The chicken, the egg, or the senator?

The familiar riddle asks, “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” The Senate has been trying to find out, and it’s not that easy.

Senator Schumer of New York heads a committee looking into the rapidly rising cost of food. Recently he and his colleagues questioned a panel including a professional economist, the head of a farmer’s association, and the head of a baker’s association.

The farmer wanted the senators to know that wheat wasn’t causing the problem. When you pay $1.25 for a bagel, he told the senators, the cost of the wheat is only seven cents. Besides, he said, when you use corn for ethanol, that doesn’t diminish the supply of wheat. True, said the baker, but genetically modified corn can now be grown much further north and you can get 120 bushels of corn an acre as opposed to 40 of wheat. The baker had been to the Dakotas and talked to farmers who were making the logical switch. But, said, the economist, the real problem with the price of wheat is the devastating drought in Australia and other wheat growing areas. That he assured his hearers, is the real problem.

I found all this very informative, but wanted the senators to probe more deeply. No one asked, for example, whether the worst drought in Australian history might have been caused by changing weather patterns caused by global warming caused by green house gases produced by the rapid increase of car ownership in India and China that created an increased demand for oil that led Congress to mandate more ethanol to keep fuel prices from going up too rapidly so more people can drive.

Instead, Senator Schumer changed the subject and asked the economist why the cost of eggs had gone up so far and fast. “It’s the lack of layers,” said the economist. It took a few minutes to make it clear that the layers in question were not in the baker’s cakes. So why were fewer hens laying eggs? Because, we were told, more of them had been used for broilers. And why were more chickens used for broiling than laying? For a moment the committee was on the verge of answering the age old question as to which comestible came first. But Senator Schumer had been called to an emergency leadership meeting and the committee went on to other subjects.

I was left musing on missed opportunities. No one asked, for example whether using hens for broiling instead of laying might help cause global warming? Logically it might, but that question also never got asked.

So, once again, Washington has fallen short. But I want you to know that there is a committee out there working on the problem.

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