The markets were up sharply last week. Wheat markets, that is.
While the Dow Jones industrials were down 315 points Friday, red-hot trading on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange pushed wheat to a record high of $25 a bushel in the same week.
Frankly, neither number is to be cheered, unless you're a wheat grower in Montana. In a country where people know more about their BlackBerrys than they do about how food gets to their table and gasoline into their SUVs, these and other numbers tumbled out ominously in the last week of the last full month of winter.
With oil hovering above $100 a barrel and higher-use months on the way, analysts predicted that gasoline prices would soon rise to $4 a gallon, surprising President Bush but almost no one else.
The spike in wheat prices in Minneapolis and at other commodity markets reflects realities captured in other numbers reported last week: U.S. wheat supplies are at a 60-year low. Global stocks are at a 30-year low. In this climate, the United Nations' world food program announced it might have to ration food aid to poor countries. Global food prices jumped more than 20 percent in 2007 alone.
The double F's -- food and fuel -- are intertwined like never before. As oil prices have spiraled upward, governments have pumped up production of biofuels with incentives and economic development tools. The U.S. is now using 20 percent of its corn production for fuel. As oil prices continue to rise, reliance on renewable fuels will do nothing but grow, limitations of corn-based ethanol notwithstanding. As with wheat, prices for corn and soybeans are high. This is good news for farms and rural economies in Wisconsin, but it also raises other important issues.
Listening in on a conversation between two University of Wisconsin-Extension agriculture agents last week, I heard speculation about weekend farmers getting into the act, lured by high prices. The agents worry that hay-shakers will take shortcuts and fail to take good care of Wisconsin's two most precious natural resources -- land and water -- as they rush to cash in.
Americans didn't become the world's biggest energy hogs on purpose. Our behaviors today result from cheap oil and economic growth fueled by unsustainable consumption of cheap goods. But we're capable of changing our behaviors. So in response to the bleak winter numbers of last week, here's a short list of things we could accomplish with little pain:
* Face the facts: An economy that relies on rapacious consumption will eventually devour itself. We need a new design that thrives on community health and stability rather than boatloads of junk from China.
* Go on a diet: Obviously, there's a lot of fat in the U.S. economy. A diet wouldn't hurt, literally and figuratively. A diet that relies more on plants requires much less energy than one rich in red meat. As Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute notes, shifting to a plant-based diet cuts greenhouse gas as much as driving a Prius does.
* Protect our land and water resources: The first step is to make sure they aren't lost to sprawl and other dumb uses. We also need to ensure that these resources are protected for future generations. If mandates or incentives are needed to preserve soil and protect the public's water, then we can't be timid.
* Take personal responsibility: If Americans embraced one or two sustainable practices, the impact would be immense. We could park the car for one day a week, alter a diet and retrofit our homes and businesses for energy conservation. These are small steps that can make a big difference. Our major institutions -- churches, businesses, governments -- need to lead by example and preach the truth.
* Elect responsible leaders: Choose local leaders who embrace sustainable community policies, state leaders who are willing to reward them and national leaders who have the guts to say that new realities require simple but determined efforts to change.
Getting people to equate patriotism with responsible consumption and conservation of resources would be a big step in the right direction. Rewarding that behavior would be even bigger.
Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2008 Capital Newspapers