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疯狂的粮食

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疯狂的粮食

2008-04-08作者:保罗.克鲁格曼

These days you hear a lot about the world financial crisis. But there’s another world crisis under way — and it’s hurting a lot more people.

I’m talking about the food crisis. Over the past few years the prices of wheat, corn, rice and other basic foodstuffs have doubled or tripled, with much of the increase taking place just in the last few months. High food prices dismay even relatively well-off Americans — but they’re truly devastating in poor countries, where food often accounts for more than half a family’s spending.

There have already been food riots around the world. Food-supplying countries, from Ukraine to Argentina, have been limiting exports in an attempt to protect domestic consumers, leading to angry protests from farmers — and making things even worse in countries that need to import food.

How did this happen? The answer is a combination of long-term trends, bad luck — and bad policy.

Let’s start with the things that aren’t anyone’s fault.

First, there’s the march of the meat-eating Chinese — that is, the growing number of people in emerging economies who are, for the first time, rich enough to start eating like Westerners. Since it takes about 700 calories’ worth of animal feed to produce a 100-calorie piece of beef, this change in diet increases the overall demand for grains.

Second, there’s the price of oil. Modern farming is highly energy-intensive: a lot of B.T.U.’s go into producing fertilizer, running tractors and, not least, transporting farm products to consumers. With oil persistently above $100 per barrel, energy costs have become a major factor driving up agricultural costs.

High oil prices, by the way, also have a lot to do with the growth of China and other emerging economies. Directly and indirectly, these rising economic powers are competing with the rest of us for scarce resources, including oil and farmland, driving up prices for raw materials of all sorts.

Third, there has been a run of bad weather in key growing areas. In particular, Australia, normally the world’s second-largest wheat exporter, has been suffering from an epic drought.

O.K., I said that these factors behind the food crisis aren’t anyone’s fault, but that’s not quite true. The rise of China and other emerging economies is the main force driving oil prices, but the invasion of Iraq — which proponents promised would lead to cheap oil — has also reduced oil supplies below what they would have been otherwise.

And bad weather, especially the Australian drought, is probably related to climate change. So politicians and governments that have stood in the way of action on greenhouse gases bear some responsibility for food shortages.

Where the effects of bad policy are clearest, however, is in the rise of demon ethanol and other biofuels.

The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a “scam.”

This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly “good” biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.

And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: all the remaining presidential contenders are terrible on this issue.

One more thing: one reason the food crisis has gotten so severe, so fast, is that major players in the grain market grew complacent.

Governments and private grain dealers used to hold large inventories in normal times, just in case a bad harvest created a sudden shortage. Over the years, however, these precautionary inventories were allowed to shrink, mainly because everyone came to believe that countries suffering crop failures could always import the food they needed.

This left the world food balance highly vulnerable to a crisis affecting many countries at once — in much the same way that the marketing of complex financial securities, which was supposed to diversify away risk, left world financial markets highly vulnerable to a systemwide shock.

What should be done? The most immediate need is more aid to people in distress: the U.N.’s World Food Program put out a desperate appeal for more funds.

We also need a pushback against biofuels, which turn out to have been a terrible mistake.

But it’s not clear how much can be done. Cheap food, like cheap oil, may be a thing of the past.

最近你恐怕已经听了很大有关金融危机的事情。但是,另一场全球危机正在形成,而这将伤及更多的人。

我所说的是粮食危机。过去几年当中,小麦、玉米、大米等基础粮食作物的价格已经翻了一倍甚至两倍,而且最大的涨幅就发生在过去几个月之间。对于日子过得相对富余的美国人而言,高企的粮食价格已经让人们惊慌,但是贫穷国家才是真正遭受打击的对象。与食物有关的支出占到穷国的家庭总支出的一半还多。

粮食问题其实已经在世界范围内发生了。从乌克兰到阿根廷,各粮食产出国已经在限制出口以保证国内粮食供应。这不仅导致了粮农的愤怒抗议,更让那些粮食进口国的状况恶化。

这种情况为何发生?原因是多方面的,即长期走势、倒霉的运气和糟糕的政策。

让我们先从非人为因素开始。

首先,是中国人在肉类消费方面的高歌猛进。有史以来第一回,在新兴经济体中有越来越多的人变得富裕起来,他们开始像西方人那样吃肉。为了生产100卡路里的牛肉,需要消耗700卡路里的动物饲料。食肉习惯的这一变化提高了对粮食谷物的总体需求。

其次,石油价格的因素。现代化牧场是高度石油密集型的:生产肥料、开动拖拉机、将农产品运输给消费者都需要消耗大量的热量单位(B.T.U.=1000焦耳)。随着油价突破100美元/桶的历史高位,能源成本已经成为推高农产品成本的主要因素。

高油价同时也和中国及其他新兴经济体有紧密关系。直接或者间接地,这些日渐崛起的经济强国正在和其他国家进行资源(包括石油和农场)抢夺,原材料的价格也因此被全面推高。

第三,主要的粮食产区遭受到坏天气的影响。特别是世界第二大小麦出口国澳大利亚,历史性的旱灾给该国带来巨大的麻烦。

好了,我前面说过这些粮价上涨背后的因素不应该归咎于任何人,但是这不完全是真的。虽然中国及其他新兴经济体的崛起是促使油价上升的主要因素,但是入侵伊拉克也导致了石油供给的减少(虽然支持者声称伊拉克战争会降低油价,但是现在石油产出却比战前还要少)。

而恶劣的天气,特别是澳大利亚的旱灾,也很可能与全球环境变化密切相关。因此,阻碍对温室气体排放采取行动的政治家和政府应该对粮食的短缺背负一定责任。

糟糕的政策导致的恶果最明显的体现就在于乙醇和其他“恶魔般的”生物燃料的兴起。

对粮食转化为燃料的补贴原本是为了推动能源独立并且控制全球变暖。但是正如《时代周刊》直接了当的表述,这一构想是一个“诡计”。

在玉米乙醇这方面尤其如此:即使按照最乐观的估价,生产一加仑玉米乙醇也要消耗其自身所含的同等能量。但是,即使是看上去“不错”的生物燃料政策(像巴西那样从蔗糖中提取乙醇)也因为增加森林砍伐而加速了环境的恶化。

与此同时,用来生长生物燃料作物的土地不能用来生长粮食,所以对生物燃料的补贴是这场粮食危机的主要原因。你或许可以这么说:非洲人民在饿肚子,所以美国的政客才能从农作物生产的各州获得选票。

还有让你担心的:目前仅存的总统候选人在这个问题上都非常糟糕。

另外还有:粮食危机之所以会如此迅速地到今天这样的严重程度,是因为谷物市场上的玩家变得越来越自以为是。

政府和私人谷物交易商过去会在正常年份囤积大量的库存,以预防农作物歉收导致的突然短缺。可是,多年以来,由于所有人都相信遭遇粮荒的国家都可以从别国进口粮食,这些未雨绸缪的库存日渐减少。

这样,当一场危机同时袭击许多国家的时候,世界粮食平衡变得异常脆弱。这和金融危机是同样的情况:人们指望复杂的金融债券将风险多元化,结果却让全球金融市场在系统性冲击的面前无能为力。

那又该做什么呢?最急迫的就是为苦难中的人们给予更多援助:联合国的世界粮食计划呼吁筹集更多资金。

我们还应该推迟生物燃料,因为这已经成为严重的错误。

但是,到底还有多少可以做的事,目前尚不明朗。便宜的粮食,和便宜的石油,恐怕都是很遥远的往事了。
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