FoodPolitik: Food revolutions (and revolutionaries)

What if the recent turmoil in Egypt spread to countries across sub-Saharan Africa, or even southeast Asia? There’s a real chance of that — not for political reasons, but for nutritive ones. As food prices skyrocket globally, we could soon see an outbreak of food riots.

In India, the price of onions nearly doubled during one recent week. The International Monetary Fund determined that higher food prices have pushed Armenia’s inflation to nine percent.  The World Bank’s president recently warned that food prices are at “dangerous levels.” Conditions have pushed an estimated 44 million people into poverty since last June.

Two months ago the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warned that its Food Price Index has already surpassed its previous high — reached in 2008. That was the year we saw trade restrictions (and resulting riots) in Africa and Asia.

Here at home, we worry more about wasting food than about fighting over it. Americans spend just 9.6 percent of their disposable income on food, the lowest percentage ever. In 1950 that number was 20.6 percent.

America produces more food than ever before, our agricultural yields trend upwards, and our international food aid (even with Congress’s proposed cuts) will be worth more than $1.5 billion this year.

We are a land of plenty. But some food activists aren’t impressed. They want to make our grocery bills more expensive and even ban some food-producing technologies.

Anti-biotechnology activist groups like Greenpeace and the misnamed “Center for Food Safety” are leading the charge against genetically modified foods. The applications of this technology are sensible and many. Increasing common crop yields is one benefit. The genetic modification of yeast has helped reduce wine-related headaches. (No joke!) And the FDA is considering approval of a farmed super-salmon that grows bigger and faster with fewer resources.

No one can show a real-world scientific reason to fear biotech-assisted food. But activists sue just about any time regulators — even after careful review — allow the planting of new varieties. Last August these Luddites even got a San Francisco judge to ban the cultivation of biotech sugar beets (which make up a whopping 95 percent of our domestic crop), pending an additional “environmental impact statement.” The result of all this hand-wringing (and hand-tying) will be higher sugar prices. And consumers will pay.

Most Americans can probably afford it. But overseas the stakes are sometimes much higher.

Last year Haitian farmers, egged on by anti-biotech activists, protested against the delivery of 475 tons of high-yield corn and vegetable seeds. Here was an enormous donation to a country reeling from a natural disaster, half of whose population subsists on less than $1 per day. The activists’ response was to threaten to burn the “offending” gift.

Thankfully, biotech’s global-opinion battleship is turning (however slowly). Today even previously biotech-averse UK and EU authorities are looking for ways to liberalize their strict controls. In December the EU released a report concluding that biotech crops were no riskier than the alternatives.

Meanwhile, animal rights wingnuts also hope to drive up the cost of some foods — in their case, meat, milk, cheese, and eggs. This year they’re targeting the state of Washington with an initiative to criminalize the production and sale of ordinary eggs. (You read that right.) Apparently, only “cage-free” will do, regardless of cost.

  • Jungle Jack

    I can’t wait for the new “Snack Cracker”: Soylent Green!
    It’s made from ‘free range’ third world bio-masses.

    How silly is this discussion? Do you think a starving person cares whether their sustenance is bio-engineered or is ‘free range?” They need food!

  • teapartypatriot

    Let’s not forget the OFFICIAL feckless fed statement: THERE ARE NO BAILOUT BERNANKE BUBBLES from the irresponsible zero-interest rate and QE2 policies — zip,none, zero, nada, zilch!

    FACT: Silver prices are at a 30 year high – THIS IS NOT A BAILOUT BERNANKE BUBBLE
    FACT: The S&P 400 Mid-Cap Index is at a record high over more than a 20 year period – THIS IS NOT A BAILOUT BERNANKE BUBBLE
    FACT: Cotton, sugar, copper and countless other items are at record high prices – THIS IS NOT A BAILOUT BERNANKE BUBBLE
    FACT: food prices around the world are reaching historically high levels – THIS IS NOT A BAILOUT BERNANKE BUBBLE

    When these NON-EXISTENT bubbles burst, LOOK OUT !!!!!

  • iandanger

    So, you make snide comments about people talking about “cage free” hens without actually delving into the issue. No “PETA” type supports cage free eggs, because cage free is just a canard, its an equally inhumane, and more importantly, filthy way to farm chickens. What you are suggesting is that the conditions an animal are kept in (and the animal’s health) are not relevant to the quality of the food they produce. Look at the conditions of the farm those millions of salmonella tainted eggs came from. It was not considered out of the ordinary for an egg farm, and the conditions included wild fowl mingling with tightly packed chickens (thus risking the spread of disease), massive piles of chicken waste (a huge source of nitrogen pollution in our waterways), and horrific conditions for the animals themselves. You act like activists are just pushing the issue due to a moralistic crusade, but you don’t consider the reason someone would want to stop the current way of doing things.

    If you actually cared about feeding the world, you’d encourage people to eat less meat, because it is the single least efficient category of food (by far), but you don’t care, you just want to write a hippie bashing article that conflates people who protest GMO crops (which are not the same thing as GMO animals, I worry about genetically engineered salmon getting into the wild, not to mention the fact that farmed fish wind up eating massive amounts of wild fish, not reducing the net impact on the ocean) with people who want to have a sane food policy. Maybe if meat and dairy producers didn’t get massive government subsidies you’d understand the true cost of those products, but no, you would rather keep the socialistic thumb on the price scale.

    Get your facts straight, and write like an adult.

    • Iowa48

      I understand that PETAs are quite delicious if you marinade them long enough.
      I prefer the GM “watermelon” PETAs (green on the outside, red inside). I am not particularly fond of cage-free PETAs, as they are often bony and gristly, especially between the ears.

      • iandanger

        Yes cannibalism, very witty. Did you have a point or are you just trolling?

    • wagnert in atlanta

      iandanger — I conclude from your comments that you have never had an up-close and personal relationship with any farm animal, farm or farmer.

      • iandanger

        I take it from your comment you wish to think that most livestock and food come from small farms. Something like 95% of eggs in America come from chickens raised in massive operations like Wright County Egg, where the salmonella tainted eggs came from last year.

        You’re clinging to a fairy tale of how agriculture works. Here in Maryland our massive chicken producers are dumping uncountable tons of toxic chicken waste into our main waterway (the Chesapeake Bay) and it has rendered much of the waterway a deadzone. These aren’t small operations, and nobody but the workers can get in to see them (as anyone who visits one will find out).

        Personally, I do visit farms quite frequently, but only ones who treat their animals and employees decently. I like to buy my food directly.

    • The_anniebanannie

      “cage free is just a canard,”

      Ummm,,,no. Cage free doesn’t mean no nesting (places for them to lay eggs) are available. It means there aren’t five chickens to a cage and cages stacked one upon the other.

      Your knowledge of how chickens are raised and eggs should be farmed would fit inside a pullet egg.

      • iandanger

        You are right, instead of being packed into cages, they aren’t caged. The animals are still kept in unsanitary, overcrowded conditions, their beaks are still cut off to prevent them killing each other (due to the proximity fights are extremely common) and they are still unable to develop properly. The way chickens are kept in the vast majority of situations (due to the economics of egg production) are sickening. Cage free eggs are in no way inherently better than battery cage eggs, its a marketing term used to make you think you are being less cruel.

  • noonespetgoat

    “Kooks” have protested GMO foods and treatment of livestock for years. So, according to this writer only now is it responsible for the sudden increase in food prices? The writer points out the American production of food is as high as ever. In that case, do the principals of supply and demand explain that despite more efficient production of food, the price has recently begun to skyrocket?
    What about the the trillions of USD’s printed by the FED over the last two years? Might the Federal Reserve be exporting inflation to the rest of the world and at home? Seems to me there has been a much more proximate relationship between the quantitative easing and the rise of the world’s food prices.

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  • krjohnson

    Don’t forget all the corn we’re senselessly turning into ethanol when we could just but it from South America where they make it much more efficiently out of sugarcane.

    • thephranc

      We could do it with sugar beets here. But that doesn’t help the corn lobby.