The agricultural improvements of the early nineteenth century gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and also made it possible for farms to feed incredibly large amounts of people. The productivity did not come without its setbacks though. The increased supply of food led to a massive boom in population, leading to increased demand for other resources. Also, the new tactics used to farm were damaging the land. Similarly, our modern food system is riddled with the need for improvements. The United States is seeing increasing cases of both obesity and anorexia, and yet millions of people are starving in other countries. As a result of humans’ obesity, the added biomass could feed an extra half a billion people. It is overly simplistic to say we should just take food away to the over-consumers and distribute it to those in need, mainly due to delivery costs, but the we can take many steps to improve the global food system that feeds billions.
A major fallacy in examining our food is looking at it simply as a market good. It provides life and nourishment to millions of people, yet the new trend is to analyze it specifically in the context of making money off the stock market. With the recent drought and gradual degradation of the climate, more investors are putting their money in cropland. Food availability issues are causing other countries to outright buy cropland in other countries to secure their food supply. Brunei is a small country in Southeast Asia, and their primary exports are oil and natural gas. Due to an increased demand in beef, the Brunei government actually owns a cattle farm in Australia that is bigger than its own country! The United Arab Emirates, in a fashion similar to most other oil-producing countries, “control some 700,000 acres of farmland in Sudan, which they are using to grow a variety of produce for export to the Emirates.” These ‘land grabs,’ as they are known, are not limited to the land. Even oceans are available for capture. More significant that food availability is the potential for investors to make a quick buck. “Farmland is the new gold,” said an article in a 2008 issue of Euromoney, (Klare, Race for What’s Left, Location 3100 of 6515). My email account is constantly spammed of sketchy investment opportunities in foreign farmland. One video pitch describe the practice as “capitalism’s greatest growth industry” even when they admitted to the “lowest paid farm workers”. It seems to be a pretty telling example of capitalism if oil-producing states are requiring starving farm workers to handle food they cannot eat.
We also must quit making food in an industrial means. Confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) supply the majority of the United States’ meat products, and the animals are living rib to rib in their own feces to maximize production. The process produces large toxic sludge ponds and requires enormous amounts of anitbiotics; 80% of the antibiotics sold go to animal mouths. For crops, monoculture is commonplace. Rows and rows of the same crop require large amounts of pesticide and quickly degrade the soil. Organic food has seen a renewed interest, but critics say it cannot feed the planet. While the cost is still prohibitively expensive for poorer consumers, the farm productivity is a non-issue. While organic farming decreases productivity only 8% in the United States, it boosts productivity 62% in more arid regions like Africa and the Middle East.
The United States and most other countries must have food production diverge from the consumption of oil. For some food items such as beef, 10 calories of fossil fuels are required to make one calorie of beef. The use of hydraulic fracturing, to get natural gas is threatening the animals and water supply. Oil dependence and fossil fuel lobbying are negatively influencing farm policy, and climate change will not help either. A worsening climate will lead to less coffee, cranberries, rice, fish, and more dust bowls. Of course the large GMO companies would deny this is all happening, because who better to benefit from the manufacture of drought resistant crops? Clearly oil and food are too closely mixed, so making more fuel out of food is not the answer. The reason why is not the most apparent though. Land availability accounts for less than 10% of the food’s cost, similar to the cost of packaging. Oil prices, however, are a much larger factor of the price. Michael T. Klare provides an excellent example of the interconnectedness of oil and food prices:
“The increase in oil prices raised the price of fuels to power machinery and irrigation systems; it also raised the price of fertilizer and other chemicals that are energy-intensive to produce.” With fuel, fertilizer, and chemicals accounting for as much as 34 percent of the cost of producing corn in the United States, a threefold increase in the price of petroleum— as occurred between 2005 and 2008— was bound to have a powerful impact on the price of food. (Race for What’s Left, Location 3611 of 6515)
Thus using food as a fuel arguably controls the price of food more so than diverting the crop from its intended product destination. Regardless, the practice is highly unsustainable and will likely cause further disruption in the availability of food. Corn-derived ethanol can also cause long term car damage. Instead of relying on a food source as fuel, businesses should look at agricultural waste or alternative plants, such as switchgrass or hemp.
We do seem to be moving in the right direction. The government and public are starting to realize that biofuel mandates cut into the price of food, and the agricultural industry is starting to incorporate a plethora of clean technologies to help the climate. The days of CAFOs could be numbered, thanks to awareness of the animal cruelty and better laws preventing the inhumane treatment of animals. In part due to the economic downturn, people are eating less meat and slowly realizing the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Several groups are trying to reduce food waste and turn to more local sources of food. With a worsening climate though, the issues of land grabs and increased demand will require a massive shift in consumption patterns and government action.