2008/01/20

Meat and cars increase hunger

Periodically you hear the antimeat argument that, because you have to feed around 10 times as much grain to livestock to produce the same amount of calories as if you just ate the grain directly, we could solve world hunger if we stopped eating meat and sent the resulting surpluses to the hungry. That's a lousy argument, because the cause of world hunger is not global shortages, but inadequate distribution to the hungry caused by market forces and wars.

Well, it was a lousy argument till now. Because over the last several years global shortages have appeared in key crops, a development partly caused by meat. As the price of key foods like corn and cooking oil have risen, popular unrest is starting to boil over around the world. The past several months have seen food riots in Guinea, Indonesia, Mauritania, México, Morocco, Pakistan, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. Food is getting more expensive in the US too, as discussed here.

The causes are complex, as detailed in this fine article. But there's no question that the two great enemies of the environment - meat and cars - are also key culprits in rising food prices. Basically, the increasing demand for meat and auto fuel is straining global food markets - grain is needed to feed factory farmed animals and can also be converted into ethanol; edible oils are turned into biodiesel. At the same time, higher petroleum prices are driving up the cost of shipping food around the world.

The rising prices build on each other: America's asinine corn ethanol subsidies have led many farmers to switch away from soy in favor of planting corn, which lowers the supply of soy oil and puts pressure on an already tight market in edible oils, themselves being diverted to biodiesel. Most tragic, all these developments threaten to make global warming even worse - corn ethanol probably adds more greenhouse gases than it avoids and tropical rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia are being burned to clear the way for palm oil plantations, releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide in the process.

Americans still aren't feeling the pinch too badly, but people in countries like México depend heavily on cheap corn, while people in Asia get a large number of their calories from cooking oils. Higher prices for these people don't mean cutting expenses by seeing one less movie every other week, it means spending less by going hungry.

So now, possibly for the first time, the desire of the world's best-off to eat meat (and drive cars) is directly causing the world's poorest to go hungry. Commodity prices are notoriously volatile, so it's too early to tell if this is an aberration or a permanent problem that will get worse with time. But even if a sudden drop in the price of oil takes some of the pressure off momentarily, the trends driving food price inflation - high rates of both meat-eating and driving in the rich countries and rapidly increasing rates of the same in China and India - are probably here to stay. If global warming wasn't enough reason to make some big changes, how about the prospect of global food conflict?

1 comment:

jenny said...

you could also drive a meat-eating car. unfortunately, i'm actually (still) working on the research end of a related biofuels project. i was at a meeting recently when a researcher mentioned the inefficiency of corn-ethanol fuel to justify a project using coal as the source for a similar product. so which is really better?

part of the issue is getting people to understand that their technological fixes are generating more problems. but it's just the way we do things in these modern times. the decision to research and roll out a new fuel is a business decision made by a few overpaid CEOs based on a purely economic calculus, supported with government grants and obscured by research collaborations. the cradle-to-grave life cycle analysis that a lot of companies are starting to use doesn't begin to capture all the flaws in this process. so the only real solution, then, is to crush capitalism.