Global Dilemma: Eat or Drive?

Agriculture and all its related energy, water and soil uses has been at the forefront of causes of global warming (a future post to support that supposition.) Now, agriculture (and those it would ostensibly feed) faces serious present and especially near-future problems.

Biofuels from edible crops is a very, very bad idea. And the fossil fuel subsidy of modern agribusiness will soon end–with our without our planning and cooperation to prepare for this greatest societal change in modern history. The Guardian piece (by environmental editor, John Vidal) from which these excerpts were extracted is highly recommended, though bleak.

Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute think tank, said: “The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its 2 billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue.”

The food crisis is being compounded by growing populations, extreme weather and ecological stress, according to a number of recent reports. This week the UN Environment Programme said the planet’s water, land, air, plants, animals and fish stocks were all in “inexorable decline”. According to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) 57 countries, including 29 in Africa, 19 in Asia and nine in Latin America, have been hit by catastrophic floods. Harvests have been affected by drought and heatwaves in south Asia, Europe, China, Sudan, Mozambique and Uruguay.

According to Josette Sheeran, director of the WFP, “There are 854 million hungry people in the world and 4 million more join their ranks every year. We are facing the tightest food supplies in recent history. For the world’s most vulnerable, food is simply being priced out of their reach.”

There are hopes that new crop varieties and technologies will help crops adapt to capricious climactic conditions. And if people move on to a path of eating less meat, more land can be freed up for human food rather than animal feed.

A slowdown in population growth would naturally ease pressures on the food market, while the cultivation of hitherto unproductive land could also help supply.

But fears for even tighter conditions revolve around deepening climate change, which generates worsening floods and droughts, diminishing food supplies. If the price of oil rises further it will make fertilizers and transport more expensive, and at the same time make it more profitable to grow biofuel crops.

Supply will be further restricted if fish stocks continue to decline due to overfishing, and if soils become exhausted and erosion decreases the arable area.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. The US produced around 5 billion gallons of ethanol last year from somewhere between 17 and 20% of the corn crop. That equates to about the amount of gasoline wasted by US drivers sitting in traffic jams in 2003. In 2007 the US will have used around 179billon gallons of gasoline to power its motor vehicles in 2006. There needs to be much greater fuel economy and the new CAFE standards announced earlier in the week will help to some extent, but using corn to make fuel is like burning antique furniture to keep warm. It works but comes at a high price.

  2. I have read that food issues were a distribution problem rather than a supply issue. This comes from 1998 Nobel economist Amartya Sen. Maybe things have changed but surely not dramatically.

    My personal opinions could be considered callous, but there are over 6 billion people on earth – way too many. A developed society leads to fewer children/family. Can we develop the world? If you feed the 2 billion you cited, will they have large families and continue the trend of overpopulation and resource strain?