Attack of the balloon people: how America's food culture and agricultural policies threaten the food security of the poor, farmers, and indigenous peoples of the world.

Author:Sealing, Keith E.

TABLE OF CONTENTS I. INTRODUCTION II. DOMESTIC PROBLEMS A. How (Much and What)America Eats 1. The Balloon People 2. A Brief History of (Dinner) Time B. Gone is the Family Farm: How America Raises and Grows Its Food C. The Farm Lobby: How America Regulates Agriculture D. Free Cheese: How America Subsidizes Agriculture E. The Biggest Polluter: How Industrial Agriculture Impacts our Environment F. What are We Really Exporting? III. INTERNATIONAL PROBLEMS A. Global Warming B. Exporting Diabetes: The American Lifestyle Abroad C. American-Style Ecological Catastrophe Abroad D. Exporting Oil, Water, and Topsoil: The True Costs of Agricultural Exports E. David v. Goliath: Competing Against American Industrial Agriculture F. A Final Note: Agro-Terrorists and Frankenfoods? IV. CONCLUSION I. INTRODUCTION

Any discussion of food security would, at first blush, seem to focus primarily on world hunger and other threats to the safety of the food supply, whether intentionally man-made (e.g., terrorism), inadvertently man-made (e.g., global warming), made-for-profit by industrial agriculture (referred to as "industrial food" (1) throughout this Article), (2) or "natural" although arguably man-abetted (such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease). And hunger is indeed a problem and likely to become more of a problem. However, this Article focuses on the long term threat to world health and world food security caused by the American way of eating; the American way of growing food without regard for its long-term impact on the environment; and, finally, the exportation of the American way of eating and farming to the rest of the world. The Article will focus on two nations with more than a billion people each, China and India, as exemplars of the problems of exporting the American food paradigm.

The central irony of my thesis is that the American way that will ultimately lead to more world hunger is currently leading to an obesity epidemic in the United States, with the resultant increase in diseases such as diabetes. And the U.S. is exporting both this lifestyle and this industrial agriculture model to the rest of the world, a world that is apparently warmly embracing it. (3) The planet cannot sustainably feed more than 2.3 billion Chinese and Indians the way it feeds 300 million Americans. (4) We need to rethink how we grow, eat, export, and subsidize agricultural products, with attention to how these products contribute to the degradation of the environment and how they consume non-renewable resources, including oil, topsoil, and water. Failure to engage in such an analysis will result in decreasing worldwide food security, with a differential negative impact on the indigenous farmers and the poor.

The Article bases its argument regarding long-term food security on three central theses. First, the world today can comfortably feed the current population (even though it isn't doing so). Second, current food shortages are political, economic, or both, but they are not agricultural. Third, the future nevertheless looks grim for international food security for several reasons: (a) the export of the American agricultural model and eating lifestyle, (b) the anticipated unequal impact of global warming, and (c) the seeming lack of any hope for political solutions.

First, the world today can comfortably feed the current population. (5) Why then does it not do so? This is nothing new. Two examples will suffice. First, during the Irish potato famine of 1845-47, large quantities of wheat, barley and oats were exported from Ireland to England and abroad as over a million peasants died, and over a million more peasants left the country when blight killed the potato crops upon which they depended almost entirely for food. (6) Second, to make a point rather than a suggestion that would alienate pet lovers, the United Nations estimates that it would cost $13 billion a year to feed the world's hungry, and the United States spends $14.5 billion a year on dog and cat food. (7)

According to author Richard Manning, "[P]eople are hungry because they can't afford to buy food, not because there isn't food to buy." (8) People are short of food not because there is not enough food but because they either cannot afford it or the government (theirs or somebody else's) keeps it from them. (9) Growth in world agricultural production increased more than world population growth between 1950 and 1984, and per capita calorie consumption in less developed countries increased twenty-seven percent between 1963 and 1995. (10)

Predictions of widespread famine by Thomas Malthus in 1798 (11) and Paul Ehrlich in 1969 (12) were proven inaccurate as a result of the so-called Green Revolution that dramatically improved the yields of three major crops: corn, (13) wheat, and rice. But, as author Richard Manning points out, "from the beginning, the Green Revolution has had its critics, especially those who have suggested that its heavy reliance on high inputs of water, capital, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides are not sustainable." (14) The fact that Malthus has been wrong so far does not mean that the Green Revolution has not avoided producing "disastrous social and environmental costs," (15) or that this situation can go on forever. It simply means that at the present time, the major issues in global food security are not caused by a global shortage of food. (16)

In fact, a 1997 World Health Organization (WHO) report called attention to an apparent reversal of the historical tendency to view weight gain as a sign of prosperity. (17) Compiled by more than 100 experts worldwide over two years, the report stated that obesity is now a problem in both developed and developing countries among children and adults, and "[i]ndeed, [obesity] is now so common that it is replacing the more traditional public health concerns, including undernutrition and infectious disease, as one of the most significant contributors to ill health." (18)

Obesity can be found it conjunction with undernutrition. (19) Obesity, simplistically put, results from consuming more calories of food than one expends over time. (20) If those calories are in the form of corn or other grains, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and sugar, etc., a population can consume far more calories than are necessary and still come up short on protein, vitamins or minerals.

Second, current food shortages are political, economic, or both, but not agricultural. This is really a corollary of the first thesis. Agricultural products are subject to the most protectionist national laws of any product, be they in the form of American corn, EU wheat, or Japanese rice. (21)

Third, the future nevertheless looks grim for international food security for a number of reasons: the export of the American agricultural model and eating lifestyle, the coming unequal impact of global warming, and the seeming lack of any hope for political solutions. I will discuss the first point shortly.

As to the second point, this Article assumes for the sake of argument the truth of global warming, (22) along with evolution and gravity, and will not devote any space herein to proofs that it is happening and will have a major impact on all aspects of our world, including food security. (23) However, I will point out that the vast majority of ink devoted to global warming focuses on rising sea levels and the devastation this will cause to many people, from those on low Pacific islands, to those in India, Florida, and Manhattan. (24) This will indeed be a tragedy on a vast scale and will cost many lives, particularly among the poor. But global warming will also have an enormous impact on agriculture, doing the most damage to less developed nations and indigenous farmers.

The third point, that things will get worse, is unfortunately illustrated throughout this Article, although the conclusion tries to introduce a small note of optimism.

As a final note, there is not enough space to discuss a number of topics that do have and will increasingly have a negative impact on food security, both domestic and international. These include genetically modified organisms (GMOs); (25) other (non-food) uses of agricultural land (such as for the production of cotton); (26) pet food; (27) tobacco, alcohol, other drugs; (28) the growing and misplaced belief that corn-based ethanol is a solution to oil dependence; (29) and mad cow disease and related phenomena. (30)


    1. How (Much and What) America Eats

      This section explores the American lifestyle choices that have prompted the Europeans to refer to us as the "balloon people."

      1. The Balloon People

        With the exception of the populations of a few small Pacific islands, Americans are the fattest people on the planet. (31) Obesity is now at the pandemic level in the United States and is a leading threat to public health. (32) About sixty-one percent of Americans are overweight enough to feel weight-related health problems, about twenty percent are obese and will have their lives shortened as a result, and about five million Americans are morbidly obese and qualify for such procedures such as stomach stapling. (33) About twenty-five percent of Americans under nineteen are either overweight or obese. (34) Those suffering from these diseases are not without their supporters, (35) and those with the opposite affliction receive much attention. (36)

        The average American eats 23 pounds of pizza a year. (37) The U.S. is even fattening up its detainees in Guantanamo Bay with meals totaling 4,200 calories a day, instead of the recommended 2000-3000 calories. (38) On a recent drive from Kansas City, Missouri, to Lawrence, Kansas, I was struck by the number of "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" signs posted along the interstate. As Warren Belasco puts it, "Mindful that deep-seated food values can influence how we see the world, I am struck by how much of Anglo-American discussion of our future prospects has really been about...

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