Thursday, May 1, 2008


I always struggle to keep up on sporadic bloggers... I am one of them. Hopefully I will gain some consistency after June 5 (written and oral comps will be over). Today I had something that has been on my mind so I'm going to post, despite the fact that I should really be studying.

I'm a child of the 80's. Well, I was born in the 70's, but most of my childhood memories are from the 80's. I remember vividly the commercials on TV asking for donations to help the people of Ethiopia who were starving because of a drought that had lasted a long time. There were pictures of sad kids and mothers who looked really hungry. I never donated, but some of those images really stuck with me. Here in the Western world, we have it really well. I have never been deprived of food (except for long bike rides when I'm not bright enough to bring enough food to get me home).

You're right, I don't blog about Ethiopia or droughts in Africa. I blog about bike related stuff and simplicity. Today I'm going to add ethics to the mix and talk a little about ethanol as a fuel. For some time the US government has subsidized farmers who grow (or don't grow) crops such as corn. This keeps cost of US corn low and makes it so poorer countries can't compete with our prices (like most of Africa). Most Americans don't concern themselves too much with that idea because the subsidies do keep many farmers in business who would otherwise really be struggling. I don't know what makes US farmers better than Africans, but that isn't the point that I want to address today.

Currently corn prices are sky rocketing (along with other grains that can be used to make fuels such as bio diesel) and the farmers are in a better situation. I don't think the subsidies have stopped, but I could be wrong on that. The reason prices are rising is because we are developing technologies to turn these crops into fuel. While it may help us beat peak oil (which I think is approaching quickly), I think it could have some catastrophic consequences.

It's simple economics (I say that, but I'm really not an economist). Demand for corn is high because it is now not only a food, but also a fuel. So the prices go up for foods that contain corn. (try to find a processed food that doesn't contain corn syrup...there aren't many.) And this turns into a great ethical decision.

The free market economy that we live in allows supply and demand to regulate prices (with a little intervention). Now we have the wealthy who can afford fuel for their cars and the poor who can't afford food. Is it OK (ethical) for the wealthy to have luxuries that directly result in others starving? Oh, I just found a cool website. Put in your income and it will tell you how rich you are compared to the rest of the world. I'm in the top 13%. The next time you go to fill up hour car with gas, think that when you pull that nozzle out of the holder, you are pulling a cob of corn out of the mouth of someone who is hungry.

The big problem with the whole thing is that like many things in the US, the consumer will be distanced from the consequence of their consumption so that the consumer doesn't see the harm. I really think we need to get rid of that practice. How much would it influence your choices if you could see the landfills and the pollution and the division of wealth that come from our consumption? I think that it would affect many people greatly, but people don't want to worry about it (and the companies that produce stuff certainly don't want you thinking of it). It's that separation that keeps us making consumption choices that are bad for the environment and bad for other people.

Did I miss something on this, like I did with the China thing? I don't think so, but let me know if you disagree.


The Woulfes said...

"The free market economy that we live in allows supply and demand to regulate prices (with a little intervention). Now we have the wealthy who can afford fuel for their cars and the poor who can't afford are pulling a cob of corn out of the mouth of someone who is hungry."

The thing is that we don't really have a free market economy. If it wasn't for the vast biofuel subsidies in the US and the EU, corn wouldn't be used for fuel. In a true free market, oil would still be a cheaper source of fuel then corn.

I think the statistic is that filling up an SUV with ethanol uses 450 lbs of corn, enough to feed a person for a year.

Also, though food prices may be going up in the short term, Mark Bittman at the NYT has an interesting article on meat consumption/prices.

K-Mad said...

As another sporadic blogger...

Friends of ours recently were driving through North Dakota where they noticed farmers growing corn. She remarked to He that they never used to plant corn around here, the growing season is too short. Turns out the growing season is still too short. Farmers are intentionally planting crops that they know will fail in order to collect insurance.

Second hand info to be sure, but something to get mad about if its true.

Bread prices and beer prices are already rising here.

Vertigo (under his wife's account...)

Earl said...

I think biofuels are a terrible idea.

I think government subsidies are worse. But for different reasons.

As corn prices rise, poor people will be able to buy less corn. On the other hand, higher prices for corn will entice more people to grow corn. As more farmers grow corn, the supply will increase and the price will decrease.

It's not a perfect system, and it takes time to make adjustments. If the market is allowed to do it's job, it will work out in the end.

Heather said...

I don't think consuming products takes away from the poor people. I believe that is a "scarcity" perspective, and I believe that we live in a world of abundance. There is plenty to go around.
I believe anyone can be rich, and anyone can be poor. It just depends on our choices. I also believe that the rich are independent of the poor and the poor are independent of the rich. I don't think one necessarily causes the other.