Friday, September 10, 2010

Why Bob is freaking out about food.

In a comment on my post of Sept 9 -- We are just one bad year on the farm away from horrific famine -- LizBeth asks me what I am seeing as I look ahead to write so strongly on the subject.

There isn't any one thing that I see, but rather, a constellation of events coming together that could very well create a quick-moving dysergistic spiral ("dysergistic" is the opposite of "synergistic") that could impact food security even here in these obese united States.

Folks should also remember that some people, right here in these united States, are already in a food crisis.  About three hundred people call me every month for a delivery of supplemental groceries to help them get through the month.  We typically deliver bags that contain 4-6 misc cans (usually 1 or 2 each green beans, corn, tomato sauce, fruit, and some kind of canned beans), packages of rice, dried beans, and pasta, 2-3 misc boxes (mac and cheese, hamburger helper, etc), peanut butter, sometimes canned or boxed milk, and cereal.  There may be an additional one or two "lottery" items (i.e. items we don't have enough to give everybody, but added together, everyone will get 1 or 2 misc somethings.  We occasionally have bags of frozen carrots, cauliflower, and boxes of frozen sugar pea pods.  We occasionally (2-3 times/year) have meat that I buy from Oklahoma farmers.  I save up the donations so that when we do have it, we have enough for everyone.  We occasionally get odd things, like a huge amount of ice cream cones (without the ice cream, just the cones).  For a while last year we were getting bags of frozen blueberries. 

We used to always have powdered milk to give away, but that went away 2 years ago and we rarely see it.  Occasionally there is some of the boxed shelf-stable milk, but that goes to families of 5 or more as we never have enough for everyone to have a box.  Once a year we usually get dried figs.

Most of this food comes from the Regional Food Bank, and is the surplus of the conventional agribizness food system.  And that is a very tenuous supply line.  Just before the authorization of the last ag bill, which in part funds the programs that move surplus foods to the nation's food charities, we were down to maybe only 8 food items per bag, which is about half a conventional paper bag of groceries.  If that charitable/surplus lifeline stopped, and I had to go to the grocery store and buy all this, I could spend $3500/month and not have much to give each family.

I deliver quite a bit of this myself, via a U-haul truck that I take to six public housing developments the third Saturday of each month (with some helpers, of course), and so I see the people.  For many of the people we deliver to, this is not a matter of a one or two time thing, it is every month, over a period of years.  They are elderly, sick, disabled.  Often the elderly are raising the grand children and/or great-grandchildren.  Not everybody gets food stamps, people fall through the cracks all the time.  We're delivering increasingly often to the growing number of motels in the area that rent rooms by the week.  Their kichens consist of hot plates, crockpots, electric skillets, and maybe if they are lucky a micro-wave oven.

That's my micro situation every month, and it is one of the things that keeps me focused in a very real way on food.

Then there's the macro situation, and there isn't anything there to calm me down. 
  • In eight of the last ten years, the world has consumed more grain that it produced.  The giant grain stockpiles of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s are gone. 
  • We had a major food crisis world wide in 2007-2008, which saw many Asian countries banning the export of rice, and there were riots throughout the third world.  This coincided with an energy crisis and the beginning of our present financial crisis.
  • The world's big financial players have discovered food.  Hedge funds, insurance companies, and big banks are speculating in food and driving the price up for consumers, while the farmers often get little if any of the price gains.
  • The world's climate is seriously impacting food production.  Australia had a ten year drought that ravaged their food production capacities.  Russia banned the export of grain through the end of next year and they were the world's third largest grain exporter.
  • Sovereign wealth funds and wealthy corporations are buying millions of acres of farmland in poor countries to produce food for export.  They aren't doing this because they think food will be plentiful and cheap in coming years.
  • The evidence seems to be that conventional agriculture has about reached its maximum food production capacity on the land presently under cultivation.  And the land area of world food production is declining, due to urban sprawl, desertification, drought, and other grim happenings.
Besides these bullet points, I continue to be increasingly alarmed by the on-going devolution of our financial and economic systems. 

And then there's peak oil and climate instability. 

Any one of these issues would be a big deal by itself, but coming on us all at once, the situation could get terrifying very rapidly -- much quicker than most people think would be possible.  The reason there's been so much doom and gloom over the past two years is because "something wicked this way comes" -- there is a lot to be doomed and gloomed about.  The one economic site where I read every post is The Automatic Earth, and they recently posted an interview with one of their principles -- . The folks at Automatic Earth are considering the interaction of peak oil, climate instability, and economic irrationality.    I sent the link to my group, which has 7400 or so members and has been discussing peak oil since 2001, as a "special notice" with the note -- if you don't read anything else this week, read this.

And I recently read an excerpt from an interesting book, The Coming Famine, that was published in the NY Times.  The author does a good job of pulling together many of these threads. 

In the 20th century, most famines were caused by politics and finance, not by absolute shortages of food.  Going forward, we still have the potential problem of famine caused by politics and finance, but we are also increasingly at risk of famine due to absolute shortages of food.

Like the energy and the financial crises, a food security crisis would come upon us quickly and without much warning.  There won't be time to rush out and buy a large amount of food, because it might not be available and if available, would you have the money?  In the best of times, few households could afford to go and buy a year's worth of food in one big shopping excursion.  Sure, mobbing a Wal-Mart in the throes of a major food panic might be an interesting if dangerous adrenaline rush, but I suggest safer methods of getting your excitement fix if that's what you crave.

The time to stock up on food is before the food crises hit. 

That's why I have temporarily stopped putting money from my payheck into my savings account each month and started buying more food.  And I've also ramped up my home food production for the fall season. 

Few of us would sleep well at night if we didn't have fire insurance on our houses.  We don't buy insurance because we want to have a fire, but because we are concerned about the consequences if we do.  Yet tens -- hundreds! -- of millions of people go to bed every night with hardly anything in the way of food storage in their kitchens.  They go to the store four or five times/week to buy food or eat out or get take out.  I am unlikely to reach hundreds of millions of people through this little bobaganda blog, but I feel a responsibility to those who do read my stuff to lay things out as clearly and as urgently as I can.  A grocery store only has a 3 day supply of food on its shelves, it stays full thanks to a constant stream of trucks on long supply chains kept moving by a busy processing industry.  But at any given time, there are probably only a couple months of food working their way through the various parts of that system, thanks to just-in-time inventory systems.  There are a hundred things that could happen in a heart-beat to stop the smooth workings of that system, and where will people be if that happens?  Between the proverbial rock and a hard place, that's where.

Store what you eat, eat what you store, sleep well at night.

Procrastination is the thief of time and could be a harbinger of hunger.

No comments:

Post a Comment