The mainstream media finally woke up to the fact that something has gone seriously wrong with the world's food supply. Even the evening news programs have been forced to take notice of food riots in Haiti and the role that turning corn into ethanol is playing in spiking food prices.
The Washington Post devoted a five-part series to exploring how a run on commodities prompted panic buying by countries around the globe, draining grain silos at a time when a prolonged drought in Australia had already hurt wheat production and when U.S. farmers were switching from growing wheat to planting corn to cash in on the ethanol boom.
The ultimate effect has been to force the world's poorest families to eat even less and to make stark choices: keep the family goat for the milk she provides, or slaughter her for tonight's dinner? Many are opting for a quick meal.
"I don't know how I will feed my family," says one Mauritanian man. "We just can't afford it."
Americans, too, are feeling the pinch. Just in the last year, the price of eggs is up 35 percent, milk 23 percent and bread 16 percent. Again, the hardest hit are the poor. A survey of the nation's food banks shows that demand is up across the country, perhaps as much as 20 percent. Most food banks--84 percent--report that they have had to cut back on the assistance they give because of a shortage of supplies.
Food service organizations "have been absolutely overwhelmed by demand," said Vicki Escarra, president of America's Second Harvest. "Supply is not keeping up with demand and we must do something quickly to meet the needs of the more than 35 million struggling Americans trying to make ends meet and feed themselves and their families."
President Bush continues to pursue his ethanol policy pedal-to-the-metal. But now other Republicans are having second thoughts.
On Friday, two dozen GOP leaders--including presumptive presidential nominee John McCain (AZ)--called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ease the congressionally mandated requirements that more ethanol and other renewable fuels be added to the nation's gasoline supply.
"With the price of everyday meat, chicken, bread and eggs rapidly increasing, we are asking the EPA to use the flexibility that Congress gave them, because so many families cannot afford the increasing prices at the grocery store," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Texas).
If you think farmers are quick to cash in on the soaring price of grains, you would be right. But not so fast. The cost of farming has gone up too, especially anything that relies on fossil fuels. That would include the price of artificial nitrogen, which is made from natural gas.
In the last year, the cost of nitrogen fertilizer has nearly doubled, while diammonium phosphate has jumped from $393 a ton to $1,102. In some parts of the country, nitrogen sales have been restricted, so much so that Iowa farmers are now talking about going back to spreading hog manure on their fields. (They sure have enough of it.)
Problem is, the abundance of cheap nitrogen helped fuel a worldwide population explosion. Now with nearly 7 billion people on the planet--and more and more of them wanting to eat a rich, Western-style diet--the resources for fertilizing crops artificially just aren't there any more. There's talk of building more nitrogen factories in the Middle East, where natural gas is more abundant. But importing fertilizer is certain to jack up the price of food even more.
And don't forget, most Americans need natural gas to heat their homes. Does that mean choosing between heat and food?
Fertilizer inflation has created a crisis in countries that subsidize fertilizer use for farmers. In India, the government’s subsidy bill could be as high as $22 billion in the coming year, up from $4 billion in 2004-5.
Unless the world learns how to produce the food it needs organically--and does so in a hurry--there could be some major hurt in our future.
"This is a basic problem, to feed 6.6 billion people,” said Norman Borlaug, an American scientist who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his role in spreading intensive agricultural practices to poor countries. “Without chemical fertilizer, forget it. The game is over.”
The reason Iowans have so much hog manure is because they have more hogs in confinement than anywhere else on the planet--about 15 million of them. Confinement lots, known as CAFOs, have long been an issue because of the stench and pollution they produce, as well the appalling living conditions that the animals are forced to endure.
Now a new report, based on 2 1/2 years of analysis, finds that the CAFO system takes a hidden toll on human health and the environment , is undermining rural America's economic stability and fails to provide the humane treatment of livestock increasingly demanded by American consumers.
Sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trust and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of public health, the report is remarkable because it was conducted by experts with various backgrounds and allegiances and survived intense political pressures before making its bold findings.
Chief among the stark conclusions is that the "economies of scale" used to justify factory farming practices are largely an illusion, perpetuated by a failure to account for associated costs. Among those costs: human illnesses caused by drug-resistant bacteria associated with the rampant use of antibiotics on feedlots and the degradation of land, water and air quality caused by animal waste too intensely concentrated to be neutralized by natural processes.
Even industry representatives on the panel agreed to such controversial recommendations as a ban on the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals -- a huge hit against veterinary pharmaceutical companies -- a phaseout of all intensive confinement systems that prevent the free movement of farm animals, and more vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws in the increasingly consolidated agricultural arena.
"At the end of his second term, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of the military-industrial complex -- an unhealthy alliance between the defense industry, the Pentagon, and their friends on Capitol Hill," wrote Robert P. Martin, executive director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which wrote the report. "Now the agro-industrial complex -- an alliance of agricultural commodity groups, scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry, and their friends on Capitol Hill -- is a concern in animal food production in the 21st century."
To which we say, Right on...
From our grossly-out-of-whack-government-priorities department comes news of more inane budget cuts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While the USDA continues to give away billions to rich farmers, it wants to gut the public information programs at the agriculture library here outside the nation's capitol.
You might recall that the USDA already has plans to bring the axe down on the National Arboretum, an inner-city jewel of trees and trails and natural beauty to go with its research functions. The latest cuts are aimed at the National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, signed into being by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.
This library is nothing less than the greatest agricultural library in the world. Through its document delivery system, its vast collections have long been available to other libraries all over the country and around the globe. The proposed budget cuts could end the acquisition of new printed works, endanger the preservation of its special collections, halt document delivery and turn a national library into a local one.
And no, the library's collections have not been digitalized and made available by internet. They are churned out in document form and sent by snail mail to farmers everywhere hungry for reliable information on how to grow food.
The budget amounts in question are minuscule--just a million dollars here, a million dollars there. Nothing like the billions the USDA normally deals in. So who, you might wonder, would be focusing so hard on eliminating the federal government's role in these important public education functions?
Call me paranoid, but I sense some corporate hand at work, trying to take what's public and free and turn it into something to make a buck off of.
On a brighter note, you might recall the hue and cry when a huge community garden in Los Angeles was closed to make way for development. Celebrities staked out positions in trees to try and stop the demolition. But in the end, the gardeners lost and had to pack up their shovels and trowels.
Well, turns out some of the farmers from L.A.'s South Central Community Garden did not give up, they just moved. With the help from a nonprofit foundation, they've bought 85 acres about 130 miles away, in the tiny town of Bakersfield.
Their new spread won't be a working farm for two years . So for now, a couple of dozen stalwarts from the embattled old garden raise vegetables on a leased field a few miles away in Shafter. Every Friday night, some make the long commute from Los Angeles in an old school bus they bought on Craigslist. After tending the crops and bunking in a rented house, they head back over the Grapevine with boxes of organic spinach, kale, carrots, beets -- a cornucopia bound for farmers markets throughout the city.
"Sure it seems unlikely," said one of the group's leaders, an aerospace engineer who goes by the name Tezozomoc. "But if we could farm in South-Central, is it so strange to do it here?"
You just can't keep a food gardener down, and that's a good thing.