April 11, 2008
Thursday’s Editorial (“The World Food Crisis,” New York Times, April 10, 2008) questioned the environmental and ethical impact of corn ethanol production. The question is: With more people and less grain, should we put the food in our gas tanks or in our stomachs?
It’s a good question. Here is another one: With more people and less grain, should we put so much grain into cows?
In the United States 70 percent of the corn harvest is fed to livestock.
A cow must take in seven pounds of cattle feed to produce one pound of meat. The United States Department of Agriculture says that the average American eats 67 pounds of beef a year. Those 67 pounds of beef could be 469 pounds of grain. Our use of grain as raw material for beef has implications for our personal health and national security.
We all know that a diet high in red meat is associated with a host of health risks, including heart disease and a myriad of cancers. But what we do with our grain crops also affects our health and safety on a national scale.
Earlier this week, there was rioting in Haiti because of rising food prices. At least five people were killed. Your dinner table may seem a long way from Port-au-Prince, but there is a direct link between the two.
Rising food prices mean that many already fragile states are facing hunger. If a nation cannot provide food to its people, the government loses legitimacy, legal businesses collapse, and groups who have an interest in operating in lawless lands set up shop. Our sudden infatuation with corn ethanol and our long-term dysfunctional relationship with beef mean that there is less grain in the world. Less grain means more hunger. More hunger means more failed states. We have learned in recent years that a failed state anywhere threatens functional states everywhere.
The United States’ national food policy affects other nations’ food security. Their food security can quickly affect our national security. The grain grown for cattle feed receives more federal subsidies from the USDA than any other commodity. If the next farm bill would shift some of these subsidies to vegetables and grains grown for human consumption, we would have more grain and more tax dollars to address our current financial and security challenges.
There is nothing inherently evil about consuming animal protein. Few humans are cut out, culturally or physically, to be pure Vegans. No one is proposing replacing Thanksgiving Turkey with kale or outlawing hot dogs. But a more balanced diet could help to keep foreign hot spots and your cholesterol in balance.