News Analysis: The Food Crisis

Food prices keep rising here and abroad. It's an inconvenience for many of us, but it's leading to political instability and famine elsewhere. The Allegheny Frontís news analyst Ann Murray talks with Jennifer Szweda Jordan about the latest on the food crisis. Jenniferís producing our Earthís Bounty series on food and the environment.

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MURRAY: Hi Jennifer.
JORDAN: Hi, or should I say higher and higher, thatís where prices are going Ann. Weíre paying as much as 69 percent more for food over the past two years. Many people suspect itís the ethanol boom thatís causing prices to jump because more and more corn is being use to produce this biofuel. If that's the case, weíll get no relief anytime soon.
MURRAY: Sounds that way doesnít it? The governor of Texas and a coalition of others including John McCain had lobbied for some relief to the Bush administration. Letís talk about what happened.
JORDAN: Right. In May, 24 Senate Republicans asked the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back the Renewable Fuel Standard. That mandates ethanol and biodiesel to be blended into the fuel supply to the tune of nine (B) billion gallons this year and eleven-point-one gallons in 2009. Compare that to ethanol use being at 3-point-five (B) billion gallons in 2004. But the EPA last week said fuhgeddaboudit ñ the quota stays in place.
MURRAY: What was the rationale?
JORDAN: The EPA said it found no compelling evidence that the Renewable Fuel Standard mandate is causing severe economic harm.
MURRAY: And I guess the government's staying the course because farming interests and farm-state politicians, like the big investments in ethanol.
JORDAN: New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently put is as such: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.
MURRAY: So what might happen?
JORDAN: Well, an energy reporter for the Times says thatís hard to predict. He points out that high energy prices upped ethanol production, but that rising corn prices sank some ethanol operations.
MURRAY: That's ironic. What about this argument some have raised that a rising Third World middle class with appetites for meat is to blame for the food crisis?
JORDAN: President Bush, many other politicians and economists have made that case.
MURRAY: And of course meat requires a lot of grain to produce.
JORDAN: Right, but recently the World Bankís expert on agricultural commodities said thatís a false argument. Donald Mitchell says that the poor, especially in Asia, ARE eating more meat. But he says that technology innovations in animal genetics and nutrition have made livestock production more efficient. He says that an analysis of the grain and rice output rising with meat production doesnít match up the way it used to.
MURRAY: So it sounds like as ethanol goes, so go food prices.
JORDAN: Natural disasters can also have an effect so weíll just have to see what happens.
MURRAY: Any insights on how the food prices are affecting sustainable farming?
JORDAN: Internationally, I heard a very interesting piece last week on National Public Radio. The Honduran government is encouraging farmers there to grow more genetically modified corn to ensure better crop yields. Farmers who are using the corn say that itís allowing them to use fewer pesticides and encouraging beneficial insects to flourish. But thereís a backlash there because in the rest of Central America, growing GMO corn is against the law.
MURRAY: Yeah, I understand itís where farmers first grew corn thousands of years ago.
JORDAN: Right, and apparently thereís a fear the GMO corn could contaminate the great variety of plants that still exist.
MURRAY: Regionally, any changes in what farmers are doing?
JORDAN: Well, itís certainly squeezing many dairy farms who canít raise the price of milk. And that's because the price of milk is government regulated. But I know of a pig farmer whoís replaced some of the pricey feed corn with excess milk from a nearby dairy. Folks are getting creative like that. An expert told me that people who raise poultry on part pasture, and part grain are increasing the range of pasture in the animalsí diets to keep prices down.
MURRAY: And many think those pasture-raised animals are healthier and tastier, so that could be a good thing.
JORDAN: Right.
MURRAY: Well, thanks Jennifer. It sounds like we'd better start clipping coupons and buying in bulk.
JORDAN: It was good to talk with you, Ann. Weíll be posting some links on the food crisis on alleghenyfront.org.