David Frum has an important piece up on CNN about the coming food crisis of 2013:
Prediction: 2013 will be a year of serious global crisis. That crisis is predictable, and in fact has already begun. It will inescapably confront the next president of the United States...The crisis originates in this summer’s extreme weather. Almost 80% of the continental United States experienced drought conditions. Russia and Australia experienced drought as well. The drought has ruined key crops. The corn harvest is expected to drop to the lowest level since 1995. In just July, prices for corn and wheat jumped about 25% each, prices for soybeans about 17%.
Frum points out that while it will put a major drag on our slowly recovering economies, the developed world will likely be able to mange this crisis. He is more worried about other places, correctly noting that when grain prices spiked in 2007-2008 bread riots shook 30 countries across the developing world. And things will likely be worse this time around, especially given new political and economic realities:
And if food prices surge again? China is especially vulnerable to food cost inflation. In just one month, July 2011, the cost of living jumped 6.5%. Inflation happily subsided over the course of 2012. Springtime hopes for a bumper U.S. grain crop in 2012 enabled the Chinese central bank to ease credit in the earlier part of the summer. Now the Chinese authorities will face some tough choices over what to do next.
The Arab Spring of 2011 is sometimes compared to the revolutions of 1848. That’s apter than people realize: the “hungry ’40s” were years of bad harvests across Europe. Hungry people are angry people, and angry people bring governments down. Will 2013 bring us social turmoil in Brazil, strikes in China or revolution in Pakistan? The answer can probably be read in the price indexes of the commodities exchanges — and it is anything but reassuring.
Sometimes we feel so disconnected from these global events that it seems as if there is nothing to be done, but in fact there are things that Americans in particular can do to bring down the cost of food–especially given how much our consumptive habits effect world prices in significant ways.
Consider, for instance, that one important driver of our food prices is the fact that 100 million tons of corn is turned into biofuel for American gas tanks each year. (This despite the fact that it is not obviously cleaner than traditional gasoline.) Consider also how wasteful a process producing and eating meat has become: we get back only 1 pound of beef for every 13 pounds of grain used in feed. (And these figures underestimate the waste because meat has a higher water-content than grain.) We can get far more calories per acre by simply growing and eating vegetables, rather than growing vegetables, feeding them to an animal, and then eating part of that animal. Instead, especially with the rise of India and China (which has brought with it even more dramatic levels of meat-eating), the world now uses more than 757 million tons of grain to feed its livestock–and this does not include soy products.
We had a series on this blog several months ago which asked several questions about the ethics of eating other animals. But as the food crisis unfolds in 2013, perhaps a new question arises: will our own eating habits be partly to blame?
Great post, Charlie. Especially timely with today’s stories (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/09/organic-food-isnt-more-nutritious-but-thats-not-the-point/261929/) about how eating organic may not matter when it comes to nutrients but still makes a difference to the environment and that in turn affects vulnerable people.
Several weeks ago someone in the Obama administration got in trouble for advocating Meatless Mondays, and the advocacy was withdrawn. I read some of the arguments back and forth and the meat producers were arguing that statistics like the familiar “13 pounds of grain for 1 pound of meat” do not reflect the efficiency of modern feed lots. (Of course, that efficiency comes at a cost, but engaging that argument for a minute . . .) Do you think the environmental argument for eating less meat is being challenged at all?
It is being challenged, but I must admit that I don’t know enough to know whether such challenges are legit. (One must look at self-interested parties with some skepticism though, right?) But even if the efficiency and environmental impact are off by 50% (and that would be a lot), the numbers are still overwhelming: eating animals is a wildly inefficient way to get calories and harm our ecology world in serious ways. Couple that with the harm done do non-human animals in factory farms and you’ve got an overwhelming case.
Julie– Could you pull up any of the counterarguments on that one? I’d be curious to know whether they offered some alternative number for the efficiency of feedlots. Charlie’s right that it would be mistaken to fixate on a specific number – this is one of the great problem in environmental ethics. It gets obsessed with numbers and calculations, and then overreaches, and then people cry wolf… as if there is no problem. It’s an unfortunate cycle. What I’m curious about is whether there are legit statistics that suggest meat is “efficient” in any meaningful way.
The National Cattleman’s Beef Association cited a new study showing that beef production has become more efficient: http://www.beefusa.org/newsreleases1.aspx?newsid=2560. Mark Bittman (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/no-meatless-mondays-at-the-usda/) objected, but I didn’t see any great analysis from either side. I agree with both you and Charlie, though, that even more efficiently produced meat is a very inefficient way to get protein. Any way you look it, grains, beans, and produce win.