For a while now, I’ve been cautioning people that surging prices for industrial food don’t necessarily “level the playing field” for sustainably produced fare.
In fact, the few giant companies that dominate the global food system are fattening themselves on higher prices, consolidating their grip over the world’s palate. Last week, new Gristmill blogger Anna Lappe showed that Cargill — a major producer of everything from fertilizer to biofuel to meat — recently reported an 86 percent jump in quarterly earnings.
And Monday, Andrew Pollack of The New York Times reported that sky-high prices are breaking down global resistance to GMO crops. Writes Pollack:
Soaring food prices and global grain shortages are bringing new pressures on governments, food companies, and consumers to relax their longstanding resistance to genetically engineered crops.
That’s mainly because the countries that now dominate world grain production — the United States, Brazil, and Argentina — have all completely thrown their lots with GMOs. The United States alone produces 44 percent of the world’s corn — and 70 percent of global corn exports originate from here.
Thus, if you’re going to buy corn and soy on world markets, you’re either going to buy GMOs, or pony up a hefty premium to avoid them. One South Korean food processor told Pollack that “non-engineered corn cost Korean millers about $450 a metric ton, up from $143 in 2006. Genetically engineered corn costs about $350 a ton.” That makes a nearly 30 percent markup for non-GMO corn, with GMO corn already trading at record highs.
Not surprisingly, with prices surging, fewer countries are willing to pay that premium. Pollack reports that food processors in Japan and South Korea, which have until now rejected GMOs for fear of consumer backlash, are now quietly phasing them in.
In Europe, consumers remain highly skeptical of the alleged benefits of GMOs. Here is Pollack:
Polls in Europe do not yet show a decisive shift in consumer sentiment, and the industry has had some recent setbacks. Since the beginning of the year, France has banned the planting of genetically modified corn while Germany has enacted a law allowing for foods to be labeled as “G.M. free.”
Yet as prices rise, that may change:
The chairman of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, Neil Parish, said that as prices rise, Europeans “may be more realistic” about genetically modified crops: “Their hearts may be on the left, but their pockets are on the right.”
Thus, the allegedly free market — shamelessly rigged by U.S. and European biofuel mandates, which are jacking up the price of corn and soy — overwhelms consumer desire.