Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Rising Food Prices

The British Guardian has an interesting article on the recent rise in food prices. It notes that most people in the U.K. (or the U.S., actually) don't remember a time when food was becoming more expensive. It has pretty much become more affordable for a long time.

This may now be changing, both in the short-run because of rising costs of energy and transportation and in the long-run because of population pressures in India and China, both countries which are rapidly becoming wealthier. This results in changed consumption patterns: more meat, less rice, and meat is much more expensive to produce. It also results in the desire to have all the modern conveniences, including SUVs. That, in turn, results in the need to turn more of the environment into roads, houses and fields of fodder for the animals.

Add to this the recent fad of turning the staple foods of poor people into sources of energy, and you can see the reason for food riots in some parts of the world as well as the price freezes on basic foods in China and Mexico, for example.

What are the solutions to the potential problem that more expensive food (and more expensive everything else, by the way) might create? As far as I can tell, the solution seems to be for people to voluntarily start eating the way the poor already eat. But I doubt this will work. Humans are mostly not built towards the ascetic frame of mind. And the poor, thanks to television and other forms of mass communication, now know how the rich live. They will not be satisfied to stay poor for much longer.

Talking about population control is a new taboo, for several reasons, including the fact that the industrialized west isn't seeing large indigenous increases in populations and that this control then becomes an attempt to control the emerging countries of Africa and Asia. If anything, the conservatives in the industrialized west fear the death of the "white race" and want fertility wars.

But I see no other long-run solution to these problems except that of population control. If all people want to have a good standard of living and if we also want to have some wild nature left, with a few polar bears and so on, we need to seriously go back to talking about population control. Note that the way to talk about it is not by comparing the earth's bearing capacity with some arbitrary numbers, under the assumption that we will turn all land into fields and that everyone will be happy to live like a Buddhist monk in terms of property and food. The proper way to talk about is to ask what population size the earth can carry while also giving people what they desire in terms of their lifestyles and while letting the earth breathe a little.