The world's food system is taking on a surreal quality as the hinges fall off. On the one hand, hedge funds and investor syndicates eager to turn hunger into gold are buying up everything from fertilizer factories to farmland in Africa. Then, just as the experts warn that the fragile supply-and-demand equation will not survive any untoward weather events, torrential rains and flooding threatens to wipe out the Midwestern corn and soybean crops.
The world's nations convened a food summit in Rome to address runaway food prices. It went nowhere. While a billion people face starvation, no one wants to be the first to sacrifice his country's crop subsidies, and the U.S. refuses to acknowledge that turning corn into fuel for automobiles is a dumb idea.
A bleak tableau started to look like a Mel Brooks farce as the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sat before Congress and refused to say what it might take to devise a system that could put disease-free tomatoes on America's dinner tables. Tomatoes tainted with salmonella forced groceries and restaurants everywhere to pull them from the food chain, but the federal government it turns out has no way to trace where they came from.
Lawmakers simply cannot wrap their heads around the idea that the industrial food system they've been promoting lo these many years has run off the rails.
You may be asking, Are there any rays of sunshine in this gloomy picture?
Well, subsistence farmers in some countries are beginning to get the idea that there may be some opportunities to be had in the worsening food crisis. You remember them. These are the farmers who've been pushed to the brink by international monetary policies that favor big farms that use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow commodity crops. Farming to feed yourself has been a losing proposition.
In Rwanda, for instance, some entrepreneurs are heading back to the land to take advantage of spiking corn prices.
Rising prices mean farmers have incentives to plant more after decades of productivity declining under the weight of poverty, foreign competition and a marketplace flooded with subsidized food.
"This might be one of the best opportunities that poor subsistence-level farmers will ever have to claw their way out of poverty," said Josh Ruxin, founder of Access Project Rwanda, an anti-poverty advocacy group. "For the first time in years, they might be able to make some money."
Helping small farmers is a bargain. Just $70 worth of basic assistance, such as better seeds and fertilizer, would enable the average African farmer to grow an additional ton of corn. Delivering the same amount of corn as emergency aid would cost $700.
Still, international donors, the World Bank and most African governments for decades have largely ignored the needs of farmers, despite the fact that agriculture is the continent's largest economic sector and biggest employer.
In the U.S., spiking food prices and $4-a-gallon gas may have a silver lining as well: more gardens. Seed companies report sales spiking as much as 40 percent as some Americans discover the joys of growing their own food.
“One organic cucumber is $3 and I can produce it for pennies,” said a woman living on the Army base at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
She's dug up her back yard and installed 15 tomato plants, five rows of corn, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, peas, watermelon, green beans. An old barn on the property has been converted to a chicken coop, its residents arriving next month; the goats will be arriving next year.
“I spent $100 on it and I know I will save at least $75 a month on food,” she said.
And think how much better dinner will taste....
A primary reason for soaring food prices world-wide is the increasing taste for meat in prospering India and China. It takes a lot of grain to feed all that livestock. And the United Nations reminds us that there are other costs as well. Farm animals are responsible for an estimated 18 percent of the world's greenhouse emissions, more than all of the cars and trucks on the planet.
It can be pretty stinky, too. In one town in Minnesota, residents have been driven out of their homes by the stench emanating from a local dairy's manure pond.
“It’s been absolutely miserable,” said one resident outside Grand Forks. “It takes your breath away it’s so noxious. It’s not a manure smell. It’s not a farm smell. It’s a hydrogen sulfide-ammonia gas smell...I feel like I have no control over my life. It’s unfair that we are the ones who have to leave. It needs to be shut down.”
Some residents were considering a class action law suit against the dairy, while local officials were planning to file a nuisance charge.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is considering a regulation change that would exempt factory farms from reporting toxic air pollution from animal waste.
While industrial fishing fleets drive the bluefin tuna to extinction, European officials thought it might be a good idea to close this year's fishing season early.
European governments have largely looked the other way while profiteers ransack the bluefin population. Last year, European fleets exceeded the stated quota by 25 percent.
This year's early closure does little to stanch the concerns of environmental groups.
"Overfishing and massive illegal catches threaten the survival of bluefin tuna. Fishing should be banned indefinitely at least during June, the key spawning month for Mediterranean bluefin tuna," Aaron McLoughlin, head of WWF's European Marine Program, said in a statement.
While the bluefin are getting a bit of a reprieve, some shark populations in the Mediterranean have completely collapsed. According to a new study, the numbers of five different shark species have declining by more than 96 percent over the past two centuries.
"This loss of top predators could hold serious implications for the entire marine ecosystem, greatly affecting food webs throughout this region,” said the lead author of the study, Francesco Ferretti, a doctoral student in marine biology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.
In November, the International Union for Conservation of Nature warned that more than 40 percent of shark and ray species in the Mediterranean were threatened with extinction because of intense fishing pressure.
There's plenty of other news from the food world to jangle your nerves. But if you're still having trouble getting a buzz on, try Engobi.
Engobi is some kind of grain-based snack chip that's been infused with 70 percent more caffeine than Red Bull. Apparently, just eating junk isn't enough. It also has to make you want to climb the walls.
We're not about to actually consume Engobi. But clicking through its website entertained us for about 30 seconds. Be sure to wander over to "What's Inside Engobi" and click on the various little piles of ingredients. This is what passes as nutritional information for the wired generation.