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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.

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