The Viva Vine: vol #5, no #3: November / December 1996

Hunger and Meat: Grain shortages spell tragedy

Grain Shortages

MEAT-EATERS THE DRIVING FORCE

by Pamela Rice

It seems to be a fact of nature that as standards of living improve, people eat more meat. I still vividly recall my grade school girlfriend next door boast, "We're having steak tonight," drawing out the word "steak" in a long I'm-better-than-you-are whine. The same thing seems to be going on today in places across China and the Pacific Rim as in that bedroom town outside Chicago 30 years ago. Rising affluence is raising demand for meat, that infernal plebian status symbol.

voracious chomping cow

Standards of living are rising in many areas of the world. Statistics show that meat consumption worldwide is up nearly 30% since 1970. Where a Shanghai family in the past may have been vegetarian most of the time, it now may indulge in meat, eggs, and commercially made pork dumplings. Visiting a restaurant perhaps a couple times per month may be the norm.

Consequently, the need for feed grains is rising at breakneck speeds. About a third of the world's grain goes to feed livestock. [In the US, two thirds goes to animals.] Earlier this year the world showed record low levels of grain stocks, down to a 48-day world supply. Only 3 years ago supplies were at 78 days.

Add to this a human population expected to nearly double over the next 50 years, most rapidly in some of the same countries where increasing meat consumption is now taking place. If you know the relationship that exists between meat production and resource depletion, you know that an intensely explosive situation is fast in the making. Feeding the average meat-eating American, for instance, requires 3-1/4 acres of land per year. Feeding a person who eats no food derived from animals requires only 1/6 acre per year.

So, when a country such as China, with its 1.2 billion inhabitants, changes its collective lifestyle, the effects are felt all around the world; and in the case of animal protein consumption, you've got no less than a full market transformation on your hands. In fact, within one recent year China went from exporting 16 million tons of grain to importing eight million tons.

Sitting pretty. Grain prices naturally rise as grain becomes scarce. To those in grain exporting countries, such as the US, world grain shortages are a boon. If you produce grain to feed the animals people want more and more to eat, you're already sitting pretty. Wheat prices in the spring were at $7.17 a bushel, up from about $3.5 a year earlier. Corn and soybean prices were sky-high as well.

Unfortunately, we're not talking about a luxury item like stereos or hoola hoops. We're talking about human sustenance--one of the three essentials of life. Along with clothing and shelter, food is a life or death requirement.

World hunger is already here, and promises to get worse, a lot worse, soon. In the near term expect to hear the word "famine" at greater intervals. Eight hundred million people are already malnourished in the world today.

Senseless human tragedy. Hunger is not the only a result of grain shortages. Food importing countries have to take funds away from other needed investments so their citizen can eat. In addition, grain shortages leave little room for bad weather, natural disasters and other emergencies. And with higher prices for basic grain foods, the cost of relief efforts rises. "The potential for real human tragedy is great," warns Leonard Rogers, an Agency for International Development (AID) official.

Low income families are hit harder than others. Grain prices are rising at a faster rate than inflation; for a low income family that spends 17% of its income on food, a 1 or 2 percent rise in inflation due to higher grain prices can make a difference.

On the other hand, in the near-term, the rich will hardly feel the crunch. The price of their food will go up relatively a lot less as more of the cost of their products is tied to marketing and packaging rather than the cost of commodities. The rich will likely continue to obliviously hoard vital grain resources in the form of animal protein.

Little hope in technology. In the short run, grain exporting countries will be the winners in the race for scarce supplies of food, but even with land conducive to grain production, nature has her limits.

As for the so-called Green Revolution, experts say that it has definitely slowed. Even if farmers begin planting "fence to fence" those old surpluses will not be returning any time soon. Overall, estimates are that cropland for corn, wheat and other grains will be able to increase no more than 3% worldwide.

This year despite the risk of another American Dust Bowl, the US government is allowing about a million acres of environmentally sensitive lands to go back into production to build stocks.

According to Lester Brown of the Worldwatch Institute, the world "may have crossed a threshold where even the best efforts of governments to build stocks may not be enough."

Further study. The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) provides a free Internet listserve, an electronic mailing list which covers the political, economic, social and environmental changes affecting global food stocks, production, trade and food security. Send an e-mail message to majordomo@igc.apc.org (leave the subject line blank). In the body of the message, type: "subscribe food-security"; or contact Dale Wiehoff at 612-379-5980.


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