provide no solution. Biotech firms are pushing the idea that genetically engineered, or GE, crops will feed the world. But two decades of costly research has not produced a single marketable GE crop with increased yield, drought-resistance, enhanced nutrition or other attractive traits touted by boosters. What has succeeded are "herbicide-tolerant" GE varieties - engineered to survive application of weed killers - which remarkably make up 81 percent of the world's biotech crops. Small wonder that weed killer use is rising, and resistant weeds are proliferating.
To top it off, university studies show that Roundup Ready soybeans - which make up more than half of all biotech crops - get 6 percent lower yield than their conventional counterparts and are more susceptible to drought.
Despite these failures, government and biotechnology firms continue to tout genetic engineering as a magic bullet. Meanwhile, hundreds of conventional breeding and agroecological solutions remain unimplemented, thanks to draconian cuts to public sector agricultural development programs.
These lessons all remind us to beware the quick fix. H.L. Mencken famously observed that "for every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong." We're seeing right now that easy answers are destined to be failures, and changing our habits - always more difficult than simply buying something new - hold the answers.
If petroleum inputs are increasing costs, we need to use less of them. We should support organic farming without pesticides and without petroleum-based fertilizers. If genetically engineered crops are failing, we should instead promote readily available, high-yielding conventional varieties bred for drought resistance.
Through the lens of this crisis, we also see the sense in buying abundant, locally grown foods. Since they travel less and now cost less than processed food or produce flown from across the globe, local crops are looking more and more attractive. They're also fresher, more healthful and more beneficial to consumers. And, in buying them, we support local farmers.
The food crisis is conjoined to the fuel crisis, and this has opened our eyes to the flaws in our food production and distribution practices. It has also, thankfully, pointed us in the direction of real solutions - if we as consumers, policymakers and businesspeople are bold enough to make the needed changes.
Andy Kimbrell is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Center for Food Safety.
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