The U.S.-driven food crisis behind Mideast revolutions

February 14, 2011|By Charles Campbell

Have American agricultural policies indirectly led to revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East?

The one pivotal feature of the civil unrest throughout the world is food — and there is a growing population of underclass everywhere, balanced against a world food supply that cannot support them. This is the key: If the masses are starving because they can't afford food, then it doesn't matter what form of government is in place — revolutions will occur.

U.S. policy is at the forefront of the causes of world hunger, in large part because of our misguided biofuels program. The corn used to produce ethanol to fill a 25-gallon SUV tank one time would feed a starving African for a year, and it takes 10 acres of land to produce corn to fuel the same 25-gallon SUV tank for a year operating on 100 percent ethanol. In the U.S., from 2000 to today, the demand for corn to produce ethanol has grown sixfold. The U.S., the world's largest corn exporter, now converts more corn to ethanol than we export.

Our biofuels program not only reduced the amount of corn available for human consumption but also caused a shortage of wheat and other grains, as U.S. farmers converted production to higher-valued corn. The end result was a worldwide shortage of all grains and the catalyst that led to the 100 percent rise in world food prices in 2008, worldwide food riots and political turmoil. The current revolts in North Africa and the Middle East are largely due to a new spike in food prices.

The world's population grew from 3 billion in 1930 to 6 billion in 1999 and is expected to increase to 9 billion by 2045. Nearly all of that projected growth is from southern Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Focusing on North Africa and Middle East, 50 percent of the population is under 25 and extremely angry about the lack of jobs and about high food prices. While Egypt has millions of urban professionals, about 40 percent of Egyptians still live on $2 per day. There are estimated to be 1.3 billion people existing on less than $2 per day worldwide, and about 75 percent of these are in middle-income countries — including India and China, which also have large numbers of successful international companies staffed with highly educated citizens. The remaining 25 percent live in the poorest states in Africa.

In addition to the U.S. corn-to-alcohol conversion, China has added to the problem as the new rich have incomes that have allowed a changed diet, increasing from 44 pounds of meat consumption per capita in 1985 to 110 pounds in 2010. Calories required for beef production are eight times what is needed to produce grain. About 35 percent of the world's grain is used as livestock feed. Not only is meat consumption grossly inefficient, but acreage is relentlessly being converted to farms to grow more beef as well as the grains to feed them.

Thinking in novel ways, the discussion inside the Beltway should not be centered on stopping the Muslim Brotherhood from coming to power in Egypt but on how to feed the increasing masses of people living on $2 a day. That is what will ultimately deter revolutions. As part of that conversation, there needs to be a reversal of the biofuels programs — promoted for environmental reasons but with a minuscule effect on global warming.

Yes, converting corn to ethanol in the U.S. has indirectly resulted in what we are now seeing on our TV screens every day. Releasing corn production for human consumption will ultimately balance the U.S. production of corn and wheat and reduce the worldwide prices for all grains. Long term, the goal is to reduce the chaos in the third world, where people living on $2 per day have meaningful jobs; the current goal should be to minimize the number that are starving. This would trump biofuels carbon dioxide reduction in the U.S. — that is, if the programs actually have any effect.

Charles Campbell, a resident of Woodstock, is a retired senior vice president of Gulf Oil Corp. His e-mail is lochawe@verizon.net.

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