Food Fight

Cliff May
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Posted: May 08, 2008 10:18 AM
Food Fight

It’s become the conventional wisdom and William Tucker, writing in The Weekly Standard, expressed it most eloquently: “Right now, we're trying to run our cars on corn ethanol instead of gasoline. As a result, we suddenly find ourselves taking food out of the mouths of children in developing nations. That may sound harsh, but it also happens to be true.”

Give this a little thought: The suggestion is that American farmers are growing corn primarily to feed children in the Third World. And since people in these nations lack not only food but also money, it assumes that American taxpayers must buy this corn for them and pay to ship it across the ocean to them.

In other words, implicit in this argument is the notion that developing nations are not developing at all, and perhaps never will be. Instead, they must depend on Americans for subsistence. Is this what we believe? Is this the model – the Third World as permanent American ward and welfare recipient -- that we accept and envision for the future?

As a reporter, I witnessed famines up close. I know what nightmares they are. And when a famine occurs, there is nothing to do but get food as quickly as possible into the stomachs of the starving.

But it is a terrible mistake to view famine as the natural state of the “developing” world, to believe that people in such places as Africa must remain forever helpless, incapable of raising enough food even to feed their families. Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations.

People often think that relief and development are a single discipline. In fact, they are more like opposites. Development means helping people learn to produce food for themselves and their neighbors. With a little development, a nation can avoid famine, even in years of draught and other natural disasters. Relief is what you provide when development fails.

But the moment you send in free food, you collapse local prices and pauperize those farmers who have managed to raise crops and who want to sell them, make money, improve their farms and increase their production in the future.

In Africa, where I once served as a New York Times bureau chief, people are not poor because they are unwilling to work hard, or because they can’t master agricultural skills, or because the land lacks the potential to produce bounty. They are poor largely because they are oppressed by governments that range from the inept to the tyrannical.

In many African countries, a farmer has to sell his crop to the government at fixed – and artificially low -- prices. A farmer who improves his land – for example, by building water catchments – invites greedy officials to appropriate his property. Ethiopia in the 1980s suffered the worst famine in recent memory. Few noted the fact that Ethiopian soldiers had plenty to eat, while farmers starved to death by the thousands. Does that not speak volumes?

If Third World governments and their enablers in the “international community” are the primary cause of hunger, the secondary cause is the spiraling price of oil: up tenfold in less then ten years. This is making it too expensive for small farmers to run tractors, buy fertilizer and transport their surplus crops to market. Yet no rioters in Haiti or Cairo have been protesting Saudi Arabia, Iran and other OPEC members for manipulating oil supplies in order to boost prices: In 1999 the world's oil supply sold for $350 billion. This year it will sell for $4 trillion. The impact that’s had on food prices is enormous – and not so difficult to calculate.

Most Americans understand that we need to begin to replace oil as our only transportation fuel. Our national security and long-term economic health depend on it. The most promising competitors to oil at this moment are alcohol fuels (both ethanol and methanol) made from a variety of sources (not just corn). Brazil, which uses sugar cane to make an alterative to gasoline, imports no foreign oil – and Brazil is not experiencing food shortages or even making do with unsweetened mojitos. They are growing enough sugar cane for both.

Other developing countries could follow this model. They could use indigenous crops, crop residue, weeds and, possibly, bio-engineered plants developed specifically to produce fuels for their own use and to sell overseas. Instead of importing American food as charity, and sending whatever cash they have to members of the OPEC cartel in exchange for oil at inflated prices, they could be importing American farm equipment at market prices, the better to both feed themselves and produce additional products for export.

But the regimes that profit most from high oil prices want none of this. Most of all, they want no competition. So they are selling the notion that alternative fuels are impractical or environmentally disastrous or “take food out of the mouths of children in developing nations.”

Buyers beware.