Ethical consumption update

The pressure on world grain production — crop failures, diversion of biofuel production — has created huge price increases and I have a hard time imagining how millions of the world’s poorest people will manage to eat when they get priced out of the cheapest food available.

Point one: Cyclone and storm damage leaves Bangladesh’s 150 million people with a rice deficit. Sea water intrusion threatens coastal cropland.

Point two: Saudi Arabia, a net wheat exporter, is phasing out all wheat production under water pressures. HT: Financial Times via Celsias via Nouslife.

Point three: From Lester Brown via the Earth Policy Institute:

In agricultural terms, the world appetite for automotive fuel is insatiable. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain it takes to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people.

But this is the future? Seems like there’s more pressure than ever to reduce grain demand by avoiding most meat, dairy products and farmed fish — ironically, actually eating the grain itself — and using less transportation fuel. I think affordable and available food for human beings (wherever they may be) is irreducibly more important than food for livestock or automobiles.

Yet I rather doubt United States public policy and the market will follow.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. The real insanity is that corn is a lousy thing to make alcohol out of- given the fuel needed for the farm machinery to grow it, plus processing, it actually consumes more oil than it replaces. If we would brew it from sawgrass, or buy it from Brazil, who brews it from sugarcane and sawgrass, it would be a viable alternative… but because Brazil does not vote in our Presidential primaries and Iowa does, we uses corn instead.

  2. @Joel. I think corn is a loverly substance to make alcohol out of. For Bourbon whiskey, anyway.

    Two problems with your suggestion, but are really a follow-ups to the fact that the energy inputs into fuel ethanol or oilseed biodiesel take up much (or more) of the energy output when burned in engines.

    1. How much energy would be used tanking or pipelining (!) ethanol from Brazil? Which also seems only to replace one foreign dependency with another.

    2. If alternative liquid fuels take such a huge bite, then isn’t the real problem our transportation system. Greater use of electrified light and heavy rail (and more use of common ground carriers) makes more sense to me.

    I have a terrible feeling the “invisible hand of the market” is going to beat us all senseless.

  3. I also think that ethical consumption will not be more than a sub-culture in most of America. And although it is a sub-culture I am making more choices to participate in, I don’t see most of my neighbors doing the same (or having the freedom or know-how to do the same).

    I live in a rather low income neighborhood, in a rusting mid-Western industrial city, where recent news reports indicate that over 30% of our population lives below the poverty line. And although we have very good public bus service (a mercy for the working poor who have no cars), I don’t see public policy encouraging other forms of ethical consumption.

    And what I worry about is the fate of my neighbors who have few economic choices, and little time to re-consider their options. How will their own nutrition decline as food prices increase? It is hard to be an informed consumer when you work so hard for poverty wages.

  4. Re: ethanol and other biofuels — Biodiesel is a great product when it is made from waste cooking oil (which is what Willie Nelson did for his tour buses, for a while anyway). But when you’re growing a crop just to make the biodiesel, not only does that put some cropland out of use for growing food, in addition some studies show that you only get a little bit more energy output than the energy you put in (to refine the oil from the plant). Note also the recent reports about a worldwide cooking oil shortage, due to vegetable oils getting diverted to use for fuel by wealthy countries.

    No easy answer.

  5. I, too, doubt that our public policy will follow. Had an interesting discussion tonight in this regard which led into a bigger discussion of domination systems and competitive vs. cooperative systems.

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