A place where one woman has gathered resources and information to help her family survive in an uncertain future; together with occasional personal musings.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fears About Future Food (2/11)


Fears About Future Food

There has been an awful lot of noise in the news lately about global food prices. The price of most basic commodities such as wheat, sugar, corn, soybeans, and oilseeds are near or at historic highs. Global stockpiles are near or at historic lows. The recent events in the Middle East have been partially attributed to the swiftly rising price of food. In fact, food prices never really recovered after the 2008 spikes, though they did ease somewhat, and rice in particular (probably the most important grain, globally) seems to have stabilized for now, which is excellent news.

The factors that led to the 2008 spike are still with us, and in fact are intensifying. Most importantly, terrible weather events in many parts of the world over the last couple of years have drastically impacted regional staple crop production, from last year's drought in Russia and floods in Pakistan to this year's floods in Australia and unusual deep-freezes in the American south. Today, I bought some zucchinis to make a special Valentine's Day dinner, and paid over $7 for three smallish squash. They were $5.50 a pound. And no, they were not organic. I actually thought there was a mistake and asked the checker if that was the right price. She said it was and that the store had received a letter from their wholesalers letting them know that prices on many products would be higher through the season due to the freezes in the south.

Even if you think the weather events are a statistical aberration not likely to repeat in the coming years (which is a foolish opinion, but I'm granting it for the sake of argument), there are other, longer term forces at work which will continue to push food prices higher. There is the growing demand for biofuels - a sad story, which I am not going to go into in detail now. Suffice it to say that market forces have succeeded in turning a potentially brilliant, clean, carbon-sinking innovation into a global environmental disaster. As it currently exists, the global market in biofuels is destructive and helping to cause shortages. That doesn't mean I am against biofuels - I am decidedly for them! But the industry needs to evolve, and fast.

There is the price of oil, which is inexorably creeping upward and on which our agricultural system is utterly dependent, not just for transportation but for synthetic fertilizers. These fertilizers, in turn, mask another long term problem - the failing fertility of our soils. The loss of topsoil to drought and overtilling is only a small part of the soil's sickness. Loss of the biodiversity of microorganisms in the soil due to the long term use of insecticides and fungicides and herbicides has resulted in "dirt death."

Another huge problem - one of the biggest - is the water shortage. I was going to write "incipient water shortage" but in fact, the shortage is already here in many parts of the world. For the first time in recorded history, the Yellow river in China failed to reach the sea last year. All of it's water was siphoned off before it got there. That is routinely the case for the Colorado and the Rio Grande here in the states, as well as many other smaller waterways. I recently read (in a four page agricultural paper sold at my local feed store) that Eastern Washington's gigantic fossil water aquifer is down to about 15% of it's original capacity. The aquifer was not even tapped until the forties, and most of the drawdown has occurred in the last twenty years. They expect it will be totally exhausted within a decade. Then what? Well, my guess is that within another decade or two after that, the mighty Columbia may no longer reach the sea. California's imperial valley (source of a major slice of the nation's fresh produce) is losing productivity due to loss of water rights - water that is now being diverted to L.A. and San Diego. In Arizona, the water table has dropped from about 15 feet underground in the seventies to over 100 feet underground today.

The increasing wealth in large swaths of the developing world, including China and India, is obviously very good news in many respects. But not as regards global food supplies. As people get wealthier, they pretty much universally want to eat more meat. Meat, particularly beef, is the least efficient extraction of calories from the land, and the methodology of it's production - factory farming - is nearly indescribably destructive to the environment, further depleting the future productive potential of a great deal of land.

The largest underlying factor and the most difficult to address is, of course, population growth. By 2050 there will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 9 billion people on the planet, and they will all be hungry. Right now, population is not the problem in a direct, immediate sense - we still produce plenty of food for everybody, if it were evenly distributed. But if all production trends point downwards while all consumption trends point upwards... well, I'm not an economist, but.... I'm also not an idiot.

You may be thinking "what the heck are you talking about? My food prices haven't gone up that much. I've hardly noticed anything." The fact is that we here in the States are well-insulated from food price spikes, for a variety of reasons. Farm subsidies are one of them, but even more, it is because we tend to eat so much processed and packaged food that the cost of the actual ingredients represents only a small fraction of the total cost of the product. When you buy a box of cereal, the cost of the wheat or the rice is only about 10% of what you pay. The rest is packaging, processing, advertising, et cetera. If you go down the aisle and look at the cost of a sack of plain rice or a sack of plain lentils, you will notice that they have indeed gone up. Actually, so has the cereal. Cheerios for $5 a box? C'mon!

Personally, I have noticed big increases in the cost of bulk coffee, sugar, wheat flour, and some fresh produce such as citrus fruits and salad greens. I have also noticed that selection seems to be decreasing in many stores, and I wonder why this is? This is a longer term trend, I think. Ten years ago, I would have no problem at my local grocery finding pretty much any product I wanted, from fresh habanero peppers to, oh, say, savoy cabbage. There were always at least five varieties of potatoes. Lately, I have more and more often found myself looking for something I think of as a basic item and not been able to find it. A partial list - those that spring to mind - include:

-wild rice
-pearl onions
-dried garbanzo beans
-shitake mushrooms
-spinach that wasn't bagged baby spinach, but plain old fashioned adult spinach.

I'm curious to know, have you noticed similar trends? Are rising food prices an issue for you? What do you think will happen to global food prices in the next several years, and are you making any preparations? I will talk about my own preparations in a later post.