Hurting at the plate

The looming food crisis shows the instability of the world’s agricultural system.

Across the developing world demonstrations and riots have broken out over the skyrocketing cost of food. In the past three years, global food prices have risen more than 83 percent, and threaten the stability of governments around the world and the lives of the people they represent.

Americans and the people of other developed nations spend, on average, no more than 15 percent of their income on food. When we see prices tick upward at the supermarket it is an irritation, but an endurable one. In 33 countries where more than half a person’s income is spent on food, the danger of this crisis is far more acute.

There are four main causes for the price rising so dramatically. First, the booming economies in China and India have increased the popularity of meat consumption. It takes 700 calories worth of feed to create 100 calories of meat. Meat consumption is highest in the developed West, but with the tastes of 2 billion mirroring those of Europe and the United States, the strain has pushed prices of cereals upwards. Then there is the price of oil. Agriculture is heavily dependent on oil, both to produce fertilizers and pesticides, and to fuel the trucks and ships that carry the food to their destinations. At $110 per barrel, this is no longer a negligible cost.

Third, developed nations, especially the United States, have begun to use arable land not to grow crops for eating, but to convert into biofuels like ethanol. This simultaneously fails to create energy independence, because growing the corn is predicated on the aforementioned oil, and also takes away land that could be used to grow corn sold throughout the world, increasing the price. Lastly, climate change, according to many experts, has caused unpredictable weather patterns, including a severe drought in Australia, usually the breadbasket of Asia and the Middle East.

All these trends look likely to persist, and highlight the need for the United States to take significant steps toward sustainability in agriculture and reducing our dependence on oil, which as we now see, can hurt us at the plate as well as the pump.