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The myth of the rising cost of food

The BBC has a feature on "the cost of food". It shows how almost all types of food are getting more and more expensive. Drastically so!

What is happening here? Shouldn't modern high-tech farming with its nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides and specially breed (and often genetically modified) high-yield crop varieties allow humanity to easy feed everyone on the planet? Hasn't Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution dramatically increased the amount of food the world can produce (e.g. doubling wheat yield between 1965 and 1970)? Haven't exports of food increased by 400% over the last 40 years, promoting the distribution of foods from countries with lots of farmland to those without the capacity to grow lots of food?

The news reporters give two possible explanations of the rising cost of food (both bogus):

  1. The world population is increasing. Soon 6 billion people now live on the planet and the number is expected to rise by 9 billion in 2050. Feeding more mounts costs more money. Moreover, with the rising wealth of countries like China and India the people in these countries consume more food. "To put it bluntly, rich people eat more than poor people", says the BBC.
  2. The increasing use of corn for biofuels (ethanol) is decreasing the amount of the crop that can be used for food. A lower supply coupled with increasing demand due to an increasing world population naturally leads to higher costs.

Makes sense, right? Wrong!

Sure, the world population is increasing, but so are yields of crops. Sure, the use of corn for fuel is increasing, but the increase in the cost of corn has been comparatively low compared with crops like rice, soya and wheat.

The real problem is shown, but not commented upon, in the original BBC feature, as well as in other news sources. It is the increasing consumption of meat.

Increased Meat Eating

The statistics show how producing meat is radically more resource intensive than producing vegetarian foodstuffs. But take a look back at the original article: the price of meat (and sugar) is not increasing very much at all. What is going on here? Why are all foods except meat getting more expensive, when meat is the single most expensive food to produce?!

One word: subsidies.

The United States spends 35% (the greatest single amount) of its total $8 billion annual agricultural subsidies budget on "feed grains" for livestock. The European Union spends a whooping $76 billion per year on food subsidies and 18% of it (the greatest single amount) goes to subsidizing beef production. So, between them, the EU and USA spend at least $16 billion on keeping the price of meat lower than it should be, given its true cost.

Or, to put this in more down-to-earth numbers: the 380 million people that live in the EU consume 92 kg of meat per person every year. Of that 92 kg, 20 kg is beef (a total of 7 million tons of cow meat each year). This means that the EU pays an extra $2 of tax payer's money for each kg of beef that its citizens consume. And those are only direct subsidies on beef, i.e. not counting indirect tax benefits farmers get, government purchases, subsidies on other types of meat, and so on.

So, what to do?

It's actually really simple: promote vegetarianism throughout the world and simultaneously eliminate subsidies on meat. Without subsidies meat will get so expensive that few people can afford it. Would you buy a Big Mac if it cost $34 a burger?

If a vegetarian diet is advertised as the logical, cheaper, healthier alternative, then people will naturally stop eating dead animals. That lowering of demand will make it more difficult to sell the quantities of meat which are currently produced. Farmers will be forced to switch from growing "feed grain" to producing "grain for human consumption". This, I estimate, can result in a tenfold increase in the amount of available food. Enough to easily feed a world population of 60 billion!

(An added side-benefit would be a huge reduction in the number of people that get cancer, resulting in lower health-care costs and longer life-spans. Large-scale studies in Europe and the USA have proven without a doubt that meat eating causes many different types of cancer)

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  • John Forbes 14/06/2008 1:36pm (10 years ago)

    First, I am not a religion-hater.

    Second, you are incorrect to state that vegetarianism has nothing to do with religion. Many religions have rules regarding diet, and several religions require their adherents not to eat meat. Hinduism has many rules regarding the eating of meat, as you presumably know, and many Hindus are vegetarians because of their religion. If religion doesn't influence your views, why do you keep referring to religion in your articles on this site?

    Third, you continue to ignore the point that the BBC programme was concerned with the RECENT increases in the cost of food. Over the past twelve months food prices have risen alarmingly, and perhaps the major reason is the second one given - ethanol crops. The steadily continuing rise in the global population, and increased meat consumption (in China in particular) are not the main causes of the RECENT price rises, though they perhaps play a part.

    I can't, and don't, disagree with your contention that a meat diet requires more food to be grown than a vegetable diet does. My only argument with you is that you ascribe the recent sudden rise in food prices to increased meat consumption. Common (objective) sense dictates that this would cause a sustained increase in prices over a much longer period, not a sudden increase in just one year.

    So we agree over your fundamental point - that it will be easier to feed a growing population if meat consumption is reduced - but not with your analysis of the cause of the recent surge in food prices. Your analysis is flawed because of your obsession with meat-eating, and that in turn is, I suggest, derived from your religious views.

  • candidas das 14/06/2008 9:39am (10 years ago)

    Dear religion hater,
    First of all, vegetarianism has nothing to do with religion. You don't have to be religious to be vegetarian. Vegetarianism is, however, a welcome side-effect of the practice of sanatana-dharma (Krishna consciousness).

    As I point out in the post, there are many reasons for the rise in food prices. Lots of factors playing together have produced this dramatic rise in the cost of food. The reason I wrote the post is to re-enforce that meat-eating is a very significant and often overlooked factor in this crisis. Countries like China have drastically increased their meat consumption in the last few years. Common (objective) sense dictates that if you have to feed crops to an animal to then eat it, that is a much less efficient way of producing food than feeding the crops directly to humans. A rise in meat-eating consequently leaves less food for human consumption.

  • John Forbes 14/06/2008 9:04am (10 years ago)

    You really do need to be a little more objective. Your obsession with meat-eating has blinded you to the fact that the rise in food prices is very recent, and has nothing whatsoever to do with meat consumption.

    High oil prices in the last year have forced up the cost of transport and of all oil-based products. Unfortunately, as you rightly say, much food is transported over long distances because it made economic sense to do so when oil prices were lower.

    America has only very recently started to produce ethanol from food crops, which has resulted in a significant drop in food output, with a consequential effect on global food prices.

    I agree with much of what you say about modern farming methds, and the effect on people's health. But not every bad thing is the world is caused by meat-eating.

    Unfortunately, religion and science don't mix, as you have demonstrated. Whenever there is a conflict between facts and your religious beliefs, the latter will win. For that reason, you should stop trying to be a scientist, and find a career that accomodates your beliefs. Science doesn't.

  • Ekendra Dasa 22/03/2008 8:51pm (10 years ago)

    Nice article. Here is a relevant piece about what some devotees are doing in Africa:

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