How to Feed the World

The worldwide crisis over food prices is the direct result of the decision, made by the Bush administration in 2006, to begin feeding large quantities of American corn to American automobiles, in the form of ethanol. This fateful decision led to a run-up in corn prices, which in turn led farmers to plant more corn and less soy and wheat–leading to the surge in the price for all grains. But make no mistake: we’ve created a situation where American SUVs are competing with African eaters for grain. We can see who is winning.

The quickest way to relieve pressure on world food prices would be to cut U.S. subsidies for ethanol and drop import tariffs on Brazilian ethanol. But there are longer-term steps we need to take as well if we are to ensure food for everyone. The other reason grain prices have spiked is that oil prices have spiked, and industrial agriculture has become heavily reliant on fossil fuel–for fertilizer, for pesticide, for processing and transportation. Today it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy. We need to reduce the dependence of modern agriculture on oil, an eminently feasible goal–after all, agriculture is the original solar “technology,” and sustainable farmers have shown us how we might put our food system back on a foundation of sunlight. For example, when you take cattle off their typical feedlot diet of grain and allow them to eat grass, those hamburgers put less pressure on the prices of both oil and grain.

That brings me to the third, and perhaps least tractable, factor behind the run-up in world grain prices: the growing appetite for meat in places like China and India. Most of the world’s grain goes to feed animals, not people, and meat is a very inefficient use for that grain–it takes 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. There would be plenty of grain for everyone if we actually ate it as food and didn’t use it to make meat. Reducing world meat consumption–or feeding our food animals differently–would leave more grain for the world’s hungry.

It comes down to this: the world’s agricultural lands make up a precious and finite resource; we should be using it to grow food for people, not for cars or cattle.