I was reading an article in last month’s Scientific American (I’m reading a lot of magazines about science right now; I’m not sure why) about what to do about the increase in food costs and how that’s impacting the poor.
This article (“A Quick Fix to the Food Crisis”) suggested that the cause of the increased cost of food staples was an increase in their use for the production of biofuels:
Since 2004 biofuels from crops have almost doubled the rate of growth in global demand for grain and sugar and pushed up the yearly growth in the demand for vegetable oil by around 40 percent.
Increasing demand for corn, wheat, soybeans, sugar, vegetable oil and cassava competes for limited acres of farmland, at least until farmers have had time plow up more forest and grassland…
Low reserves and rising demand for both food and biofuels create the risk of greater shortfalls in supply and send prices skyward.
So, if the demand for food to be processed into biofuels is driving up food costs, then obviously, what we should do is limit the amount of these crops that can be used for biofuels:
Our primary obligation is to feed the hungry. Biofuels are undermining our ability to do so. Governments can stop the recurring pattern of food crises by backing off their demands for ever more biofuels.
Okay, so again, this is a good example of how misunderstanding cause and effect can lead to problems. If the cause of increased food prices is an increase in the demand, then the solution would be to place restrictions on demand. But the author has already let us know that this is not a cause and effect relationship, because he said “at least until.” What does that mean? That it’s not necessarily the case that using crops for biofuels produces a shortfall: as soon as a sustained need is realized by farmers, they will move to increase production to meet the need. And what if they do restrict crop usage for biofuels? Will that guarantee low staple food costs? Of course not; a bad harvest will drive up prices as well.
So what this shows us is that the author is giving us a classic diamond deal: Do you want the yellowish diamond or the diamond with the black spot? (Both are cheaper!) Do you want biofuels and high food costs or low food costs and increased consumption/need for non-renewable energy (and the pollution they produce)? Which one?
Neither one. I’ll plant the seeds for what I want: eating vegetarian allows low-producing meat farms to be replaced with soybean or wheat production with higher yields and lower costs—providing more food and more raw product for biofuels. Then I’ll share the food I have and be careful to not over-eat or waste food—I also read a National Geographic article today that said that 36 pounds of every 173 pounds of grain is wasted (39 pounds of every 131 pounds of fresh vegetables).
But the point is, as always, think about what you want and give it to others. If I want food for everyone, I should feed others, not demand that others stop using things that they also need. Figure out a way for there to be enough for everyone; don’t live in a world where everything is limited and some people have and others don’t—create a world were everyone has everything they need.