Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Changing and not changing the way we use our agricultural land

Posted 03 Jun 2009 / 0

A few years ago when I was still a graduate student in Stony Brook University’s Department of Ecology and Evolution, a group of us formed a reading group with the ambitious moniker “Social Policy and Global Progress”. Our ambitions in forming the group were clear: we wanted to ground our understanding of ecology and evolution in the realities of global politics. We read about the Kyoto Protocol and various means by which biodiversity was being protected. We investigated the merits of ecopsychology and looked at number of United Nations development programs. And on at least one occasion, we discussed the problem of hunger.

It was during that conversation that my understanding of human hunger was first challenged. At that time I assumed what probably most of us assume: that the reason that people are hungry has to do with insufficient supplies of food. When I expressed this understanding, fellow graduate student named Jessie challenged me, and pointed me to a book on hunger that laid out in pretty clear detail that we produce more than enough food to feed the world’s population. At the time I was wrong and she was right: as recently as five years ago, hunger remained a political problem. Plenty of food was being produced, but its distribution was inequitable, sometimes to the extreme of allowing some people to starve.

It is a pretty sad thing that we have allowed people to starve when there’s enough food for all. You can imagine the excuses used to rationalize inaction in the face of starvation: economic imperatives, issues surrounding national sovereignty, and strategic alliances. But in a way this is a whole lot more hopeful situation than the alternative explanation: better to have enough food and a problem with distribution than to simply not have enough food at all. During the last few decades, we should have been thankful that hunger was solely a political problem and not an ecological one.

Sadly, we are very steadily moving towards a time when food shortages are caused by ecological rather than political disasters. A recent article written by Lester Brown in Scientific American entitled “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” illuminates the deteriorating state of global food security. The article chronicles how a variety of factors including global warming, overuse of water, and topsoil depletion are reducing the amount of excess food we are able to produce. If current trends continue, within a decade we could see the first food shortages caused not by lack of political will but by a shortage of ecological resources. While it is likely these disasters will be unevenly spread throughout the earth, affecting underdeveloped countries first, the potential spillover from these disasters will have a global reach.

I want to make the argument that while the kinds of shortages predicted by Lester Brown are clearly more ecological in nature than previous “shortages” that caused famines in particular regions of the world, these are still largely political shortages. For while it may be true that soon the food-rich nations may not have excess food to ship to countries experiencing a shortage, the reason behind this is still political.

Our food policy is atrocious. Specifically I am referring to my home country of the United States, but much of what I am saying is more or less true for most of the developed economies of the world. Our chief ill has to do with the way in which our policies treat meat consumption. Meat consumption is responsible for a host of ills, and yet is subsidized by our government to the tune of at least $2.4 billion per year (based on reported feed grain subsidies in this USDA budget report). Looking for a handout from the government? You get it every time you eat meat!

Of course this direct subsidy pales in comparison to the indirect subsidies that our permissive policies provide. A host of different costs associated with meat consumption are not borne by either meat producers or consumers. First and foremost, pound-for-pound meat produces drastically more greenhouse gas emissions that even the most agriculturally-intensive vegetables (for a great article on the effects of beef, check out “The Greenhouse Hamburger” in Scientific American). Meat production also increases the risk of disease outbreaks, as so-called “zoonotic diseases” can jump from wild animals to domesticated animals to humans. It is not just that more animal farms offer more opportunities for disease transfer: as farms increasing impinge on wild lands, more wild animals such as bats and primates are being forced to come into closer contact with domesticated animals. A final problem associated with meat production and consumption is nutrient pollution, wherein runoff from domestic animal farms causes massive dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and other lesser bodies of water.

All of the above costs of meat eating are externalized; this means that the neither the producer nor the consumer pay the true cost of their activities. Instead, these costs are borne by the entire country (and sometimes other countries) or particular groups in the form of increased risk of catastrophic global warming, increased medical costs, and loss of fisheries income. Why should we provide such a subsidy? It is time that we eliminate both direct and indirect subsidies to meat consumption. Eliminating the direct subsidy simply means removing direct payments to feed suppliers and meat producers. Eliminating the indirect subsidy is slightly more complicated but just as justified: the current and future costs caused by greenhouse gas emissions, disease risk, and the creation of dead zones need to be estimated, and these costs need to be levied on meat in the form of a tax. In an ideal world this tax revenue should be reserved for correcting present and future problems created by our meat eating habit. If you want to eat that hamburger, that is fine, but you should pay its full cost.

Our food security is not just threatened by the misuse of land for growing animal feed; increasingly a new demand is driving up food prices and reducing the amount of land used to feed people. That new demand is for biofuels made from food products, the greatest “green boondoggle” of the modern era. Corn ethanol, the chief biofuel promoted in the United States, is the worst of them. Not only are these fuels marginally better if not worse than conventional fossil fuels (see this Union of Concerned Scientists report for more details), but they fundamentally threaten food security.

Lester Brown’s article presents a sobering fact. Using current-day methods of producing biofuels from food, the amount of grain needed to produce one twenty-five gallon tankful of ethanol is enough to feed one person for a year. I personally do not want to be using a fuel that deprives someone of their food supply every other time I fill up my car (that is, if I owned one). If you think the morals of driving a car are shaky now, think about the dilemmas presented by a biofuel economy. If we are to prevent food insecurity from growing, we need to wait until biofuels can be made from non-food plant products such as corn stalks (so-called “cellulosic ethanol”). Currently the technology for making this kind of biofuel efficiently does not exist; until it does we must resist the temptation to use biofuels made from food.

As Lester Brown’s article points out, food instability is a major cause of political instability. Most “failed states” are in part failed due to inadequate food supplies. By changing our own food policies and re-asserting our position as the “breadbasket to the world”, the United States could win huge strategic gains simply by better managing our agricultural resources and better distribution of their bounty.

When you consider the fact that many of the ecological problems we are now experiencing are caused by some combination of policy and lack of policy allowing for selfish choices to go untaxed, we may not be in the purely ecological region of hunger. We’d be smart to stay out of that region, which means making major changes in our food policy. By reducing meat consumption and not giving in to the temptation to turn fields into food, we would increase the amount of usable food we produce. Would that be a change in ecology or politics? The world’s hungry probably wouldn’t care.

A Major Post, Climate Change, Ecology, Food, Hunger, Public Policy, Sustainability, Vegetarianism

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