food prices


Magdalena Antonio explains the process of making a tortilla – from corn to masa to tortilla.

After yesterdays post on the Jatropha curcas plant, I found an article in The Register today that shows the problem of food versus bio-fuel in starker form.

Demand for eco-friendly bio-fuels in the US is being blamed for a massive rise in the price of corn in Mexico. The recent 400 per cent increase in the price of a tortilla has driven thousands of Mexico’s poorest people onto the streets in protest.

Tortilla is a staple food in Mexico. To have the price go up 400% means a lot of people will be going hungry. Mexico grows corn, but has a large population, and in order to feed people, it imports corn from the United States.

The country has been entitled to cheap corn imports from the US for some time, under the terms of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement. However, as demand for corn in the US has increased, driven by the manufacture of bio-fuels, the amount of corn available to Mexico has reduced considerably.
. . .
Corn is the staple grain in Mexico, and makes up the main part of the diet for many people. Since the surge in the cost of tortillas, many are spending up to a third of their income on the flat breads.

In Mexican farming, it is worth noting, they grow a:

combination of corn, beans and squash. It is a magnificent combination because the corn takes nitrogen from the soil, and beans fix that nitrogen in the soil. The leaves of the squash cover the land, the soil, and then keep the humidity in the soil for the growth of corn. The combination is very creative.


Producing bio-fuel can have a number of unintended side effects. Any land use planning in Ghana needs to put feeding people as the top priority. This example of the use and demand for corn in the United States and Mexico, should serve as a cautionary tale for Ghana.

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I keep reading about various initiatives to grow Jatropha curcas in Ghana to use as bio fuel. I thought I’d find out a bit more. Here is a little bit of what I’ve been finding.

Bio fuel might be a very good idea as a short term or transitional power as we move away from fossil fuels. It has downsides as well as advantages. One of the major downsides it that land that is producing crops for bio fuels is not engaged in food production. If land is taken out of food production it means the price of food goes up, and food resources become more scarce. This is currently an issue in the United States with corn grown for bio fuel.

Can U.S. farmers keep filling the nation’s bellies as they scramble to fuel its cars?
. . .
In 1998, about 5 percent of the corn harvest (526 million bushels) went into ethanol production, according to the National Corn Growers Association. This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects ethanol producers to use upward of 2 billion bushels, or nearly 20 percent of the crop.
. . .
Considering that corn suffuses the U.S. food system — it’s the main feed for beef, poultry, egg, dairy, and hog production, and provides sweetness for candy, cereal, soft drinks, and other supermarket staples — its price can’t suddenly jump without causing repercussions.
. . .
Tyson CEO Richard L. Bond recently told investors. “Quite frankly, the American consumer is making a choice here … either corn for feed or corn for fuel.”
The Wall Street Journal recently explained succinctly why poultry prices will soon reflect corn’s new popularity as a fuel source. Because of higher corn prices, “It costs nearly a nickel more to produce a pound of chicken today than at the end of 2005, yet the 20-year average industry profit margin per pound of chicken is two cents. . . And adding a nickel a pound for whole chickens at the farm level will ripple up the food system.

The issue in Ghana is going to develop differently than in the United States, but it would be helpful to keep our eyes open and try to avoid the mistakes of others.

Jatropha curcas is a tough plant that is very drought tolerant, and will grow in marginal land. So it might be a useful plant to grow in some areas. But to put large tracts of land that have been, or could be, used for food production into Jatropha curcas or other bio fuel production, could hurt individuals and the economy, creating more hunger and malnutrition.

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