Americans Should Eat Less (Inflation-II) (MAY 08, 2008)


Americans Should Eat Less

Here are some eye-opening data that show food prices are not related to our over-eating.

In the first piece of this series one of the points made was that soaring prices of food were central to inflation-related concerns in India (and almost everywhere else). Of course, this does not mean that commodities as a whole, cement and steel and much else, were not getting out of reach.

Late last week US President George W. Bush touched a raw nationalist nerve here by remarking that food prices worldwide were getting out of control because the "350-million" strong Indian middle class was eating more food. President Bush has never been accused of being sensitive to other people's feelings. To make his point intelligible to common Americans he explained that the Indian middle class happened to be larger than the entire US population (300 million). Well said, Sir.

So, we are eating away the world's food. Imagine if from the American point of view, only one-third of our population is threatening to starve the whole world, including the US, what will happen if all 1,100 million of us start eating. Besides, as a country we are eating less than 2,000 calories on average per person per day compared to the US 4,000 or so. America is fast acquiring the reputation of an obese nation. Imagine the day when we start eating as may calories as they do what is going to happen to global food prices.

They are hiding important statistics behind certain false assumptions. They are not just eating more calories than we do, but their food (in terms of macro-nutrients) is largely protein and ours is almost solely carbohydrate. To produce one kilogram of protein you need to feed the animal seven kilograms of maize, wheat or other food grains. In simple terms, an American's diet is worth seven Indians' in only one reckoning. There are other dimensions as well.

According to the Washington-based Worldwatch, the leading NGO studying environmental concerns, a diet like an average American's is worth that of 21 Indians in terms of environmental and economic costs. It factors in the amount of electricity consumed in raising chicken, goats, cows and pigs for the table as well as water, feed, packaging and transportation costs. That means an average person in the industrialised world (including the US) is causing 21 times greater strain on the earth's vital resources than an average Indian.

There is yet another clear difference between the burden an average Indian creates on the earth and that an American, Australian or other Westerner does. Till a few years ago an average Australian used to consume 400 pounds of beef a year. Besides, that he took chicken, mutton, pork, fish and eggs. All put together, that was more animal protein per day per individual Australian than an Indian meat eater would consume in a month. The American diet is not different from the Australian in any significant way. So, who is eating all that food? And yes, the First World is also eating far more dairy products than we do. The First World, led by the US, should think of eating less calories and less protein, to begin with.

To produce that quantity of protein you have to use so much of agricultural land and its products that would be sufficient to feed the whole world. President Bush was not the first to make the wise remark. His Secretary of State had said the same thing a few days earlier. In fact, what we have been witnessing is not a genuine debate on food and food prices, but food politics. There are quite a few other "international" reasons for high food prices.

One of the major reasons is that there is less food available in the international market to be bought. The Americans are making "bio-fuel" from food grains to run their cars, while much of Africa and Asia is concerned about putting enough "fuel" in people's stomachs to run around and do their daily living. Yet another major cause is three consecutive drought years in Australia, one of the largest producers of food grains.

Finally, we would be better-advised to ignore President Bush and his Secretary of State and look closely at our own situation. Only that will help us in overcoming our difficulties.  g



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