Monday, September 04, 2006

Cows, Corn, and Melting Ice

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture claim that the world's grain harvest, for a second year in a row, will not be able to meet worldwide consumption needs.

Professor John Holden, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said recently that climate change is happening a lot faster than predicted. So what, if anything, might this all mean?

The short answer is we don't know for certain. The longer-term answer is we don't know ... for certain. But only fools would act as though nothing has changed or that some very bad things are unlikely to occur. In conclusion, a great many fools inhabit the planet and a great many governments are run by fools.

The remarkable increase in world grain and food production that has occurred over the past 40 or 50 years has begun to slow down. For one, there are more mouths to feed. In 1950 the world's population was less than 3 billion people. Today we have more than twice that number. More people have meant less farmland under cultivation because the land is being used for human habitation.

Perhaps the vegetarians have had it right all along. It seems that as the standard-of-living has risen in many countries, meat consumption has increased. A lot of those slaughtered animals are fed grain. Perhaps a third of the world's grain harvest goes directly to feeding the animals we eat.

A relatively new problem has arisen in our attempt to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The primary reason for the interest in the need to reduce global warming gases as well as the distinct possibility that "black gold" could be a lot less plentiful and cheap. Biofuels is one of the many alternatives.

The potential problem, however, is that a biofuel, like ethanol--sometimes made from corn--and plentiful in the United States, will not be exported to feed primarily poor people overseas, but will be used instead to fuel our vehicles. In a country like the U.S. where there is no genuine energy-conservation-environmental policy, the consequences could be disastrous for grain supplies worldwide.

The potential monster in the room is of course climate change. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels, heatwaves, floods, and desertification could cause global disruptions on a scale we humans can barely envision.

Increasing fuel efficiency standard and establishing authentic conservation policies in the developed world are important. Spending time and money to help people in the developing world grow food in ways that do not harm the environment are worth the effort. But until we believe collectively that a disaster may be inching toward us, and the developed countries find leaders that can both think and imagine, our choices will "drip" away every day.

1 comment:

MM1 said...


Well said. I especially appreciate the comments concerning the lack of a collective belief we face an issue that requires us to take action in the near term. These are difficult and complex issues and, like many, I often find the eyes of my brain glazing over from technological information overload. Thanks for addressing things in a manner that is both serious and readable.