From another article by Tom Philpott at Grist:

The price of diesel fuel -- which keeps those food-stuffed refrigerated 18-wheelers thundering down the highway -- has more than tripled since 2002. Corn and soy continue to trade at rates unimaginable just three years ago.
No company leveraged the cheap fuel/input/labor tripod to reach greater heights than Wal-Mart. The retail giant stocked its first grocery shelves at a Missouri "supercenter" less than 20 years ago. Today, Wal-Mart takes in 21 cents of every food dollar spent in the United States, Paul Roberts reports in his new book The End of Food -- far more than any other supermarket chain.

Philpott's lesson here is that Wal-Mart's move away the global food market, largely buying food from China, apparently, to their recent push to local growers is fueled (apologies for pun) by the price of diesel. I've anecdotally seen this shift; the local news was playing up how wonderful Wal-Mart was for using local farmers and putting out signs about it in their stores, with no mention about why Wal-Mart might be doing it, get this, to save themselves money! Crazy. I don't fault Wal-Mart for wanting to make hats on hats of money, but I do for the local news for allowing the implied motivation for the swap to be Wal-Mart's altruism for local farmers. From news to informercial in six seconds or less, brought to you by channel 4.

But the lesson I pull from Philpott is that the brilliant academics have made foodstuffs do too much stuffs. These same brilliant minds didn't stop when they brought us blood from a turnip -- I mean, sweetener from industrialized corn production -- and went on to make gasoline from corn and soy, the two crops Philpott blames by name in this article for much of the increased price of food. Food fueling our cars and our bodies may have been one value-added proposition too many.

I realize there are more reasons corn and soy are more expensive than ethanol competition, and that the line I'm spouting here doesn't resemble news. All I'd like to foreground is that value-added crops are not necessarily always a good thing. The value-added products can decrease the biomass' traditional primary purpose: allowing us to eat affordably. Before ethanol-directed research, there was a huge barrier to entry for turning people fuel into vehicle fuel. Having forever lifted the barrier, we're stuck with more things competing for our prospective biomass. Put another way, we now compete with our own cars (or our neighbors' cars) for our corn flakes, and that's not obviously a very good thing.

(Action items? Ensure that wheat ethanol doesn't gain traction? Not sure.)

EDIT: As always, someone at wikipedia has beaten me to the punch.

Labels: , ,