FoodPolitik: Food revolutions (and revolutionaries)

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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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.

Animal activists want to extend this concept nation-wide. Eventually, the same PETA-types will attack “cage-free” and push “free range” and “organic” eggs instead, which are more expensive still.

One reason these trendy eggs are more expensive is that it takes far more land to produce them. Converting all U.S. hens to Australia’s “free range” model would require new “roaming” lands equivalent to a one-mile strip from D.C. to Denver.

One way or another, most “organic” and “natural” food production systems (whatever “natural” means this week) require vast swaths of additional land to function. University of Manitoba agronomist Vaclav Smil calculated that replacing synthetic nitrogen (widely used today) with organic nitrogen (the preferred “green” alternative) in the U.S. alone would require an additional 2 billion acres.

Why? Organic nitrogen comes from animal manure. Our current livestock herds aren’t big enough to supply it to everyone, and raising more animals would also require more land for feed. (Two billion acres, by the way, is equivalent to the entirety of the continental United States.)

As the late Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, once commented, “There’s a lot of nonsense going on here.”

The gap between our First World problems and those of the Third World is instructive. On the one hand, do-gooder and ideological activists want to roll back the clock on food technology. On the other, hungry people just want to eat.

Let’s make sure America is always able to do what we do best: serve as a source of hope for underfed countries, and their farmers. Isn’t that the progressive thing to do?

Rick Berman is president of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit www.BermanCo.com.