The Impending Food Fight
Posted: Jun 28, 2007 12:01 AM
While we worry about gas prices, the costs of milk, meat and fresh produce
silently skyrockets. So like the end of cheap energy, is the era of cheap
food also finally over?
Since the farm depression of the early 1980s - remember the first Farm Aid
concert in 1985 - farmers have gone broke in droves from cheap commodity
prices. The public shrugged, happy enough to get inexpensive food.
Globalization saw increased world acreage planted and farmed under Western
methods of efficient production. And that brought into the United States
even more plentiful imported food.
Continued leaps in agricultural technology ensured more production per acre.
The result was likewise predictable: the same old food surpluses and low
prices. My late parents, who owned the farm I now live on in central
California, used to sigh that the planet was reaching 6 billion mouths and
so things someday "would have to turn around for farmers."
Now they apparently have. Food prices are climbing at rates approaching 10
percent per year. But why the sudden change?
There have been a number of relatively recent radical changes in the United
States and the world that, taken together, provide the answer:
Modern high-tech farming is energy intensive. So recent huge price increases
in diesel fuel and petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals have been
passed on to the consumer.
The U.S. population still increases while suburbanization continues. The
sprawl of housing tracts, edge cities and shopping centers insidiously
gobbles up prime farmland at the rate of hundreds of thousands of acres per
In turn, in the West periodic droughts and competition from growing suburbs
have made water for farming scarcer, more expensive - and sometimes
On the world scene, 2 billion Indians and Chinese are enjoying the greatest
material improvement in their nations' histories - and their improved diets
mean more food consumed than ever before.
The result is that global food supplies are also tightening up, both at home
and abroad. America has become a net food importer. We seem to have
developed a new refined taste for foreign wines, cheeses and fresh winter
fruits even as we are consuming more of our corn, wheat, soybeans and dairy
products at home.
Now comes the biofuels movement. For a variety of reasons, ranging from an
attempt to become less dependent on foreign oil to a desire for cleaner
fuels, millions of acres of farmland are being redirected to corn-based
If hundreds of planned new ethanol refineries are built, the U.S. could very
shortly be producing around 30 billion gallons of corn-based fuel per year,
using one of every four acres planted to corn for fuel. This dilemma of food
or fuel is also appearing elsewhere in the world as Europeans and South
Americans begin redirecting food acreages to corn-, soy-, or sugar- based
Corn prices in America have spiked. And since corn is also a prime
ingredient for animal feeds and sweeteners, prices likewise are rising for
poultry, beef and everything from soft drinks to candy.
There is currently more corn acreage - about 90 million acres are predicted
this year - than at any time in the nation's last half-century. But today's
total farm acreage is either static or shrinking; land for biofuels is
usually taken from wheat, soybeans or cotton, ensuring those supplies grow
tight as well.
In the past, the genius of our farmers and the mind-boggling innovation of
American agribusiness meant that farm production periodically doubled.
Indeed, today we are producing far more food on far fewer acres than ever
But we are nearing the limits of further efficiency - especially when such
past amazing leaps in production relied on once-cheap petro-chemicals, fuels
As in the case of oil, we've gone through these sudden farm price spikes
before. My grandfather once told me that in some 70 years of boom-and-bust
farming he only made money during World Wars I and II, and the late 1960s.
But this latest round of high food prices seems coupled to energy shortages,
and so won't go away anytime soon. That raises questions critical to the
very security of this nation, which may have to import as many agricultural
commodities as it does energy - and find a way to pay for both.
The American consumer lifestyle took off thanks to low-cost fuel and food.
Once families could drive and eat cheaply, they had plenty of disposable
income for housing and consumer goods.
But if they can't do either anymore, how angry will they get as they buy
less and pay more for the very staples of life?