Feed people, not cars

2008-04-01 00:00

IN 1943, the psychologist Abraham Maslow postulated his famous hierarchy of needs, the most basic of which were the physiological needs of eating, drinking, breathing and excretion. It is not news to anyone who visits a supermarket that the recent sharp increases in the price of food are starting to pose a challenge to one of these, the ability of people to feed themselves as they would wish. Some increased costs can be attributed to the increasing price of oil, aggravated in South Africa by the weakening of the rand. But much of it is due to forces over which nobody in this country has any control.

In the 50 years after the end of World War 2 in 1945, the population of the planet more than doubled. Grain production — and cereals are the world’s primary food — managed to keep up thanks to improved methods of fertilisation and cultivation and increasing areas being planted to crops. But that increase has now ceased. In six of the past seven years, humanity has consumed more grain that it grew. Such a situation can only lead to increased prices.

Global warming is probably to blame to some extent for the reduction of food production. Climate change and consequent prolonged drought, for instance, is responsible for a vast reduction in the production of wheat in Australia, once the world’s second largest exporter. Nearer home — and completely independent of any climatic considerations — President Robert Mugabe can take credit for turning Zimbabwe from a bread basket into a basket case.

But perhaps the greatest damage to the world’s food supplies is being done by the demand for biofuels. This supposed answer to carbon dioxide emissions is proving a false saviour. Not only is the evidence for its benefits debatable, but the subsidies which President George W. Bush is giving to farmers in the midwest to produce grain for biofuel, while they might do something to lessen the dependence of the U.S. on imported oil, mean that 30% of U.S. production, which formerly fed hungry people around the world, is now going into the tanks of gas-guzzling motorcars. Surely, if biofuels are to be used at all, they must be made from inedible crops that grow on poor soil unsuitable for the cultivation of food. Only in that way can a win-win situation be created. At the moment, the position is lose-lose.

A food shortage is an even more immediate threat to human survival than climate change. This, in turn, raises ethical questions. Which is more important, energy or food? Clearly there is a need to think differently, to look at what we’ve got and how best we can use it.

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