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Biofuels stunt world food supply, but we do have local recourse

May 04, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

When the mad scientists in Washington give life to a new industry with a lightening bolt of tax money, beware of the monster it creates.

The biofuels industry has gotten a taste for cash now, so - given Washington's culture of high-priced lobbyists and money politics - it is going to be near impossible to shove this bad idea back in the bottle. Faster than you can say Jack Abramoff, biofuels now have powerful allies among agribusiness interests, ethanol distillery interests and pipeline interests that are cementing ridiculous and expensive policy into place that will be with us for who knows how many decades.

Congress doesn't have the guts to change a prepositional phrase in the farm bill - anyone believe it will have the courage to undo the biofuels mess now that it is making a lot of folks rich?

And the fact that biofuels have failed actually gives cover to that failure. With gasoline over $3.50 a gallon, it's certainly hard to argue that biofuels have succeeded at keeping costs down. But everyone was so entranced watching gas climb past the $3 a gallon mark, no one noticed when wheat reached $10 a bushel (at the beginning of this decade it was less than $3).

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Problem is, you can limit your driving, but it's hard to limit your eating.

For more on the global effects of biofuels, see James Warner's column on the opposite page. As he documents, the threat of starvation on a worldwide scale from this biofuel obsession is very real. And there is trickle-down effect as well.

According to the USDA, wheat production in the U.S. has declined by a third, or 28 million bushels, since 1981, because farmers - nudged by government policy - are finding bigger and more consistent profits elsewhere, namely in corn and soybeans.

And, as the Washington Post reported this week, higher prices for wheat do not necessarily encourage farmers to plant more. Wheat is a fickle crop, more susceptible to disease than other grains, and less susceptible to genetic manipulation, meaning the agrochemical companies can't make as much profit from it.

So corn has been modified to grow in colder, drier climates that once would only support wheat and what were once wheat acres are now corn acres; and keep in mind, this is largely grain for the gas tank, not grain for food.

Further, this means there are increasing number of interests in between the farmer and your table, and this phenomenon isn't limited to grain. Norwegian cod, the New York Times reported this week, is shipped to China, where it is processed, and then flown back to Norway for consumption.

The Global Research Center says that Canadian farmers currently receive 5 percent less for their hogs than they did 20 years ago - meanwhile, the price of pork is up 40 percent. The farmers' profits have become the big corporations' profits. Farmers receive the same nickel per loaf of bread they received 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the price in the stores is hardly stagnant.

And the corporations use a portion of their profits to lobby governments to stack the deck against small producers. Consciously or not, state and local governments and health departments are all too happy to play the tool of agribusiness, enacting tedious rules and regulations against everything from raw, locally produced milk to the exact wording that must appear on a carton of fresh local eggs.

If agribusiness screws up and sells tainted spinach or hamburger, it uses the gaffe as an opportunity to try to squeeze more small producers - who can't reasonably conform to a resulting new slew of tests and paperwork - out of the marketplace.

In truth, small local producers are far more fastidious about their food practices. I dare say you will never find a local beef producer pushing a sick steer to the killing line with a forklift.

We can't do much about federal energy policy, but we can fight back by doing what agribusiness and chemical companies don't want us to do - buy food from local producers. In Washington County farms such as Evensong, Stonecrest and Legacy Manor, to name just a few, sell a variety of vegetables and eggs, or beef, pork and poultry raised in a nutritionally and environmentally friendly fashion.

These are foods that do not have to be trucked across the continent. These are vegetables that don't rely on chemicals and meats that don't rely on hormone injections. You can also find, locally, breeds of hogs or cattle that are outside the standardized gene pool and have some interesting advantages. For example, some cattle thrive on grass and low-quality forage that would starve a black Angus. They have no need for corn at all. And the beef is leaner since, for warmth, they depend on a heavier coat of hair rather than a thick layer of fat.

In all, it can be kind of fun, not to mention tasty, to step outside of the shrink-wrapped food mainstream and see what the county has to offer. It's also a way to protect the countryside. Farmland that can be preserved because it is profitable to the owner is far better than farmland that is preserved by government order or taxpayer buyouts.

I'm too small a fish to know one way or another whether the world is indeed at risk of a global food crisis. But I do know that when I buy local food products I am, admittedly in a very tiny way, causing a lot of good things to happen, both for the world and for me.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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