Mark & Steve – World Food Crisis

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Steve and Mark discuss the world food crisis and its causes. Steve also talks about his upcoming debate with a grammar enthusiast.

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Well, here we are again for another EnglishLingQ Podcast.

Steve and I, Mark, are here today.

It’s actually quite warm in the office with the sun beating through the windows.

Steve: You know what?

I would like to talk a bit about the world economy and some of the changes that we’re seeing.

Before that I just want to briefly mention that on Thursday I am giving a little talk at a bookstore.

There’s a lady there who wrote a book about language learning where she emphasizes the importance of grammar and, of course, I represent a different point of view.

We’re going to have a debate and as a result of that I have been on the radio and I’m going to be on television on Wednesday in preparation for this big debate.

What was it when Ali fought the rumble in the jungle?

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: Well it will be the rumble in the bookstore on Thursday night.

Mark: I guess any of you who are listeners to the FrenchLingQ Podcast will hear an interview that you did on the French CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) on the radio last week, I guess it was.

Steve: It was, yes.

Mark: If any of you are interested you can also maybe check that podcast out.

Anyway, I guess that should be interesting.

I’m still not clear what you’re on TV for the day before.

Steve: Well, again, it’s a follow-up I guess.

Again, it’s the French CBC and there are not a lot of viewers out here in Vancouver, but still all the PR we can get is good.

I guess they just thought, having heard the radio program and being aware of this discussion in the bookstore, this was topical and so they want to do a little story on it.

Mark: On the TV news.

Steve: On the TV.

Well, it’s more than news; I gather it’s almost like a program.

I’ve got to be down there for an hour and a half on Wednesday.

Mark: Oh wow.

Steve: I mean, obviously, we would love to get this kind of publicity elsewhere.

Given that the French radio here has a very limited audience there were a lot of people who called in.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: So if we ever got a radio program in English here, for example, a majority language or in Japanese in Japan — I’m going to Japan in mid June — then you know, obviously, that would be good for us.

But, yeah, we’ll see.

I’m looking forward to hearing what this lady has to say.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: And the people have heard my arguments.

Mark: You’re not going to be speaking in French though.

Steve: Probably, I wouldn’t imagine. I don’t know, I don’t know.

Mark: Why? Is she French?

Steve: No, she speaks French.

Mark: Oh.

Steve: She’s English speaking and she claims that it’s important to learn grammar and that when she discovered that then she learned how to speak French better.

My point, of course, is that most people spend 10 years trying to learn French, trying to learn grammar, and never learn to speak it.

But I am sure that there are things that she says that will be very interesting and, hopefully, some of what I say will be interesting.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But, anyway, getting on to the economy.

We are now reading in the newspaper about the dramatic rise in the price of grains, in particular, but also food oils, meat.

You know a number of food products have risen significantly in price.

Mark: Because of the rise in grain prices, I guess, with the meat and the oils.

Steve: Yeah, but some of the same reasons and, of course, very quickly people start to point fingers.

Either it’s because of biofuels, the diversion of whatever percentage of corn or soybeans into biofuels then, of course…

Mark: I’m not sure how that affects the price of rice.

Steve: Well to the extent that…no, but that’s only one of the factors.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Another factor is that, first of all, it appears this sort of gradual decline in world food stocks has been going on for quite a few years, so a lot of people were aware that it was going to happen.

Mark: Right.

Steve: It didn’t just happen.

Also, countries like China and India there are two things happening there and probably in other developing countries, but they are finally developing, so they have a better diet, which they should have.

There’s no reason why a small part of the world should eat lots of meat and the rest of the world should not.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I mean they’re going to want to eat more meat and they do.

In China I think the consumption of meat has gone up 150% like more than doubled over the last 20 years.

And, as we know, it’s less efficient to consume grain via an animal.

Mark: Right.

Steve: In other words, the direct of feed to an animal and then eat the animal, so that’s a consideration.

In China I think they’ve lost something like 6 or 7% of their agricultural land because they’re building factories and so forth.

Presumably, if we convert crop land to growing fuel, if we consume more meat which requires more grain, if crop land is converted to factory or industrial land, I mean all of these things cumulative have to have an affect.

Mark: Right.

And I guess the ability of people to increase yields for these crops, obviously, is not keeping up with the diversions that are occurring through energy production and also I guess loss of crop land and so on.

Plus there exists this resistance towards genetically-modified crops, which supposedly could increase yields, whether because of resistance to pesticides or because of just generally increasing yields per, I guess, plant.

Steve: …per hectare…

Mark: There are a number of factors or per hectare.

I don’t know whether that’s because they’re resistant to pesticides or more resistant to pests and, therefore, not is much is lost or whether they actually yield more, whatever, grains of rice per plant or whatever it is that they do.

Steve: I mean who’s to know.

Obviously, if you take the case of China, which has 1.3 billion people at least, probably 100 years ago — I don’t know the number — maybe they had a population of 200 million people, so at that time they thought they were crowded.

Mark: Right.

Steve: At that time they had famines.

They had more famines then than they have now.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Today China is self-sufficient in grains; I mean, obviously, it’s not unlimited.

But if you look around the world are we sure that all countries are maximizing their potential as far as agricultural production is concerned?

I suspect not.

Mark: I suspect not and I think partly it’s because in a lot of places it hasn’t paid to be into agriculture.

The money is in working in a factory or moving to the city, so maybe food prices should go up to incent more people to get into agriculture to keep them there.

Steve: The trouble with that is that the people who are suffering now because of the rise in the price of food are people who live at a subsistence level.

Mark: Right.

Steve: They don’t have the luxury of paying more so that a Canadian farmer will take some land that’s been lying fallow and start growing wheat.

They don’t have that luxury.

Mark: No.

Steve: So I think the issue there is can they improve the efficiency of their agriculture.

I think there also are some short-term issues here like crop failures or you know weather-related things in Australia and people hording and so forth.

Mark: Plus, I guess, the issue of biofuels.

I mean that’s got to have an affect.

Steve: It has to have an affect.

Mark: Whatever percentage goes into creating ethanol of the corn harvest…I mean I’ve read in Mexico where their major food crop is corn people can’t afford their tortillas anymore or whatever it is.

That makes sense if the U.S. is…I don’t what percentage of their corn crop or how much corn they’re mandating has to be converted into ethanol.

But the one thing there that seems a bit funny is that my understanding is that it takes something like six gallons of gasoline to make eight gallons of ethanol so that really it doesn’t make sense.

Steve: Everything that I’ve heard I have trouble understanding the whole ethanol argument; it’s not tremendously energy-efficient.

Mark: No.

Steve: The vision of poor Mexicans unable to eat their tortillas so that fat, western, European, North Americans, etc.

can drive around in big cars is not a very nice image.

Mark: No and I guess if ethanol was not so power-hungry maybe it would make more sense, but if really all it is is a feel-good exercise, which I suspect it is.

Steve: It’s partly that; it’s partly a strategic thing too.

Mark: Right.

Steve: I mean, obviously, a lot of places would like to be able to rely more on domestic sources of energy.

I think a lot of these things they get sort of a life of their own.

I mean if a major agricultural company in Brazil, for example, makes a major commitment…it’s not just the Americans who are into ethanol the Brazilians are big on it.

Mark: No.

Steve: Even in China and India people are looking at biofuels, but people should be looking at non-food stock.

I mean the forest industry that I’m involved in we should be into biofuels, sugarcane waste, but to actually grow food crops with the intention of producing fuel and, as you point out, it’s not very efficient anyway.

Mark: Right.

Steve: It’s kind of a marginal return.

Mark: Yeah, it seems that way to me.

I must say I don’t know enough about it, but I have heard that it’s very inefficient, the production of ethanol, in which case why are we doing it.

I guess this issue seems to be increasingly in the news, so maybe things will change if it has that kind of an affect on world food prices, which then causes those at a subsistence level to not be able to afford to eat and that, apparently, is the case.

They’re eating less; they’re eating not as well.

Steve: But the thing that surprises me is the big one is rice.

Rice and wheat are the ones that have increased the most in price.

