"Supply is low, demand is high. We have gone from three meals a day to two. Then it will be one meal. Then we will die," said Yoseph Yilak, head of the local [Ethiopian] grain traders' association. "Why is the world taking corn for fuel? It will mean the death of many people."
That's from the Wall Street Journal on the crisis of rising world food prices.
The problem is completely overblown in the US, where food is just not that large a piece of peoples' budgets. But it is an enormous problem in the developing world, particularly in Africa, where people can't compete with US demand for inefficiently produced ethanol, and Asian demand for meat. I've started hearing scattered comparisons to the Irish famine, when the oddly (government) structured markets meant that the country was a net grain exporter while two million of its citizens either starved or migrated. Unfortunately, migration has tightened up quite a bit since then; hungry Africans largely have nowhere to go.
What can we do? Start by converting our food aid to cash to encourage local production, rather than shipping our grain there. Increase food aid, obviously. Refuse to buy ethanol, if that's even possible--it definitely isn't in places where it's a mandatory additive, and I'm not sure it's possible anywhere. End (oh, pipe dream!) our ridiculous ethanol subsidies. Try to drive a little less.
One thing you can do--and it's a suggestion, not a moral pronouncement, so please, no anti-vegetarian screeds--is cut down on your meat consumption. Meat is a gigantic consumer of grain, and dairy and eggs are also gigantic grain sucks. If most Americans dropped their meat consumption back to three or four days a week, or went vegan one day a week, this would have a measurable impact on the world price of grain. Obviously, on an individual basis, it's not much--but every pound of meat you don't eat is many pounds of grain that go back on the market to feed someone else.
Yes, yes, I know, this sounds all hippy-dippy, like the three weeks in 1976 when your Mom made you boycott grapes and eat hempseed cereal. And obviously, this is not a long-term solution, since we hope that the market will eventually adjust and provide more supply. But in the shortish term, it might help the market adjust by some way other than starving some of the customers until they no longer demand . . . well, anything.
Also, you may have noticed that meat is getting kind of pricey. Best bet is that it will go up before it goes down, since meat is essentially grain cubed, with a time lag. Get a good cookbook--I recommend Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian--and you'll barely notice that you're eating less meat. I'm not urging anyone to discover the joys of marinated tempeh breakfast strips (mmmmm . . . tempeh), but there are lots of vegetarian foods that you would eat even if they weren't vegetarian, just because they're really good. Macaroni and cheese, potato soup, mushroom pie? What's not to love?
You can also use less meat when you cook with it--if you think vegetarian food is too much like joining the Viet Cong, may I point you to the excellent Betty Crocker 1950 Picture Cookbook, which you definitely couldn't accuse of being too culinarily avant garde. It's rife with comfort food designed in an era when people watched the amount of eggs, cream, and meat they used, because those things were expensive. It's especially good if you don't really know how to cook, because it was basically designed for new brides. Also, the advice for bored housewives in the back is alone worth the cost of the book.
And in a really weird roundabout way, you might help lower your gas bill; grain needs fertilizer (especially in Africa) and fertilizer needs natural gas. It's pretty much an all-around win.