Monday, April 28, 2008

How to Come Out of the Food Crisis

Here's one of the most chilling facts I heard about the current food crisis. People in Haiti living on $2 a day are paying more than $1 for a bowl of rice. Sparse diets are becoming starvation diets, and people who were just barely holding on before are facing desperation.

Even in the United States, land of abundance and charity, people are scrambling to keep up with rising food prices. KUOW, Seattle's NPR affiliate, invited people to call in today about how they are coping, and the voices ranged from resigned (we just have to consider meat a condiment, not a staple) to desperate (I got sick, lost my job, and now I'm trying to feed four children on the $400 per month I get from welfare.)

The immediate need is for emergency measures to get food to prices that the poor can afford.

But there is the longer term question, also, about the industrial agriculture model we've come to rely on. As John Nichols points out in a recent article in The Nation, the policies of trade liberalization, agribusiness, and genetically modified crops have brought us to this point. Growing genetically modified, fertilizer-hungry crops for international trade has been richly rewarded. Growing locally-bred crops for local subsistence has been undermined by these global policies.

Economics 101 tells us that everything, including food, should be sold to the highest bidder. But the highest bidder at the moment may be the biofuel industry, which is converting vast quantities of corn into ethanol and other biofuels.

Here's another chilling fact, this one from Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute. The amount of corn needed to fill up an SUV with ethanol would feed someone for a year.

SUVs are competing with human beings for grain, and grain-fed farm animals are also. As more people, especially the Chinese, demand more meat, there is less available to feed people.

The laissez-faire economics breaks down at this point. Poor people have less cash, so they can't compete in the global marketplace with SUVs or steak dinners. There is no ethical way to justify this.

Instead, we need to take a page from Naomi Klein's new book, The Shock Doctrine. Her book shows that disasters--natural and human made--often provide openings for policies that people would never accept under ordinary circumstances. She calls this anti-democratic practice, disaster capitalism.

Perhaps we need to do the inverse. Use disastrous times to create the bottom-up, deeply democratic alternatives that, during ordinary times, might seem more trouble than they're worth. These alternatives may be small scale at first, but they can function like seeds in a supersaturated solution. Without these particles, a solution can remain in a dissolved state. But add the "seeds" and crystals rapidly take shape and grow.

On KUOW this morning, people talked of planting more gardens, going to the farmers market, hooking up with local farmers. Local food is not expected to get more expensive, one farmer said.

Rather than follow the advice of World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who is calling for more of the same trade liberalization and instead of pushing GM crops on more farmers and consumers, we should turn to local production for local, human consumption. Biofuels should be made from waste crops and manure, not from food. The Farm Bill has provisions we should support and others we need to resist. We should be developing the local capacities to feed ourselves, turning lawns into "victory gardens," supporting local farmers, helping new farmers to get a start, creating farm incubators.

Via Campesina, an international organization of farmers, has been pressing for these changes for years. Also Food First and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

YES! has been covering the emergence of this local, sustainable food movement for many years.

Local food was a big part of our Go Local! issue in winter 2007. Back in 2000, we reported on the rapid growth of the local foods movement. Even in the current issue on climate solutions, we focus on the contribution to climate solutions we can make by reducing our consumption of meat.

With increasing consensus that peak oil is nearly upon us, these local food systems will soon be recognized as the life boats they are.

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At 4:45 AM, Blogger hummingfridge said...

I just passed this wise quote from Wendell Berry on to a friend - seems apt for at least part of your entry.

“Once plants and animals were raised together on the same farm — which therefore neither produced unmanageable surpluses of manure, to be wasted and to pollute the water supply, nor depended on such quantities of commerical fertilizer. The genius of America farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.”


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