Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Rich Man’s Car

First it was the proverbial “rich man’s cow” that deprived the world’s poor from much needed staple grains, then came the bio-fuel industry making the “rich man’s car” the latest threat to the world’s poor. Will the injustice ever end?

By: Vanessa Uy

For over fifty years, the threat of starvation has always seemed unthinkable in affluent countries that benefited most from the post-World War II “Green Revolution”. But as more and more people manage to reach the upper echelons of the socio-economic ladder, they started to drastically affect the food supply of the entire world. As people get richer, they start to eat less grain. But they make up for this dietary paradigm shift by consuming more meat, and ironically that dietary lifestyle requires the consumption of enormous quantities of grain – by livestock.

Livestock – on average – must consume 10 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of meat. Thus the rich man consumes the equivalent of 10 kilograms of grain every time he consumes a kilogram of meat. In doing so, he disproportionately reduces the amount of grain available to feed the rest of humanity. And if there is not enough grain to go around, the rich man can easily outbid his less fortunate fellow human beings. As one United Nations food expert has succinctly put it more than thirty years ago, “The poor man’s grain is being siphoned off to feed the rich man’s cow.”

Then came the ill-conceived bio-fuel industry. Even though it is barely over three or so years old, it gained widespread acceptance with utter disregard for the ensuing environmental and social consequences. Thus the problem of the security of our global food supply has been greatly exacerbated. The rich man’s cow and the rich man’s car is now in competition – albeit unfairly when it comes to purchasing power – with the world’s poorer inhabitants when it comes to access to the world’s grain supply.

Thirty years ago when the bio-fuel industry was not yet the “logical alternative” to energy conservation measures. The world’s affluent society that embraced the American-Blue-Collar-Protestant-Work-Ethic-As-Ideology chose to harbor the perception that vegetarianism and energy conservation as a part of the Marxist-Leninist Socialism that threatens their Calvinist avarice. Even though reality seem to defy the socio-political construct of their perception like avarice should be a “God-given right”, or so it seems.

Inhabitants of underdeveloped Asian countries eat an average of 250 kilograms of grain per person per year. The average American – or anyone who can afford the “American Lifestyle” – consumes more than a metric ton of grain per person per year, and that’s before bio-fuels are added to the equation. The typical American eats 75 kilograms of grain annually as bread and breakfast cereals; The rest is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens to produce the meat, milk and eggs that serve as staples like grains do for the world’s poorer people. If we include the corn diverted to produce ethanol, our typical “American” is now consuming two metric tons of grain annually. Can all of us afford with a clear conscience the price we pay in maintaining our “American Dream” of freedom of mobility?

The recent food riots that happened in Egypt and Haiti is somewhat reminiscent to what happened back in the early 1970’s when droughts reduced global grain harvests and the oil crisis caused a sharp rise in staple food prices. It seems like our unquestioning faith to the energy intensive, chemically dependent agricultural methods of the Green Revolution has been betrayed. Even our current World Bank president Robert Zoellick has voiced alarm over spiraling prices of staple foods that could trigger more political unrest and even wars.

The impact of our current ill-conceived bio-fuel programs needs to be further examined since it is one of the main contributors to our current food shortage. Despite its touted “Green Credentials” many are finding out that the supposed “eco-friendliness” of a majority of our bio-fuel programs is a sham. What used to be a primeval tropical rainforest two years ago is now a bio-fuel plantation is more of a rule – rather than the exception when it comes to the bio-fuel industry. Will the inner environmentalist inside all of us be willing to just sit back and relax every time we’re enjoying the joyride in our bio-fueled “Sport Utility Vehicles”? Or will our policymakers be forced to fastrack bio-fuel programs that don't use staple food or the land used to grow them like India's Jatropha Bio-Fuel program which sadly is still in it's small scale / pilot stage?

The moral pressure over everyone jumping into the natural resource wasteful Western Industrial / American lifestyle has been around for over thirty years. Back then it was over increased meat consumption by both the rich man and his pet dog. Now, his car has joined into the picture. There’s even an increasing popularity being discussed on how Paris Hilton’s pet chihuahua has a bigger carbon footprint compared to the average working class Chinese. As more and more of us become affluent, will we ever adopt a less wasteful lifestyle? To me, not very likely because energy and natural resource conservation has been often touted as an anathema by those who have bought and sold the Calvinist / Protestant Work Ethic Avarice Driven ideology. They see vegetarianism and energy conservation as a very dangerous Left – Wing ideology. It looks like Conan O’Brien spoofing about Jesus Christ being a “NASCAR fan” has a kernel of truth in it. Or will it someday become part and parcel with the “Holy Scripture”?

No comments: