In an era of shrinking papers, plummeting advertising, and layoffs, I had given myself a challenge: to prove that a food-news beat could stand on its own. I wish I could chalk it up to pure prescience. The timing, however, was ideal. With skyrocketing food prices, global shortages sparking riots from Bangladesh to Haiti, a sprawling salmonella outbreak, and the debate over biofuels, 2008 was among the food-newsiest periods in recent memory. It was also the year the massive “Farm Bill” became known as the “Food Bill”—when urban and suburban Americans realized, perhaps for the first time, that they had a stake in a gargantuan piece of legislation normally parsed by lawmakers in the corn belt.
At the same time, Congress mulled over the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The so-called Energy Bill had set higher mandates for renewable, mostly corn-based fuels, which arguably have more influence over food prices than anything in the newly minted Food Bill. Then, at a global summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in June, about six months after the Energy Bill became law, representatives from 181 countries gathered and asked: Is it such a good idea to grow the world’s fuel when people are starving? Should food acres compete with fuel? Should the tractor exist for the field, or the field for the tractor?
Back in St. Louis, the food-to-fuel argument simmered away. In every direction from this city, corn, America’s largest crop, grows by the tens of thousands of acres. Much of it ends up as ethanol in gas tanks, or as fattening high-fructose corn syrup in everything from cookies to soda.
Either way, it has become controversial. Last year saw record corn prices, making area farmers happy, but prompting accusations that the spikes were triggered by pro-ethanol policies, and were responsible for the escalating cost of food. The St. Louis-based National Corn Growers Association fought back, arguing that speculators drove up prices, and sticking to its position that ethanol could wean us from foreign oil. For a while, it seemed that I was getting e-mails every day from the pro-corn contingent on one side, and from food manufacturers, environmentalists, and consumer groups on the other.
Nor was the debate limited to these opposing parties. Monsanto, which has its own role to play in this growing clash over global resources, is the world’s largest purveyor of genetically modified crops. It also happens to be based in a St. Louis suburb. In the 1990s, the one-time chemical company became the first to successfully market genetically engineered crops. In doing so, Monsanto transformed American agriculture—by some estimates, 60 percent of our food contains genetically modified ingredients—and launched a similar crusade overseas (though many countries are resisting). As the world struggles to simultaneously feed itself and fill its gas tanks, says the company, its crops are part of the solution.
Monsanto argues that its products will yield more fruit with less fertilizer, water, and weed killer.
Given all of this, I have an interesting and perhaps unique vantage point from which to cover the food-news beat. I work at a regional paper in a struggling midwestern city, surrounded by farms, few of which produce anything we would recognize as food—a city that could be considered ground zero for the biofuels debate, and is home to a global seed giant that stands to benefit from the outcome.
But being in St. Louis had other advantages last year. Consumer demand for organic, and later, locally grown food, which had its beginnings on the coasts, started moving inland. That meant that farmers markets were a growing presence here. A new one opened last summer, in a depressed part of the city where residents have few food-purchasing options aside from liquor and convenience stores. Some of the crops sold there were grown by homeless people, who, with the help of a gardening organization, had planted an urban farm next to a highway on-ramp.