I mean, yeah, wheat, I guess conceivably wheat feeds beef, corn is a feed, so I can see…I’m not an agricultural economist and there might be a crossover between corn and wheat, but rice?

Why has rice gone up so much?

Mark: I have no idea.

Steve: The other thing you hear people say is it’s the price of energy.

Mark: Right.

Steve: Because as a lot of these products have to move around then the price of energy is driving up the price of food.

Mark: Well and fertilizer is all petroleum-based.

Steve: Much of it is, yeah.

Mark: Much of it is, especially in the west I think and as the price of oil keeps going up, yeah, and shipping it, as you say.

I mean it’s going to drive the price up.

Steve: Right. Now, of course, you mentioned the genetic foods.

All the food we eat today is genetically modified compared to the wild wheat and wild cattle that existed for most of mankind’s life on the planet.

Mark: Right.

Steve: But people get all excited about genetically-modified food.

Of course now then people say well you know the modern way of life is destructive of the planet and so forth.

The fact of the matter is that we’ve got 6 ½ billion people.

Mark: Right.

Steve: So from the point of view of human beings we’ve never had it as good as we have it now.

Mark: Right.

Steve: People live longer and the air is less polluted in Japan and Europe and North America, so it’s not all bad.

Mark: I guess the angle of your average environmentalist-type is that yes it’s obviously good for humans, but that is in itself bad.

Not necessarily in itself bad, but their point is we shouldn’t be doing everything that’s just good for humans; we should be looking out for nature, for the other species.

Yeah, it’s good for us, but it’s bad for other species, so that’s where we’re failing, if you will, but at the same time we’ve got 6 ½ billion people that all have to be fed.

I don’t see too many volunteers to lead the charge to reduce that number.

Steve: No, nor are people willingly giving up on their motorcar either.

Mark: No, exactly.

I mean some people are, but until individuals take it upon themselves to do that not much is going to change.

If we’re talking about greenhouse gases, you know, like we have the Kyoto Accord set these targets that are more or less unreachable.

Even if they were reachable the net affect wouldn’t be very much at reducing, so it’s really, again, just sort of…I don’t know, we’re doing something.

Steve: But you know I think the big thing — getting back to the food price crisis — is to remember that if we take the big countries of India and China where there were tremendous famines throughout much of the 20th century and the 19th century and the 18th century as there were in Europe, tremendous famines in Europe as well, we don’t have the big famines now.

Mark: No.

Steve: We have a problem, but let’s put it in perspective.

Mark: Exactly.

Steve: Yeah.

Have we dealt with that one?

Mark: I think so.

Steve: But, hopefully, people will come up with a solution and maybe it will pass.

Because I agree with you, I mean if I’m a Bangladeshi and I can’t afford rice if that’s my staple food I’m in trouble and I have no ability to influence.

Mark: No.

Steve: It’s not like a North American can decide I’ll ride my bike to work today I won’t drive my car; the Bangladeshi, he’s got no options.

Mark: Exactly.

Steve: So something has to be done.

Mark: You’d think so. I mean the solution isn’t to send a whole bunch of food there.

Steve: Well, short term it is.

Mark: Short term it is, but if fundamentally it’s because of increased consumption, high oil prices, this ethanol scenario, something has got to give somewhere I guess.

Steve: But I do believe…like I saw some American suggest that well if we Americans are going to cutback on driving our cars then the Chinese should go back to eating rice and don’t eat meat.

Well that’s just completely stupid.

Mark: Silly, yeah.

Steve: You know it’s not in those kinds of simplistic terms that the problem is going to be solved.

Mark: No.

Steve: The Chinese are going to eat more meat, more and more meat.

That’s a fact, deal with it.

Mark: Just like their demand for petroleum is greater.

They’re going to drive more as they get more wealthier and the same thing would happen in Bangladesh if they got their act together.

Steve: That’s right.

Mark: Yeah.

Steve: Okay.

Mark: Alright.

Steve: Alright then. That gives people some economic terms to deal with and hopefully they find this interesting. Bye for now.

Mark: Bye-bye.

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