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The High Cost of Cheap Food
Using bio-fuel harms the poor in many nations.  If we want to love our neighbours, as Jesus commanded, we should reduce our energy consumption.

We have, as a nation, become amazingly flippant about food. We are ignorant about where food comes from, we utterly rely on "the system" for food security, we appear willing to consume the strangest concoctions of chemicals made to appear as food, and we buy food as cheaply as possible. There is a cost, however, to cheap food.

… eating away at agricultural capital can continue only so long.

Our government looks for ways to make food cheap with subsidies or trade barriers, and farmers are pressured to look for ways to make food cheap by using pesticides and especially by relying on cheap energy. The reliance on energy has progressed to the point that, by the time the food reaches our plates, approximately ten calories of fuel energy have gone into every single food calorie we eat.

Cheap food is probably eroding future agricultural capital.

To produce food—temporarily at least— at the lowest possible price is easy: Wreck the land! Plant like mad, deplete the topsoil, drain the groundwater, fertilize and poison the ecosystem. But just like ballooning credit-card debt, eating away at agricultural capital can continue only so long.

While it is true that food prices have recently increased, it's not because North American consumers have embraced quality food. The reason is far more pernicious: In the same way that we can use fuel to produce food, we can convert food into fuel.

In principle, producing bio-diesel or ethanol seems like a good idea. They are carbon-neutral. However, producing fuel from agricultural output is not necessarily good for the environment. Large-scale production of bio-fuel is most convenient from the large-scale production of single crops, mostly corn for ethanol and soy beans or jatropha (a tropical plant) for bio-diesel. We are now seeing extensive mono-cropping (no crop rotation) of corn in North America, and the clearing of the Amazon rainforest for soy beans and the Indonesian rainforest for jatropha. All three of these are ecological disasters and, in many cases, human and cultural disasters, too.

Although the world grows vast amounts of produce, it pales in comparison with our energy use. Total worldwide food production has an energy of only one-fifth to one-sixth as much as worldwide fossil fuel consumption. The entire U.S. corn crop, if converted into ethanol, would come nowhere near replacing U.S. gasoline consumption. It is important to clearly understand, therefore, that to replace even a modest fraction of fossil fuel use will require a huge amount of food.

And who ends up suffering when food starts getting converted into fuel? The poor, mostly in Africa and Asia. Terrible political games have been played with food prices, primarily between the United States and Europe. Even worse is the deliberate, systematic targeting of the poor, such as the despicable history of the United Fruit Company in Central America.

Now the food-to-fuel race will be yet one more slap against the world's poor. First, the energy crops like corn and beans are staples, so increases in the costs of these products affect the poor very strongly. Second, many Third World cash crops like coffee, cocoa and bananas are not energy crops, so their export value will increase more slowly than the import cost of staples. Third, the poor already spend a large fraction of their income on food, and have far less economic room to manoeuvre than most North Americans do.

There is no single person to be held accountable for this mess. If there are people willing to pay for energy, then "the system" finds a way to provide it. Every time you book a flight or buy gasoline you declare yourself willing to pay for the energy, regardless of where it comes from.

If you don't like the sound of fuel versus-food, the only rational response is to reduce your energy consumption, to declare your unwillingness to have energy at any cost.

In contrast to daunting global issues, food and energy consumption is one place where the individual has clear choices. One can buy local organic foods, buy fair-trade products or plant a vegetable garden. One can purchase dry goods by the sack, purchase butchered meat in bulk from a local farmer, or buy fruits and vegetables by the bushel in season to freeze or can.

You are commanded, in no uncertain terms, to love your neighbour as yourself. I therefore, see a responsibility to:

  • Yourself (your health, the health of your family);
  • Your community (by not eating into ecological capital);
  • The rest of humanity (through fair forms of trade); and
  • All of creation (the global environment).

Paul Fieguth is an associate professor in systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, and a member of Waterloo North Mennonite Church. For expanded versions of these articles, resources or to contact him, visit www.ocho.uwaterloo.ca/limits or e-mail pfieguth@uwaterloo.ca.

Originally published in Canadian Mennonite, April 14, 2008.

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