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 bred (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):
- The world population is increasing. 6 billion people now live on the planet and the number is expected to rise by 9 billion in 2050. Feeding more mouths 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.
- 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 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 agricultural subsidies budget on “feed grains” for livestock. The European Union spends a whooping $76 billion 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)
Candidasa Dasa is studying towards a PhD in Computer Science at the University of Manchester's Bio-Health Informatics Group. You can visit his blog here: www.deltaflow.com