Thursday, May 1, 2008

Extremely Unfree Rice

I cooked rice this evening for the first time since I heard that its price has skyrocketed. My house is now redolent of basmati and my belly is happily full of delicious chick pea curry and spinach with paneer that my neighbors cooked. I guess it's the smell of privilege, though not the kind of privilege that I think we should feel bad about having; it's the kind that ought to be extended to all of humanity.

And you know, if it weren't for the completely misguided and shortsighted idea that we can keep guzzling gas if we just plant enough corn for ethanol, there might actually be enough food to go around. It used to be that I saw "corn as high as an elephant's eye" when was a kid only if we were driving through a small patch of southeastern North Dakota and southern Minnesota into Iowa. The landscape of my Great Plains childhood was durum wheat. Now, over the past several years, I've seen corn spread across Ohio like a malevolent stain. It's even taken over large swathes of southwestern Germany. Amazing how subsidies and the promise of a new market can totally warp agriculture! Whatever happened to the wacky idea that crops are meant to feed people?!

The price of rice locally has gone up about 50 percent (says my neighbor who just bought a jumbo bag of basmati at our town's one and only Asian grocery). Some of the big American retailers are restricting sales to no more than four bags. This is no big deal for southeast Ohio, where we have oodles of other food choices. But if you're poor and live in Vietnam or China, the rice shortage may threaten your ability to get enough calories.

Nothing is really going to change until citizens demand an end to the sort of perverted agricultural policy that would have made the Soviets proud. Or if we want to maintain an ag economy based on subsidies, let's at least diversify and remember that we need food even more than we need cheap fuel. (I feel almost stupid writing that - it's so obvious! - but duh, I guess it's not quite obvious enough.) And here's a really radical idea: If we could manage to conserve - by tightening our fuel consumption standards, driving fewer miles, and moving rapidly toward hybrid cars that can be plugged in and charged - we could decrease our appetite for ethanol and allow the appetites of actual humans to be sated instead.

This is a minor tangent, but if you haven't already discovered the Free Rice game, now's not a bad time to check it out. It's a vocabulary game, and the site's sponsors promise to donate a grain of rice for every word a player gets right. I'm sure the amount of rice donated won't make a dent in the hunger problem, but the awareness it's raising just might make a difference. And the game is seriously addictive. I quit cold turkey last fall, but when I played it again a few days ago I noticed they've got a bunch of new words at the higher levels, plus a new algorithm that feeds you the words you missed a few turns later, so I might actually learn something. (Hint: If you get up to about 44 or 45 - out of 50 possible levels - and don't know a word, assume it's something medical or archaic or related to weaponry. Oh, and if you're clueless but one of the possible answers has two words instead of one, that's usually the best guess.) Let me know if you get all the way to 50 - or have any clever ideas for tackling the hunger problem.

The muscari in the photo grows next to our elementary school; I took the picture.

No comments: