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Food or Fuel? 

by PAUL K. HAEDER & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & M & lt;/span & ama used to say, "Eat everything off your plate because kids in China are starving." Now she might as well be saying, "Make each trip in our trusty SUV to Costco count because there are children in the developing world who are starving for our bio-fed fuel."

More than 4 billion of us on Earth live in poverty, yet diverting 400 million tons of grain each year into ethanol production by the year 2020 is the U.S. politicians' scheme. Obama's for it. Bush is, too. U.S. energy policy calls for 36 billion gallons of biofuels produced domestically each year starting in 2022. This five-fold increase over current production levels is putting poor people, rainforests, water tables and our atmosphere at risk. Both the current and former United Nations food envoys have warned that we in the West - and China too - could be taking part in an "imminent massacre" because so many poor countries are facing food shortages and an incredible increase in prices for key staples.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "R & lt;/span & un it on biofuel" sounds so green, earth-enhancing, and heavenly clean and pure, but many economists, planners, scientists and governmental agencies attest to the dark sides of biofuels. Massive amounts of nitrogen fertilizers used in biofuel production push up the cost of the artificial nutrient -- by more than 200 percent in 2007. Study after study indicates that trend is inflating the cost of all foods that require fertilizers: tomatoes, potatoes, rice, wheat and even broccoli. Twenty years ago, the ethanol business took less than 7 percent of American corn; today about a fifth of the crop goes into ethanol production.

The major newspapers and media outlets are finally covering the food crisis -- this fairly complicated issue of rising fuel and energy costs to grow, harvest, process, package and move the food we've come to depend upon. Oil at $130 a barrel is one factor tossing the entire global food system on its head. The second factor has already been mentioned -- the fact that cereals and grains are being used for agrofuels like biodiesel and ethanol. The third factor is that for so many decades food has been exchanged as a financial commodity, traded like stocks in Target or Starbucks.

Farmers have been falling by the wayside for years, as fewer people from each generation want to go into granddaddy's business. The average age of a farmer in Washington is nearing 57. Small farms are selling and big farms are taking over the market. For years, farmers got screwed by poor agricultural policies carried out by the USDA (mostly a nutrition and food stamp outfit). And they've had some lean years with criminally low prices for their harvests.

The woes of farmers, of course, affect citizen consumers' food security and quality of food. Nationwide, we lose two acres of ag land every minute to development, according to the American Farmland Trust, because farm and ranch land is flat, drained and affordable. Many believe our best agricultural soils are being developed the fastest. We can't eat those driveways, lawns, backyard jungle gyms, pools and hot tubs.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & recently toured wheat country, that rich area south of Spokane, around Pullman and through some of Adams and Whitman Counties. Farmers and ranchers are working with agronomists, ag college deans, citizen groups and advocacy organizations to get a handle on our region's food security and all the influences of commodity markets. They're considering China's consumption of wheat and other cereal products and how to manage soils and ecosystems that have in many cases become so degraded through years of intensive farming that many aren't recoverable.

This year, almost all of the land in the Palouse bioregion, which covers 16,000 square kilometers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, is being farmed. This is rare, since almost half the land is traditionally kept in summer fallow to rest it and to save on fuel costs. But the high return on wheat, barley and other crops is pushing farmers to plant as much as they can. The big player in the Palouse -- WSU -- is calling for a doubling of crop output in 20 years. Many see that as impossible.

I spent time with farmers who are using no-till techniques to reduce erosion and energy consumption by reducing machine use and enhancing soil fecundity and crop yields. They struggle with the global food market that reflects this out-of-balance period of starvation, drastic increases in food prices and their own global responsibility therein.

Bush's "Energy Independence and Security Act" atrophies the human food supply while speeding up global warming and exacerbating water shortages. Think of Chairman Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward: He focused on industrial output at the expense of agriculture policy. Look where that took China: millions perished through starvation. Let's hope today's trends don't lead to a similar outcome.

Paul K. Haeder teaches at SFCC.

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