If you read the newspapers closely you know food prices are on the rise – and that the situation is much worse outside the US where consumers spend far more of their income on food (up to 50%!) compared to the average American expenditure (about 15%).
I have no doubt we will soon see riots over prices and food scarcity abroad as global hunger spreads and worsens.
So I was surprised and shocked to read that that America’s corporate farmers have responded to both crises by deciding to grow more …cotton?!?
It’s absolutely true, folks. US fields once devoted to producing amber waves of wheat, corn, and soybeans are being rapidly converted to highly-profitable cotton crops.
Why cotton … and why now?
With cotton prices at an all-time high, the US agricultural community is going where the cash is, even though a worldwide shortage of edible food crops has driven these prices higher as well.
Sadly, in addition to being today’s most profitable crop, non-organic US cotton is also one of the dirtiest due to the heavy use of pesticides used in cultivation.
Conventional cotton farming relies on the world’s most toxic agricultural poisons, which contaminate the eco-life in the soil and leech into runoff and groundwater.
Our world is growing hungrier
This shift in American agriculture is occurring even as the demand for our food crops is growing, due to various global misfortunes.
Currently, drought is threatening China’s wheat crop, which means this proudly self-sustaining nation will be relying more on imports. Last year, drought ruined Russia’s wheat crop — and now heavy rains have damaged Australia’s high-quality wheat.
But instead of planting more wheat to meet the growing demand (and record wheat prices), American farmers are opting to devote their fertile acres to the even more profitable cotton stalks.
And this isn’t a matter of choosing cotton to “save the farm” because this season’s wheat prices undoubtedly will produce a handsome income.
Instead, farmers are picking a crop that will give them a maximum profit without considering either the long-term environmental or humanitarian consequences.
Something feels very wrong about this
This immediate gratification of a maximum cotton payday could well have a devastating impact on the world’s shrinking food supply, spiking food prices, and the ever-increasing toxic load on the environment.
The last record-high for food prices was 2008. At that time, food riots exploded in more than a dozen developing countries when the cost of staples such as rice, corn and wheat spiked. There’s every reason to believe that 2011 will experience even more violent protests.
Complicating today’s situation is the use of crops such as corn, sugar and the cassava root for the production of biofuels, according to a recent report in The New York Times.
This competition between the food and biofuel industries for limited supplies is accelerating the rise in food prices — which means that bump eventually gets passed on to consumers.
And ironically, government policies are exacerbating the problem. The US, the European Union, China, and India have all mandated that 10% or more of all food crops be used for biofuels.
Frankly, I think it’s insane to solve the energy crisis by using food to power cars. Even the difference of a few cents for something like corn can put food out of reach to those already hungry and living in poverty.
But it can’t happen here … can it?
Unless you travel outside this country, it’s easy to overlook the problem. Food is still relatively cheap in the US — but this can change rapidly if prices keep climbing and crops become more scarce as the world demands (and receives) more of our harvests. (Food is one of scarce remaining exports left to us.)
Few of us realize that supermarkets are completely restocked every three days, on average. Any interruption in the supply flow can empty the abundant shelves of even the most lavish Whole Foods store in 72 hours.
This was burned into my brain during the gas shortages of late 1970s, when consumers had to queue up in long lines on “odd or even days” (depending on the last digit of your license plate) to fill up our tanks.
I recall one day being stunned to find the shelves of my local supermarket almost completely bare, as an extremely overweight woman threw up her hands and exclaimed, “Oh my God, there isn’t even any diet bread left!” (True story.)
It’s already happening
Food manufacturers are trying to prevent us from noticing the climbing cost of food by using a little packaging magic: They’re shrinking the amount of food in those boxes and bags we buy.
In case you haven’t noticed, we’re currently paying the same amount (or more) for less product. A box of pasta, for instance, may appear unchanged to your eye, but closer inspection of the net weight reveals there’s less in the box for the same price.
Tropicana’s 64-ounce carton of no-pulp orange juice recently shrunk to 59 ounces. Boxes of Keebler’s Wheatables Toasted Honey Wheat crackers also got lighter while carrying the same price tag, dwindling down to 8.5 ounces from 9 ounces. Examples such as this abound.
How to fight back
Keep in mind that this pricing sleight-of-hand is being done with packaged and processed foods. So, as the price of all that “convenience” creeps up, you can fight back by buying foods in their natural state.
Shopping the perimeter of the store for whole foods will keep your grocery bills – and your medical expenses — lower.
It’s a little-recognized fact that the biggest food industry profits come from “value added” qualities: The clever artificial flavors … the cute shapes and colors … and, most of all, the added sugar, salt, and fats that affect the same reward centers in the brain as do alcohol, narcotics, and nicotine (which is why people truly “crave” them).
Start stocking up your pantry
Besides shunning these refined food products, I recommend you begin preparing for even higher prices and food shortages by buying a little extra dried beans, grains, canned goods, and other non-perishables every week to stock up your pantry.
If you currently don’t cook or eat a lot of these foods, this would be a great time to learn.
Our website contains many yummy and highly-nutritious recipes that can get you started using some of these healthful, “whole food” ingredients. Cowboy Beans, Fruit-Nut-and-Coconut Granola, and Buffalo Kidney Bean Stew with Sweet Potatoes are a few tasty examples.
Here are some other ways to take greater control over your food supply…
This season, plan to grow some of your own food in a small garden plot – or even on your balcony and windowsill in containers.
What you can’t grow yourself you can get from local farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) groups.
CSA allows you to buy seasonal produce from local farmers, usually in “shares” that you purchase from a farmer in return for a regular supply of vegetables throughout the growing season. (To find a CSA near you, go to www.localharvest.org.)
Another good idea is to purchase as much of your food directly from local farmers and producers as possible. This assures you the lowest prices, the best quality, and also lends your strength to the family farmers struggling for their independence from corporate agriculture.
To locate farmers in your area who raise and sell organic, hormone-free, pasture-raised animal products, go to www.eatwild.com.
This season, make a real effort to educate yourself, family, and friends about making sound, sustainable food choices. (The same goes for clothing. Support manufacturers who use organic cotton instead of the toxic cotton being grown abundantly.)
We don’t have to panic about rising prices and a possible food shortage. With a little planning we can certainly be prepared.
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