April 29, 2008
The Food Crisis
As everyone knows by this point, we are in the midst of a food crisis. Domestic prices of basic foods have risen by 46% over the past year, putting even more pressure on already stressed consumers. Overseas, food riots have occurred in Haiti, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Indonesia, Yemen, and as close to our borders as Mexico. These riots were severe enough to bring down the Haitian government of Jacques Edouard Alexis. Others may follow.
Any number of explanations have been offered. Global warming has taken its accustomed bow, only to be immediately pushed to one side by other candidates including market pressure created by higher living standards in India and China and increased fuel and fertilizer costs thanks to OPEC's price-raising spree. Overpopulation has been dragged from the closet and dusted off one more time. The dour ghost of economist Thomas Malthus, with his lethal equation that food supply increases arithmetically while population increases geometrically, has made yet another appearance.
How will we feed the world, the cry arises. The feast is over; the era of cheap food has come to an end. The West (as ever), must mend its ways, give up its McDonald's and KFC for the common good, learn to content itself with a bowl of cabbage soup and a handful of bamboo shoots a day. Soylent Green is just around the corner.
Within a year, the prophet of the 1200-calorie international diet will begin his campaign, in much the same way as Al Gore (perhaps it will even be Al Gore, if global warming goes south quickly enough), pursuing that Nobel aglow just over the horizon. Ecoterrorists will develop new targets to add to loggers and fur-wearers. (Has anybody ever noticed that PETA and Earth First! tend to keep their distance from leather fanciers, like those who so frightened Code Pink in Berkeley last week?) Fast-food restaurants will burst into flame in the dead of night. Famous chefs will require bodyguards. Ranchers will walk in fear of ambush, their herds poisoned or scattered.
All of which completely misses the point. Because there is one reason above all for the current crunch in basic foodstuffs, and that is: politics.
Food and Politics
There's nothing new in the confluence of politics and food. Chinese emperors punished fractious provinces by surrounding them with troops and confiscating all food supplies. Six months later the imperial troops would move in and execute the survivors for cannibalism. This has also been the pattern for much in the way of government action in the modern era. Some of the worst atrocities of the past century involved ideological famines. Hunger was a commonplace of left-wing states, either through use of food as a weapon or through sheer incompetence. The Ukrainian Holodomor ("Hunger-Death") of 1932-33 may have killed as many as 14 million. Mao outdid his imperial forbears with the Great Leap Forward of 1958-62, which killed up to 45 million (probably the greatest single atrocity of the modern era). The Ethiopian famine of 1984-85 easily killed over a million. Nor can we forget North Korea, with its grotesque "rolling" famine, which seems to recur almost annually. Democracies, on the other hand, can be defined as "political systems in which famines do not take place". No famine has occurred in a democratic Western state since the 1790s.
But liberal governments will figure out a way to imitate tyrannies. (They've been doing this for quite a long time, a widely overlooked fact that I've made the topic of my next book but one, being completed as you read this.) Food policy is no exception.
Last year represented a perfect storm for international agriculture. Not only did oil prices shoot through the roof and expanded menus in Asia lead to a run on commodities, there was also a serious problem with American honeybees, used to fertilize many varieties of crops. Colonies were dying for no clear reason, ensuring that large agricultural districts remained unfertilized. (The cause is still uncertain, although it may simply be genetic exhaustion after years of inbreeding to enhance certain traits, generally docility and ease of handling. Beekeepers who imported new strains from overseas have reported no problems.) To top off the mix, unusually cold weather ruined crops in areas ranging from California to China. (Yes, Al, we did say "cold". Time for a revised edition of An Inconvenient Truth.) Under the circumstances, 2008 was not fated to become a banner year for agricultural production.
But the major trigger for this year's predicament was the Congressional decision to mandate ethanol production. Congress subsidized the production of 7.5 billion gallons. As farmers began climbing on the grain wagon, this grew to over 9 billion gallons, an incredible one-third of the American corn harvest. Immediate price inflation hit all foods utilizing corn -- not only directly, but as animal feed, and in the form of corn syrup used in soft drinks and sweets. The sudden sequestration of corn immediately affected all other grains, as supplies dropped when corn was planted instead, and scarcity took hold as attempts were made to replace corn with wheat, rice, and other grains. Within months, the effects had spread worldwide.
The ethanol fixation is a perfect example of ritual behavior, something along the line of carefully sorting cans and bottles for the recycling truck, which then drives them straight to the local landfill. (Unless you're in Jersey, where it is said some suspicious men dump them in vacant lots in low-income neighborhoods.) Ethanol, the world was told, would replace large amounts of oil, decreasing American dependence on foreign sources. It represented a cheaper alternative overall. And it would help combat global warming by putting less CO2 in the atmosphere.
In fact, none of these claims pass muster. It requires over 400 pounds of corn to produce enough fuel to fill a single automobile tank -- enough corn to feed an adult for a year. This is a terrible bargain, particularly after it becomes clear how much corn would be needed to fulfill the eventual mandate of 36 billion gallons a year. That figure would require more agricultural land than the U.S. has got. All the ethanol used today, taking a third of the crop, replaces only 3% of oil imports, a truly pitiful amount. As for expense, ethanol costs more than gasoline to process, to ship, and to store -- none of which is ever included in cost calculations. Its supposed effect on hypothetical global warming is similarly exaggerated. With traditional crops, carbon goes right back into the ground; with ethanol, it's burned and goes into the atmosphere, a net increase for atmospheric CO2. Under some circumstances, it can be far worse. According to a study from Science quoted by William Tucker, clearing land to plant crops for ethanol -- as is occurring in Indonesia and Latin America -- can increase greenhouse gases as much as 92 times.
