The End of Cheap Food

The End of Cheap Food - EconomistThis, dear friends, is a headline which should scare you.  Last week’s The Economist featured this rather alarmist (but accurate) headline on the cover.  And you should all pay heed.  Food is of course a benchmark for inflation, and among peoples in differing classes its price has served as a great equalizer.  When food costs more, we all suffer in a reversal of “trickle-down” economics (though this chain reaction actually works).The article blames of course our increasing gluttony and penchant for beef, and typically the rise of China and their emulation of our gluttony.  But more succinctly it targets agflation in the United States (and Canada, and Europe) sparked by the boom in Biofuels like Ethanol which, as I’ve been known to rattle on, is in turn economically-driven by subsidies and artificial incentives to convert what used to be food into fuel.Burning our food in the gas tanks of our SUVs is, even on the most conceptual level, a stupid idea.   The Economist claims that the:

30m tonnes of extra maize going to ethanol this year amounts to half the fall in the world’s overall grain stocks.    

This is, however, the cornerstone of Bush’s energy policy.  He views biofuels as an alternative fuel source technology, and technology as his “way out” of the end of Peak Oil.  It’s a strategy that recklessly fiddles with the levers of supply and demand, and pays no attention whatsoever to the fundamental laws of nature.   As The Economist also points out, it’s also a source of rebalancing power, in essence breathing new life into rural communities and lining farmers’ pockets.  This might be true were we all to ascribe to the Republican notion of the hardscrabble farmer, mining the earth for its nurturing treasures to support his struggling family.  This Rockwellian picture, however, is no longer particularly accurate.  It’s a facade perpetuated to make the lining of the pockets of Agribusiness palatable to the electorate — what invariably happens is that subsidies and price optimizations end up in the coffers of companies like Monsanto.We are left in a position where government intervention has therefore had three key effects:

  1. Depletion of natural resources (farmland) at an accelerated rate and;
  2. Quixotically, less food available for us to consume at higher prices and;
  3. Indentured servitude of harvesters at the hands of megacorps in the agribusiness.

It’s just another wealth transfer that is picking the planet clean.  Corn is only economically viable as an alternative fuel source because of subsidies and incentives.  Corn itself was originally subsidized to offset decades of grain subsidies.  The result is that little else is grown on arable land in America these days.  These subsidies discourage the growth of more natural crops and foodstuffs that could feed us efficiently and naturally, instead driving the farmer toward lower-hanging fruit, pardon the pun.  Corn is in everything we eat.  High-Fructose Corn Syrup has replaced sugar and natural sweeteners, and as our bodies seem incapable of processing it we grow fatter.  Grains are used to feed cattle and we are encouraged to gorge ourselves on high-fat, disease-infested beef.  Fundamentally, though, we should simply not be burning our food in gas tanks.  We will ultimately starve ourselves for it.  We need to nix the subsidies and diversify our foodstuffs, we need to educate and reward people for eating healthy foods, we need to pursue rational energy policy and quit looking for stopgaps, and we need to accept that fossil fuels will not represent our future.

7 thoughts on “The End of Cheap Food

  1. Making bio-fuel from algee waste from water treatment plants is the way to go. We spend millions every year to get rid of the stuff. We have the technology to turn it almost directly to burnable fuel. We get it by the tons, and dont have to pay to get rid of it. And we dont need any farmland to grow it.

    Plankton can be grown at an astonishing rate in wherehouses. Uses no farmland. Grass, and other weed/junk plants can also be used on land not fit for corn or wheat.

    Saying we need to use food for fuel is nothing more than a scare tactic by big oil.

  2. I grow fresh high dollar veg and buy low dollar food crop, thus I beat the high dollar cost of shopping using simple hydroponics. Seeds are cheap, Perlite is cheap, herbs grow! Looking to grow lettuce next.

  3. It’s interesting and disturbing that all of these Bush-era Republican strategies follow the same pattern: transfer tax dollars from the poor and middle income earners to large business through subsidies and government contracts, yet disguise this reality with the rhetoric of helping hard working Americans enjoy their simple, honest lives. And then in turn stand by as the same recipients of these subsidies and contracts use them to make the lives of those who paid for them still more miserable.

  4. you seem surprised? I believe you mentioned a few years back the class effect of food costs. The wealthier eat better, the scrambling class can’t afford to, and get fat/sicker.

    Your Corn Syrup is poison and should be outlawed! Hopefully we can find more local food sources that can be made more easily available.

    I’m not holding out much hope while hamburger prices are driven below that of coffee by the market. Or the politicians ensuring fuel costs don’t reflect the costs/impact on the country.

  5. Good post. Something I’ve given little thought to. I’ve always been astonished at the prices of food in the US. Sometimes I shop at Walmart in Bellingham and it is so much cheaper than in Canada.

    At McDonalds there you can get a McChicken for $1.00. That’s almost as cheap as Thailand. Plus the food on the shelves, made w/ corn and wheat, is quite inexpensive.

    If the cost of food does go up and the price of a twinkie is the same as an apple, I wonder if the obesity rate in the US will drop.

    Perhaps if the cost of producing food with highly subsidized corn increases, people may eat more healthy and the cost of health care will decrease and things will even out.

  6. Great to see you writing about this, Ian. Also a long term passion of mine — sustainable and more local food. Even “organic” food is done by megacorps today.

    Better go buy another copy of Square Foot Gardening…