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The Global Food Crisis

No Food for Thought

by SAUL LANDAU

In upmarket restaurants one wouldn’t know the world is suffering from a food crisis. As I observed young executives and professionals slurping oysters and chasing them with martinis at a downtown San Francisco watering house last month without glancing at the prices of such items, less affluent mortals around the world had to overreach their budgets to buy bread, tortillas and oil to cook their food. But those who routinely pay $25.95 for seared ahi tuna hardly blink when the menu lists the same dish for $28.95 — certainly not after three martinis.

Masters of the Universe celebrate their success, (large salaries and bonuses) by using OPM – other people’s money. Nostalgia for Ronald Reagan among older members of this set runs rampant –days of no taxes when sleeping with the President meant attending a cabinet meeting and environmental problems came from trees. (“Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do,” Reagan said in 1981 and "A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?" the California Governor snorted in 1966, opposing expansion of Redwood National Park.)

Food prices continued rising through 2010, and residents of Tunis and Cairo had no Reagan to beguile them; nor did their brethren in Amman, La Paz, Lagos and Bangkok. Rightist US politicians accused Fed Chair Ben Bernanke of printing too much money, thus causing the rise in food prices. Some conservative French politicos, like Le Presidente himself, blamed speculators for taking over the food-pricing controls; therefore Parisians paid more for their pain.

Indeed, in 2007, Fidel Castro criticized President Bush’s “unhealthy enthusiasm for ethanol.” (Economist, April 4, 2007). Fidel referred to the “sinister idea of converting food into fuel.” US companies had begun making ethanol from corn, supposedly to reduce US dependency on foreign oil. This drove up corn prices. Corn then occupied more land space than other food crops, like soy. So, soy prices rose as well. Because animals also got fattened on corn, the price of meat also rose. In short, corn got diverted to feed America’s hungry cars.

Fidel’s January 31 reflection re-enforced this idea. In 2009, he wrote, more than one quarter of US grain “went to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars. That’s enough to feed 350 million people for a year. The massive U.S. investment in ethanol distilleries sets the stage for direct competition between cars and people for the world grain harvest.”

When entrepreneurs discovered new use for grains, the demand rocketed up – and the supply side could not meet it. More intensive farming led to soil erosion – loss of topsoil and thus land productivity. Fidel also mentioned the formation of dust bowls larger than the Oklahoma-Texas one of the 1920-s-30 in northwest China and central Africa.

Ethanol, a supposedly alternative-energy source, begot optimism: now the United States can finally lose its dependency on Arab oil, make cars into a green symbol (phony), and spur new investments as well.

Politicians avoid mentioning the reality that people viscerally understand and fear: how to deal with the fact that the world’s weather has become a major factor preventing farming.

Last summer, Russia and other former Soviet Republics suffered super heat, which meant they produced less wheat. Between droughts and floods – Australia is the latest victim – farmers could not harvest what the world’s people needed.

In his State of the Union – or re-election – address, Obama offered peripheral hints about understanding climate change — the need for rapid rail and energy conservation, but he didn’t say: “this country, this planet, faces a challenge not seen since the Ice Age.”

Nor have leaders of other powers stated the obvious: climate change threatens to wipe out human life if we continue to produce and consume in the same patterns and with the same care-free methods. The 2010 Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranks 163 countries on environmental public health and ecosystem vitality: how close countries are to established environmental policy goals.

The United States ranked 61st (out of 163 countries) behind such environmental stars as Paraguay, Sri Lanka and Georgia – and far behind all other advanced industrial nations.

Big deal! The stock market is booming, corporate profits are high, and banks are thriving. Why bother with ugly thoughts of 4 million Americans whose unemployment benefits will end during 2011? (White House estimate). Average unemployment now lasts 37 weeks.  But as of last October, unemployment had endured for almost two years for almost 1.5 million people. )“The Trend in Long-Term Unemployment and Characteristics of Workers Unemployed for More than 99 Weeks,” Congressional Research Service. December 20, 2010)

Last year, 3.9 million Americans ran out of unemployment insurance benefits. (National Employment Law Project in HuffPost, February 10). Almost 15 million are officially unemployed – some of those experience routine hunger.

Does this bother you? Slurp oysters, wash ‘em down with martinis and adjust your reality antenna. Oh, you’ve been laid off? Just beg for a day,  then use the money you obtain for your big eating hurrah and think fondly of Reagan!

SAUL LANDAU’s WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP will soon be released in English. His BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch.