Mounting food crises around the globe destabilized governments and began to look more and more like a cruel joke perpetrated by the rich northern hemisphere against its poorer brethren in the south. Especially culpable is the ill-advised policy of turning corn into automobile fuel as a means of propping up an over-indulged but teetering American lifestyle.
Ethanol made from corn takes on an especially sinister hew when Haitians are eating dirt pies to stave off hunger. At a meeting in Washington, leaders from poor countries called on the U.S. and others to reconsider their support for turning food crops into fuel. Work by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington suggests that biofuel production accounts for a quarter to a third of the recent increase in global commodity prices.
But the powers in Washington will hear none of that. Senator Charles E. Grassley, (R-Iowa), called the recent criticism of ethanol by foreign officials “a big joke,” citing drought in Australia and growing demand for meat in China and India as more important factors.
But get this for American smugness: “You make ethanol out of corn,” Grassley said. “I bet if I set a bushel of corn in front of any of those delegates, not one of them would eat it.”
Technically, he is correct. Most of the corn grown in Iowa is inedible. It's turned into high-fructose corn syrup to help make Americans fatter. Thanks for the clarification, senator. The mud pies are starting to taste better already.
Meanwhile, economist Lester Brown was heard to say on National Public Radio: “The grain required to fill a 25 gallon SUV tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year, and what we’re seeing now is the emergence of direct competition between the 860 million people in the world who own automobiles and who want to maintain their mobility, while the two billion poorest people in the world simply want to survive.”
Yet it stands to reason that if food prices are going through the roof and millions of people are on the brink of starvation, someone has to be making out like a bandit. Who would that be? Well, it may not be small, individual farmer so much as the big corporations involved in planting and growing food.
Does the name Monsanto sound familiar?
A longtime farmer from Southern Indiana reports that since last year, seed corn has increased in price from $133 a bag to $191. Fertilizer has doubled from $578 a bag from $238, and nitrate has spiked from $518 a bag to $799.
The current battle cry for investors: There's gold in that thar food!
Or, you can just do nothing and collect your taxpayer-funded, crop subsidy check from the U.S. government .
If the House version of the farm bill becomes law, $120,000 checks will go out to the nation's most profitable farms, or to big landowners who don't farm at all but just own large tracts of farm land. The top subsidy recipient for 2006 was Richland Foods, a rice cooperative, which pulled in $7.7 million.
But the biggest cash cow is still corn. Over the past 12 years, U.S. taxpayers have shelled out $56 billion in corn subsidies.
The Washington Post went out looking to see where all this federal money is going and published a series titled "Harvesting Cash." After a year of investigating in the field, the Post reporters found that most of the money was going to the biggest farms that were putting small family farms out of business. Taxpayers spent $9 billion on disaster payments--often to the same farmers--with the big beneficiaries being insurance companies. Drought aid ended up in the pockets of middlemen. At least $1.6 billion was given to landowners who had planted nothing since 2001, some of the recipients being homeowners in new housing developments where the back yards used to be rice fields.
Your taxpayer dollars at work....
Meanwhile, Second Harvest, the nation's largest food bank network, says 35 million Americans are hungry and desperately need Congress to pass a farm bill.
“Our food bank members across the country have reported tremendous increases in the number of people seeking help to feed their families in the past several months. Soup kitchens and the food pantries are seeing many new faces among those standing in line for assistance," said Vicki Escarra, Second Harvest president, in a press release.
“Many of these people are the working poor – honest, hard-working people who have low-wage jobs and just can’t make ends meet in these tough economic times. They are in desperate circumstances, struggling to keep a roof over their heads – and to keep their children fed. The recent spike in food and gasoline prices has only made a terrible situation worse.
“At the same time, donations of food from the USDA bonus commodity program have fallen by more than 75 percent in the past four years, forcing our food banks to spend more and more money buying food to meet demand. Last year alone, our food banks spent more than $127 million on food purchases."
At the other end of the food line, people trying to eat healthy are seeing their grocery bills spike as well. The price of organic goods has gone through the roof.
In some parts of the country, a loaf of organic bread can cost $4.50, a pound of pasta has hit $3, and organic milk is closing in on $7 a gallon.
“It’s probably the most dynamic and volatile time I’ve seen in 25 years,” said Gary Hirshberg, chief executive of Stonyfield Farm, an organic dairy business. “It’s extremely difficult to predict where it’s going.”
Farmers are receiving unheard of prices for organic grains. People who have to buy organic ingredients--bakers, pasta makers, chicken and dairy farmers--say they are struggling to maintain profit margins, even though shoppers are paying more. The price of organic animal feed is so high that some dairy farmers have abandoned organic farming methods and others are pushing retailers to raise prices more aggressively.
Prices for conventional corn, soybeans and wheat are at or near records, so there is less incentive for farmers to switch to organic crops.
And don't look now, but those lousy school lunches your kid eats could be getting even worse because of rapidly escalating food prices.
In Davie County, North Carolina, the Yoo-hoo chocolate drink that had been taken out of schools in favor of healthier conventional milk products is back. That's because each bottle of Yoo-hoo brings in 36 cents in profits.
In New York schools, pizza was being served without the turkey pepperoni topping. For a while, tomatoes were nixed from school salads in Montgomery County, Maryland. The same school system is looking at a $600,000 increase in its dairy bill next year. Some schools around the nation's capitol are talking about jacking up the price of lunch.
In Alexandria, Virginia, the school board approved a 10-cent increase for students who pay full price, raising the lunch price in elementary school to $2.15 and in middle and high schools to $2.45.
"There's a tipping point somewhere, and I think we're there," said Becky Domokos-Bays, director of food services for Alexandria schools. "I don't know how much more families can afford to pay."
Finally, our "Gasbags of the Week" award goes to the leaders of the worlds banks for all their hand-wringing over food prices. World Bank President World Bank Robert Zoellick and the International Monetary Fund's Dominique Strauss-Kahn were both heard wailing about hunger and political unrest resulting from the world's food crises.
Their solution, of course, would be more free trade and other policies that have driven subsistence farmers off their land and forced Third-World countries to use up their food surpluses in order to pay off their debts to rich overlords to the north.
It's enough to make some writers want to gag.