Washington — At first it seems a simple solution for the energy crisis -- just grow more grain. Turn it into alcohol, combine this with gasoline to make gasohol, then burn it! The trouble is that the grain that fuels the automobile is subtracted from the sum total of grain the world produces to eat. There is a shortage of food. There may be a competition between food and fuel.
The Earth is filling up. There are about 4 1/2 billion people on it: another city the size of Des Moines (200,000) every 24 hours, a million more people every five days, the equivalent of a nation the size of West Germany (62 million) every year. What will newcomers eat? The big exporters of food have diminished: Those left are the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and some others. Cropland is shrinking. People might realize this if they saw the emaciated children of crowded countries. Perhaps 800 million people now go to be hungry at night. Using grain for fuel is another way of reducing what they have to eat unless crops are somehow increased.
There are two aspects of this. First the decline in existing cropland. The National Agricultural Lands Study, a government coordinating group, has just compiled statistics on shrinking acreage. "Every day in the US four square miles of our nation's prime farm lands are shifted to uses othe than agriculture ," it reports; "The thief is urban sprawl."
It seems exaggerated at first glance. Who gives the statistic? It is Bob Bergland, secretary of agriculture. He estimates that one million acres are lost a year -- a half-mile strip of land from New York to California.
How can exports be kept up if farm lands diminish? Last year exports of US farm products reached $32 billion according to a pamphlet issued by the group. These exports mean profits at home and survival for a lot of people in hungry lands abroad. Says Bergland: "I don't know where it is going to stop. But stop it must." A conservationist adds, "Ten years from now Americans cou'd be as concerned over the loss of the nation's prime and important farm lands as they are today over shortages of oil and gasoline."
That brings me to the second part of the matter: proposed conversion of these crops into synthetic fuels. Demographer Lester Brown, president of Worldwatch Institute, discusses the strange new possibility: a world that produces food to burn, not eat.
In a paper, "Food or Fuel: New Competition for the World's Cropland," he writes:
"The stage is set for direct competition between the affluent minority, who own the world's automobiles, and the poorest segments of humanity, for whom getting enough food to stay alive is already a struggle. Using food crops to produce alcohol will underline the global disparities in income as perhaps nothing else has."
In 1979 alcohol from sugar cane in Brazil accounted for an estimated 14 percent of the country's automotive fuel consumption, and this year it should reach 20 percent.
Who will feed the hungry lands? The World Bank says they should grow more of their own food. Their agriculture is backward in part because the gross disparity of wealth in some countries that makes the peasant a bad farmer. Using food for fuel could precipitate social stress. "In a world that no longer has any excess food production capacity," says Lester Brown, "the decision to channel foodstuffs into the production of automotive fuel should not be taken lightly for it will inevitably drive food prices upward . . . [and] further narrow the thin margin of survival."