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Keep Food from Becoming the New Oil

Keep Food from Becoming the New Oil

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Food prices and food scarcity are quickly becoming the hidden driver in world politics, says pioneering environmental analyst Lester Brown, sparking political upheaval in the Middle East and threatening the stability of other developing countries.

That’s the argument he makes in Foreign Policy Magazine’s May/June 2011 cover story, where Brown lays out in detail why he thinks today’s near-record high food prices and international competition for food supplies are creating a major new global crisis. Brown, author and founder of the Earth Policy Institute, has daunting predictions for our, and the world’s, future food security.

“The new geopolitics of food looks a whole lot more volatile – and a whole lot more contentious – than it used to. Scarcity is the new norm,” writes Brown, who believes that food is “the new oil.”

Brown says grain prices are soaring because of growth in demand and the increasing difficulty of rapidly expanding production. He adds that farmers are scrambling to feed the burgeoning world population even as they factor into the equation the growing amounts of food being burned for fuel.

Over the years, he notes, U.S. farmers have been encouraged by federal biofuels policy to divert 40 percent of corn production from food and feed to fuel:

“The massive capacity to convert food into fuel means that the price of grain is now tied to the price of oil. So if oil goes to $150 per barrel or more, the price of grain will follow it upward as it becomes ever more profitable to convert grain into oil substitutes.”

Environmental Working Group’s independently conducted research fits right into Brown’s arguments. In March, for example, EWG published an interactive food map that shows how many countries are on the brink of food crises due to the impact of biofuels policies on the prices of major food staples.

On the supply side, Brown says, farmers are unlikely to be able to keep up with the world’s growing appetite because of an array of negative trends, including falling water tables and eroding soils.

“Civilization can survive the loss of its oil reserves, but it cannot survive the loss of its soil reserves,” writes Brown.

In April, EWG’s Losing Ground report showed that soil erosion is hardly under control in the U.S., despite the federal government’s supposedly reassuring data. The report included an alarming video showing rapid erosion on intensively planted farmland in the Midwest, seriously affecting productivity and the environment.

Brown fears this era of tightening world food supplies is not temporary, but chronic. The United States no longer has surplus grain stocks and idle farmland, he points out. Without that safety margin, things will just keep getting worse.

Congress could play a major role in turning the situation around. For starters, lawmakers could eliminate the federal ethanol support system that spends $6 billion a year in taxpayer dollars. It could also use this opportunity to reform federal farm subsidies – which encourage overproduction on environmentally sensitive lands – and shift this funding to conservation and nutrition. These actions would help farmers meet the challenge of feeding the world in a way that provides fewer incentives for the all-out production that threatens our soil and water and the sustainability of American agriculture and put more emphasis on helping farmers in the developing world increase their production and profitability.

It won’t solve the entire equation, but certainly it would be the first step in moving toward a more sustainable future for all and perhaps avoid even bigger hikes in food prices and more political upheaval.


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