For many third world countries a stable food supply keeps death at bay, but when shortages occur, it puts millions of people’s lives at risk. We are currently facing a major food crisis, where prices have risen due to an increased demand, which is expected to double by 2030. There are ongoing riots in developing countries and growing global concerns. The World Bank is projecting that 100 million people will starve if the current developments continue, which means the food crisis will get worse, much worse. The soaring demand is caused by an intervention of several factors such as bio-fuels, dietary trends and pollution, and a common solution is found in individuals switching to a whole plant-based diet. The situation is far from simple, but if you keep reading you’ll know how these important aspects are tightly interconnected by the time you’re done.
The Surreptitious Origins of the Current Food Crisis
In China the government wants people to drink more milk. Their target is for every child to have access to half a liter per day. This has led to a threefold increase in milk consumption over the last eight years. The Chinese government maintains domestic milk prices low by the use of tax incentives, in order to meet their goal of increased consumption. This is not to say that the Chinese corporations have not figured out how to increase demand themselves. One example is the Chinese dairy company Mengniu Group who increased their sales five-fold after sponsoring “Supergirl” a blockbuster show with 20 million viewers. The company managed to change Chinese pop culture by introducing milk to a whole new generation. The Chinese trend is also increasing prices of milk around the world, because milk is traded globally in powder form. This trend is also perpetuated by Chinese citizens considering milk as a path to the Western lifestyle, as well as milk being more convenient than making rice porridge. This might also have major negative implications to health-care cost in China, since studies have shown that the benefit of milk might not be as plausible as the majority of us believe it to be. Switching from diseases of poverty to diseases of affluence is hardly the right way to go. But going back to our topic, this increase in demand for milk depicts one example of how food prices are increased. In this case, the demand for milk increases the amount of livestock, which need grain to fulfill their purpose, and also result in increased carbon emissions. Hedge funds are also getting blamed for fueling the food crisis by taking trillions of dollars out of equities and mortgage bonds and ploughing them into more secure food and raw materials. Wall Street calls it the “commodities super-cycle” and it could assist in starvation on an epic scale.
Bio-fuels Join the Battle
Another reason for the increase in demand for food is the increased usage of bio-fuels. Finding new fuels with lower carbon emissions has long been a struggle, whereas this problem seems now to have been replaced by efforts of finding efficient ways of producing environmentally friendly fuels. This is also the case for bio-diesel most commonly marketed as E85. The current methods used in many countries to produce bio-fuels, or ethanol to be more specific, are by the use of food crops, such as corn or soybeans. Production of corn ethanol in the U.S. has soared from 1.6 billion gallons in 2000 to 6.5 billion in 2007, helped along by federal subsidies. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop had been converted to ethanol, it would only replace 12 percent of their gasoline consumption. There are also critics who argue that ethanol takes more energy to produce than it delivers and that using ethanol as a fuel would lead to lower air qualities due to an increase of ozone, a prime ingredient of smog, in the atmosphere. It has also been shown that biofuels are very inefficient in terms of water usage during production.
Even at this early stage the U.S.’s ethanol production accounts for half of the world wide increase in the demand for corn and increasingly more grain is being used to fuel first world countries. The U.S. fuel corn consumption is greater than the import necessity of the 82 U.N. classified low income countries would need to feed all of their people. In many ways the wealthy nations are taking food away from third world countries to support their consumption, the interests of car manufacturers, and their economic prosperity. The cost of food is increasing and aid organizations are unable to afford the needed supply amounts.
As a small sidestep, you might think that the increased demand for bio-fuels are caused by the hefty focus there has been on environment lately, which is not the case. The contemporary environmental attention has not helped much in terms of increasing people’s commitment to environment, in the U.S. at least, as shown by the graph below. Ethanol is actually mixed into normal gasoline in small doeses, without consumers being aware of it. In the UK the plan is to add bio-fuels to regular petrol and over time increase the amount of regular petrol it will be replacing. This movement is attributed to the car manufacturers who allegedly lobbied against high fuel-taxes and also against higher fuel economy standards. Instead they promoted bio-fuels as a viable alternative. This way people’s stagnant commitment to the environment is not an obstacle in increasing sales of bio-fuels. There are some recent positive advancements though, which might make bio-fuels more viable.
