Help the Food Crisis: Stop Feeding Cows Corn!

I am sick of hearing news stories that are talking about the global food crisis in such narrow ways that suggest that part of the food shortage/high cost problem is due to the use of bio-fuels, namely more farmers using corn crop to sell as ethanol, and less to be used as food.

What occurred to me recently is that the issue is not just about ethanol. But many cattle farmers many years ago moved to feeding cows corn instead of grass. I found this film, which was apparently shown on PBS’ Independent Lens this year called King Corn, which describes the problem:

Before World War II, most Americans had never eaten corn-fed beef. Raised on pasture, cattle reared before the 1950s usually took two or three years to be ready for the slaughterhouse. Steers were fed grain only occasionally and in small quantities, and farmers tended to use corn as a supplement—not a staple—of their livestock’s diets.

But as American corn production skyrocketed in the post-War era, and as the economic boom of the 1950s prompted higher consumer demand for meat, farmers and ranchers turned to a new practice: fattening their cattle on corn. Cheaper and more efficient than grass, corn enabled cattle to be brought to market in as few as 15 months. Moreover, it allowed farmers to feed cattle in confined pens or lots, reducing ranchers’ land costs and limiting their risk of losing livestock to predators and bad weather. With cheaper feed in the equation, beef prices fell, and Americans began to purchase more and more beef, most of it corn-fed. By 1960, Americans ate a yearly average of more than 66 pounds of beef each. By 1975, that number had grown to 88.5 pounds of beef per person, per year.

In 2008, corn-fed cattle are the norm. While most cattle still begin their lives grazing on grass, the vast majority—an estimated three-quarters of them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture—are “finished,” or fattened for market, in feedlots. There, they spend three to six months eating a diet composed of 70 to 90 percent corn. READ MORE:

The also have a resource page of articles to learn more, and a Youtube page with clips of the film. Here’s the trailer:

Food Fight: A Hungry Mob Is An Angry Mob

Last week I walked past a drug store chain in Manhattan, at the corner of Christopher Street and 7th Avenue. A plastic box with back-lighting showed the “sale” price of a gallon of milk–$4.09. I gagged. Somehow or another, I found myself in a time-warp–remembering not very long ago when a gallon of milk was just over $2.00. I can go back further than that, when milk was even less, but I am only talking a few years ago. I buy milk pretty regularly–I love dairy–and know I haven’t purchased milk that cheap in several years, but I generally buy organic milk which always costs more.

But the issue of higher food prices is turning out to be causing a global problem in countries all over the world and in some countries–including Indonesia, Haiti, El Salvador, India, Mexico, Yemen and Egypt–there have been all kinds of public demonstrations about the cost of food going back into last year. There have been many different media debates about whether the causes are food shortages, or whether the price of food has gotten too high for people to purchase. Here are some of the main narratives that I have found in the press:


Some of the newscasts have been talking about the fact that food costs in the US are going up because of high oil/gasoline prices–it costs more money to transport good across the country/globe. Time Magazine reported in November that “The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported last week that, at nearly $100 a barrel, the price of oil has sent the cost of food imports skyrocketing this year. Add in escalating crop prices, the FAO warned, and a direct consequence could soon be an increase in global hunger — and, as a consequence, increased social unrest. Faced with internal rumblings, “politicians tend to act to protect their own nationals rather than for the good of all,” says Ali Ghurkan, a Rome-based FAO analyst who co-authored the report. Because of the lack of international cooperation, he adds, “Worldwide markets get tighter and the pain only lasts longer.”

What’s more, worldwide food reserves are at their lowest in 35 years, so prices are likely to stay high for the foreseeable future. “Past shocks have quickly dissipated, but that’s not likely to be the case this time,” says Ghurkan. “Supply and demand have become unbalanced, and… can’t be fixed quickly.


There are others who say that the push for bio-fuels has meant that more farms are producing less crops as food, and more crops to be used for bio-fuel industries. The New York Times reported that “The idea of turning farms into fuel plants seemed, for a time, like one of the answers to high global oil prices and supply worries. That strategy seemed to reach a high point last year when Congress mandated a fivefold increase in the use of biofuels.

But now a reaction is building against policies in the United States and Europe to promote ethanol and similar fuels, with political leaders from poor countries contending that these fuels are driving up food prices and starving poor people. Biofuels are fast becoming a new flash point in global diplomacy, putting pressure on Western politicians to reconsider their policies, even as they argue that biofuels are only one factor in the seemingly inexorable rise in food prices.

In some countries, the higher prices are leading to riots, political instability and growing worries about feeding the poorest people. Food riots contributed to the dismissal of Haiti’s prime minister last week, and leaders in some other countries are nervously trying to calm anxious consumers.”

International Policy & Structural Adjustment

Others say that food prices have risen due to bad Work Bank and IMF policies. The Institute for Food and Development Policy (aka Food First) note that “the World Bank, the institution that, along with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), forcibly applied the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) responsible for destroying the capacity of African nations to develop or protect their own domestic agricultural systems from the dumping of subsidized grain from the U.S. and Europe. Over the same 25 years in which SAPs were being implemented, the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) invested over 40% if its $350 million/year budget in Africa’s “Green Revolution.” The result? A big zero. Actually, it was worse, because as African marketing boards, agricultural ministries, national research programs and basic infrastructure fell under the scythe of the mighty SAPs, Africa’s agricultural systems steadily eroded. Now their entire food systems are hopelessly vulnerable to economic and environmental shock—hence the severity of the current food price inflation crisis.

The editorial on Food First is worth an entire read, as it more thoughtfully explains the politics of food. You can also hear them talk on the CounterSpin podcast this week to get more analysis. One of the interesting things they talk about from an organizing perspective is many people in Haiti and South America  organziing around this crisis have framed the food shortage around a host of other social/political problems that they also want to addresss.

But I think Bob Marley explained the situation more than 30 years ago on his song “Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)”

Them belly full but we hungry.
A hungry mob is a angry mob.
A rain a-fall but the dirt it tough;
A pot a-cook but the food no ‘nough.
You’re gonna dance to JAH music, dance.
We’re gonna dance to JAH music, dance.
Forget your troubles and dance.
Forget your sorrow and dance.
Forget your sickness and dance.
Forget your weakness and dance.
Cost of living get so high,
Rich and poor, they start a cry.
Now the weak must get strong.
They say, “Oh, what a tribulation.”