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The perfect food shortage 

The United Nations is calling the recent increase in world hunger a “silent tsunami,” as if it was triggered by an event at the bottom of the ocean. I’d call the crisis a storm, brewed by several converging forces, all of which, it turns out, are man-made. It’s a storm that some have been predicting for a long time, and now, finally, the U.N. is taking notice.

A new UNESCO study, three years in the making, might seem prophetic in the context of the current hunger storm, if only its conclusions weren’t essentially a recap of the decades-old warnings of small and sustainable agriculture advocates.

The report, the “International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development,” concludes that modern agriculture policies and practices have returned starkly unequal benefits worldwide, while incurring high social and environmental costs. It recommends, among other things, reducing the distance between food production and consumption, and suggests food producers should try using more “natural processes” like crop rotation and organic fertilizer.

Only the USA, Canada, the UK, and Australia withheld or qualified their approval of the

With the United Nations aboard the local/organic bandwagon, global agriculture and distribution systems may get an assist in a more sustainable direction. On a playing field that’s ever more tilted toward carbon-minimal farming and marketing, maybe we’ll finally see if what some advocates have been saying for years is true: Good farming can solve bad problems.

Supermarket shoppers are getting sticker shock; riots are breaking out across the third world; war and genocide threaten as the hidden costs of long-distance, industrially produced food jump onto the bottom line via the rising price of oil.

Some farmers can’t afford the up-front expenses for planting, and are being forced onto the sidelines just when we need them the most. Kenyan farmers, for example, are planting a third less cropland than last year, thanks to a doubling of fertilizer costs.

These farmers might be better off today had they declined the agricultural “assistance” of multinational corporations and international development organizations years ago. Had farmers stayed with their traditional ways (including crop rotation, organic practices, and other newly UN-sanctioned methods), or had these farmers been instructed in the many elegant, low-tech, and high-efficiency modern farming practices that exist, they might still have healthy, living soil in their fields, food on the table, and surplus at market.

Meanwhile, first-world farmers targeting the ethanol market are riding the same wave that’s given Exxon/Mobil record-breaking profits in recent years. Now that farmers can choose between gasoline and food as their crop, the bushel and the barrel are effectively bonded at the hip.

In fact, food prices are keeping pace with oil prices so obediently that many farmers, who until recently were considering growing corn for ethanol, have decided to stick with good old-fashioned food crops like wheat.

Like oil, the price of wheat has tripled in recent years, driven in part by ongoing drought in Australia — thanks, in part, to Global Warming. Wheat prices are also driven by rising demand for meat and milk, most notably by the growing wealthy classes of China and India. As more and more land is allocated to animal feed, less and less is available to feed people.

In her 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappe argued that world hunger is not a problem of production — it’s a problem of distribution. If ungulates were simply let to graze on land too marginal for most agriculture (including much of the American west, aka cattle country), while productive croplands fed people instead of animals, the world would have enough to eat, she wrote 37 years ago.

Today’s increasing demand for meat, milk, and ethanol all confirm Lappe’s distribution-driven model of world hunger. Land and produce is being allocated away from human food, and toward animal and vehicle food.

If ever there was a summer to take up gardening and gathering, and a fall to take up hunting and pickling, this looks like it. Because as long-distance eating gets more expensive, local food will get relatively cheaper. The crowds at your farmers market might be larger than last year, as supermarket shoppers face prices that more accurately reflect the true cost of food.

Today, rice at a Costco near you is being rationed like it’s Y2K 2.0, and Congress is rushing to finalize the 2007 Farm Bill, now on its fourth extension. The bill continues incentive programs for ethanol production, as well as the age-old and senseless “direct payment” subsidy, which will pay out $5.2 billion a year to the country’s biggest landowners — even gravy-train-riding ethanol corn farmers. Tax breaks for racehorse breeders also made the new farm bill.

The bill does include funding for much-needed work as well, including local food, public health, and environmental stewardship programs. But it’s mostly farming as usual, and even President Bush, threatening a veto, called it a “massive, bloated” piece of legislation that will pay “subsidies to millionaire farmers.” With an agriculture policy so backward even President Bush complains, it’s no surprise the U.S. wouldn’t sign off on the U.N. report calling for a farming

At least the bill calls for a billion extra dollars a year for food stamps. Our most vulnerable citizens are going to need it more than ever. Luckily, more and more farmers markets accept food-stamp debit cards these days. Not only does this make high-quality food affordable to folks who need it, it also means that some of that food-stamp earmark will find its way to local farmers nationwide. In the midst of this perfect hunger storm, this at least would be an example of something going right: Our government is helping poor people buy food from local farmers.

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