Although scientists are working on creating both alternatives to the bio-fuel itself as well as its methods of production, the focus in this article will be on the latter of these. As a response to this issue Professor R. Malcolm Brown Jr. and Dr. David Nobles Jr. at the University of Texas at Austin have created a new microbe which produces cellulose, which can be turned into ethanol or other bio-fuels. “The cyanobacterium is potentially a very inexpensive source for sugars to use for ethanol and designer fuels,” says Nobles. This new cyanobacteri, also known as blue-green algae (picture), could potentially increase productivity of ethanol a 17 fold. This could therefore be one potential solution for ethanol as a fuel.
The Connection to Pollution
In order for the continuance of this discussion to be coherent, pollution and especially the process of CO2 capture and storage has to be brought into the picture. This is normally known as a relatively expensive process, which is not yet viable for most potential users. It has to be mentioned though that Michael North at Newcastle University has recently made a breakthrough in this area with a technology which can efficiently convert waste CO2 into chemical compounds known as cyclic carbonates. This has the potential to use up to 48 million tonnes of waste CO2 per year, reducing the UK’s emissions by about four per cent. A problem arises when it comes to capturing CO2 from livestock, which is also a serious source of pollution. The worldwide increase in meat consumption we are currently experiencing further increases the contributions from this sector.
Isaac Berzin, founder and chief science advisor at GreenFuel Technologies, have come up with another way of solving both the problem of pollution and crops usage for producing bio-fuels altogether. His revolutionary technology combines the CO2 capturing technology with growing algae. You might ask what algae have to do with anything, well; CO2 is a delicacy for hungry algae. Berzin attempts to set up a process in which CO2 emissions, such as from a coal plant, could be fed directly to algae. This would be done by piping emissions into GreenFuel’s bioreactor which grows the algae and turn it into biomass that can be utilized to produce bio-fuels. Essentially this process is recycling CO2 emissions, rendering CO2 capture and storage obsolete, and offering a better method of producing ethanol for bio-fuels.
A Whole Plant-Based Diet Offering a Solution
The required increase of donations is, as can be seen through the riots and upheavals, not being met and people are starving and dying. Bush made a meager donation of $200 million for the food crisis. Bio-fuels in addition to all the other contributing factors to the food crisis may be called a crime to humanity, as stated in the New Statesman: “Bio-fuels are not a ‘necessary but painful’ way of saving the climate; they are a calamitous mistake by almost every criterion, whether social, ethical or environmental”.
Those in immediate food supply shortage need donations by first world countries, but sustainable solutions will not come about from monetary donations. For that, first world governments need to reduce or eliminate their subsidies for farmers and food products. Basically the WTO needs to come to an agreement, which will probably be difficult considering the sentiment most have to domestic farmers in developed nations. Shifting the food production away from animal products to vegetables and other plants in favor of a vegetarian or vegan diet would make more food available than humans could possibly consume. This also offers a solution to what individuals can do to contribute to resolving the food crisis. Switching to a whole plant-based diet offers an initiative viable to everyone. It would drive down food prices because of fewer intermediates in the food production and make the global situation easier to resolve, regretfully there is evidence that the contrary is occurring, as described with China who is working to increase their milk consumption.
There are large amounts of evidence available that strengthen the importance of a vegetarian diet in fighting global warming. There’s been focus lately on buying food locally in order to reduce the amount of transportation and thereby also reduce carbon emissions. A recent study suggests that what you eat is more important in relations to carbon emissions than where the food is from. Buying all your food from local sources would reduce emissions per year by the same as 1,000 miles of driving. One day less of eating meat per week would cut greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount. The researchers estimate that going from an average American diet to a vegetarian diet would reduce emissions per year the equivalent of 8,000 miles of driving. “Where you get your food from is a relevant factor in family food decisions, but what you are eating, and the processes needed to make it, is much more important from a climate change perspective” said Matthews, associate professor at Carnegie Mellon.
Maybe the problems we are experiencing with both pollution and food demand will aid in promoting vegetarianism, but it seems unlikely that people will change their diet for any external factor when they won’t do it to improve their own health. I still believe though, that vegetarianism should be promoted as one of the main initiatives to resolve global warming (as does Paul McCartney), the food crisis, and why not add the economic recession in there as well. Still, it seems like forced regulations are the only way to go to get the majority to change their dietary habits. Maybe a real tax increase on meat would do the trick; at least then vegetarians would have a financial benefit. This could make up for the fact that vegetarians have to pay the same amount of tax, although they obviously incur a lower cost to public health-care systems than carnivores. Maybe the solution will emerge from the recent developments in producing fake, in vitro meat from stem cells, combined with stem cells collected from a newly discovered multi-potential source; menstrual blood.