Monday, June 23, 2008

Corn for Food? Not So Fast

There have been a number of people, primarily politicians in Europe, calling for a ban on biofuels until the global food crisis is solved. This is a very bad idea. It would be a disaster for at least these two reasons:

  1. Without fuel, farmers can’t grow most crops.
  2. Most of the materials that biofuels are made from are not suitable for use as food.

The best case for biodiesel is to make it from waste oil from restaurants. Up until three years ago, most of this oil was going into the trash. Much of it still is, and there is nothing to be gained by forcing restaurants to return to this practice.

Fuel is also made from crops, but as pretty as the crops might look, many of them are not suitable for use as food. This is especially a concern with North American corn. The most popular corn variety is not approved for use as food for humans. It contains stray proteins that could sicken a small fraction (around 1 percent, I think) of people who ate it and would occasionally kill someone.

Why are American and Canadian farmers growing so much corn that no one should eat? It’s not as crazy as it sounds.

You see, as much as we want to imagine that farmers are engaged in the noble task of growing food for all of us to eat, it’s not really true. The bulk of the U.S. corn crop and, as far I know, more than half of all crops worldwide go to feed animals. Sure, there are plenty of crops that are grown just for people to eat, but those crops are small. Even here in Pennsylvania, a prime apple growing state, there are more corn fields than apple orchards.

There are more farm animals than people in the world. And while people generally try to live a balanced life, farm animals are routinely stuffed with food so that they’ll grow to as much as twice their natural weight. So farm animals eat more than people do.

There is something wrong when politicians blame the food crisis on biofuel, which uses around 1 percent of crops worldwide, when half the crops are being fed to animals. It’s a deception, and I want to know who is paying off these politicians to get them to divert attention from the real issues. If we want to have food for people, the simple answer is to feed farm animals a little less so that there is more left over for people to eat.

Consumers effectively control how many farm animals there are by how much they buy of animal products, especially meat and milk. The food crisis could be solved in the short run by eating less meat and drinking less milk — and not necessarily a lot less. Argentina, in the past, promoted the idea of going without meat one day a week. The country wanted more meat to export to solve its currency crisis. The same level of action now could free up enough food to avert the spot shortages that otherwise are likely to return to various points around the world later this year.

But why wait for Argentina to do something? If you want to take action on an individual level, consider one of the following:

  • switch from cappuccino to coffee
  • give up meat at breakfast, six days a week
  • drink water instead of milkshakes
  • if you eat steak at restaurants, order the smaller size
  • if you are always getting pizza, order it without sausage or extra cheese
  • give up smoking (tobacco is another crop that can’t easily be used for food)

The things you do to cut back on meat and milk will also save you money, all the more so now that the high price of corn is driving up milk and meat prices yet again. The higher prices might persuade you to make a different choice anyway — and that’s the way free markets are supposed to work.

And those corn crops that people can’t eat? This year’s crops have already been planted, but the rising prices for food-quality corn might well persuade more farmers to plant corn for food next year.