Ethanol is typical of most "Green" solutions in that the cure is worse than the disease. But ethanol adds a new layer of perversity by also increasing human misery on a global scale.
The Oil States
Much the same can be said of international oil. OPEC's looting spree has put fertilizer and fuel out of the reach of many developing economies, including those of some Arab and Middle Eastern countries. The disdain shown by the governments of oil-producing states for the welfare of their own people in their eagerness to make a gigabuck is truly infuriating. Particularly precious in this regard is Hugo Chavez, constantly beating his chest about his concern for Latino peasants while at the same time making it more difficult for them to earn their livings. (Last weekend Chavez went on record to condemn ethanol as a "crime" against the poor. You have to admire his sincerity.)
Since the world is peculiarly cowed by the oil states -- aside from Canada and Norway, among the weakest nations on the globe except for the accident of resources -- little attempt has been made to correct this. There have been no protests on the international level, no diplomatic initiatives, no admonitions from the UN. It appears that the oil states, alone among all nations of the international community, are allowed to act with absolute impunity no matter what the effect on global conditions.
The Ideological States
The third leg of the iron triangle of food politics is made up of the legacy effects of the 20th century ideological states. In utilizing the food weapon against their own people, the ideological tyrannies and their Third World imitators commonly destroyed the agricultural industries of the regions and countries involved. The Ukraine, for example, once fed much of the ancient world. After the Stalinist famine and the ensuing collectivization of agriculture, it was scarcely able to feed itself. That situation prevails to this day. Ukrainian agriculture retains many of the worthless practices of the Soviet era, earlier methods having been forgotten. Agriculture in Ukraine has in fact shrunk 12% since the end of the Cold War. Most of the former Soviet states, along with China, retain the structure and procedures of the state farm system. Although perfectly positioned to take advantage of changes in agricultural markets, the dead hand of socialism has prevented them from doing so.
But it's in Africa that ideology has left the most brutal mark. Zimbabwe could easily feed southern Africa if it didn't suffer the misfortune of being run by a lunatic and his Maoist clique. Robert Mugabe's policy of disenfranchising white farmers destroyed the country's agricultural system, which meant wrecking the country as a whole. A number of those looted farmers moved across the border to Zambia, which in a matter of a few years became a leading agricultural state. Agricultural stagnation also prevails in Kenya, Angola, and several smaller nations.
The danger is that the current "crisis" will stampede the international community into taking steps that will make things worse. It is almost like attempting to put out a fire with ethanol. For instance, expanding the authority of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization in an effort to "control" or "systemize" international agriculture. The UN's "Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food" is a left-wing Swiss academic, Jean Ziegler, comrade of Castro and Mugabe, enemy of Zionism, and co-founder of the Muammar Gaddafi Human Rights Prize. The thought of putting international agricultural policy in the hands of such an individual would be ludicrous if it were not so plausible. (While the Food and Agriculture Organization has long protested the use of food crops for ethanol, it remains a UN organization and as such cannot be depended on.)
The actual solution is apparent: sever the connection between politics and food. End the ethanol craze. Above all, lend support to getting the world's historic agricultural areas back on their feet.
The UK's Gordon Brown is pushing the European Union to abandon or modify its ethanol targets. The U.S. should do the same. In a few years a new process for creating ethanol -- one which utilizes weeds and agricultural scrap -- should be online (it's undergoing industrial testing right now) and we'll see if there's anything at all to the idea. Until then, not a single child should go hungry in order that Greens can feel smug.
It may even be possible to persuade the oil states to relent a bit. Pressuring OPEC may seem an exercise in wish fulfillment. But the international oil sphere is about to undergo large-scale and sudden restructuring. Recent discoveries of large fields in the U.S., in Mexican waters, and in the Southern Atlantic off Brazil will go a ways toward blunting the oil weapon.
But the most important factor is rehabilitating traditional agricultural areas. This is probably a daydream in terms of Africa, which may have to suffer complete destruction under Mugabe and his clones before any type of resurrection is possible. But Ukraine by itself could well become an equivalent of the American and Canadian Midwest. What is required is encouragement, education, and financing to create a new infrastructure. This is not a program for the UN or the customary NGOs, Ukraine not being a third-world state. There is no point in building a mammoth bureaucracy to carry out a multi-generational effort. A relatively low-key program, with only enough structure to assure that the funding gets where it's aimed at, is what is called for. One suggestion might involve a farm exchange program, in which young Ukrainian farmers spend a season in the Midwest to see how things are done there.
Above all, we must be aware that the situation represents no apocalypse. Farmers across the country are madly planting corn (despite warnings to diversify from the Department of Agriculture) which will bring prices down with a thump next year. But the Second Horseman's swift trot across the horizon has revealed some serious failings in international agriculture. Most of these failings are products of political meddling. Cease meddling, and many problems will solve themselves. Today, much of the developed world has learned that industry cannot be effectively manipulated through policy. We sometimes forget that farming is an industry like any other. That recognition is long overdue.
And thanks, I'll have mine well done.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.