Friday, January 29, 2010

Food Crisis

Thomas asked on his blog today "Are we really at risk for a sudden and widespread food catastrophe" or is it just paranoia. He pointed out the paranoia of things like the cold war that didn't come to pass. I grew up with two kinds of paranoia, the cold war (I'm 48 to give you a timetable). The other was my dad.

My dad was quite the pessimist when I was growing up. He always thought our government or economy could collapse and we would have to take care of ourselves for a couple of years before things normalized again. I still remember his target date was 1982. I grew up in a household where food for a year was the norm -buckets of wheat, powdered milk, honey and salt (which he no longer has, but I'm talking aout my youth). We all learned how to use guns. My dad hunted. My job was to learn all the edible plants that grew around us in our backwoods house. Oh so much paranoia in my youth. So I understand the paranoia and have seen it not come to pass.

However just a couple of years ago we did have a world wide food catastrophe. Weather wipe out a chunk of the worlds rice crops driving up prices. Some farmers held onto their crops because they believed the prices would go even higher causing an even greater shortage. Oil prices hit a record high (required for how we make food today). Ethanol programs made the price of corn skyrocket. Stem rust in wheat was spreading. We had record high population (as we do every year) and a 60 year low in grain stockpiles. All of this came together at once. The world saw food riots. Remember this was all just a couple of years ago. I know we were largely insulated in the US. Even our poor were fairly insulated compared to places like Africa, but we have had a food crisis recently.

Will it get bad enough for the rich countries to be affected? Thomas talked about the potato famine and Monsanto's GMO crops. It is possible for GMOs to bring in genes that are susceptible to some disease and cause a crop failure of catastrophic proportions? Yes it is possible, but the likely scenario is that if something like that happens it will be a more minor crop failure like the corn gene issue of the 1970s. Most of the corn that was being grown had one little gene in it that caused it to be susceptible to smut (a corn disease not porn ;>). Over a couple of years smut started spreading. The seed companies figured this out and started growing out seed that wasn't susceptible. The whole world's crop probably won't be affected at once. The disease will spread. Monsanto isn't stupid (heavy headed and cruel to farmers at times yes, stupid no). They will notice and switch genes as fast as they can. This doesn't mean that whoever is growing the crop won't have issues. This doesn't mean it won't last a couple of years as they scramble to grow out another seed in large enough quantities. It could cause regional issues, but probably won't affect us.

If we have a food crisis for the richer countries, it will grow slowly over time. Population will increase. Petroleum will slowly run out and its price will rise. We will see more confluence of events like a couple of years ago causing temporary shortages. It will grow over time. Eventually we won't need a confluence of events. One bad weather year will create a shortage. This will happen unless we get the population under control. There is no stopping it. The time scale of this I have no clue, but as long as our worldwide population keeps growing it is inevitable. But look on the bright side. It is self regulating. When food becomes too much of an issue then massive war will break out worldwide and our population will go down. If it gets bad enough we might even bomb ourselves back into the dark ages or worse out of existence. How's that for paranoia?


  1. I think that we're on the way to having major food issues, but think it will be a long drawn out issue. Like you, I think there will be issues that will come along to cause problems for certain crops, or certain areas of the country. Overall though, I think that we need to be prepared to take care of our own food needs as much as possible. The biggest problem will be when the world realizes that oil does not have an unlimited supple.

  2. A very wellwritten and thought provoking post, Daphne. I tend to take a middle of the road approach to these sorts of topics, because paranoia and panic do no good except to frighten more people. The fact that more people are starting to grow their own foods to even a small extent, and are looking more to local farmers for other foods, is a good thing. One step at a time.

  3. This was very interesting reading, Daphne. It made me want to stockpile stuff and prepare. The overpopulation thing has been the subject of many books for a long time. No one seems to pay attention, except for China and they may have carried it a bit too far, but they are on the right track. Nature will regulate all right, and it won't be pretty. What we can do is try to get our leaders to see what is happening. But they all, and I include the dems and the repubs here, seem unable to see beyond their own reelection. Sigh. We are trying to grow food, and plan to support the local farmer's market whole heartedly. I hope more do the same.

  4. Daphne, I don't know whether to be reassured or worried after reading your post, which I have to say is very informative. I guess that's what happens when you are dealing with a slow-moving threat.

    Also, I have to admit that it does bother me a bit that we and the rest of the first world are much more insulated from such threats than everyone makes us and our corporations complacent when it comes these real life (and death) issues.

    So the question becomes, what do we as individuals do about it all?

  5. The Mom, I think it is wise to know how to grow your own food and know how to save seed. I may never see the crisis that brings it all down, but it is still a good thing to know and to pass on to your kids.

    jodi, I think panic is a little premature right now even if you are one to panic. I think understanding that there will be an issue in the future unless we do something is important. Though I've got no real answers, except out government ought to get over the whole passing out contraception to those that want it. We send money to those who can afford to vaccinate their kids against disease so most of their kids live to adulthood. We are responsible for making the population grow if we don't give them access to birth control too.

    Frances, I think we don't have to stockpile things quite yet. I think before things go downhill fast, we will have a lot more warning signs (the food crisis of 2007-2008 was certainly one of them). I agree if we don't get the population under control we have a problem. The US (except for its birth control policies with aid to other countries) is not a problem that way. We are only growing due to immigration. If we had no immigration we would actually be shrinking in population. People in rich countries that have women in control of their own bodies seems to create a society that doesn't reproduce as much.

  6. Thomas, oh that is a tough one. The biggest thing I see is what I said to Jodi. We have to get our national government to put back its aid with birth control. In addition it is really useful to keep local agriculture alive especially sustainable agriculture. If oil turns out to be the tipper instead of population growth then we need to be able to grow our food sustainably. We need to know how to do it on a large scale. We don't right now. To do it right now we would have to switch back to a mainly agricultural society.

  7. I agree on the timeline. Fortunately it gives everyone time to develop skills to cope.

  8. Well your father did have things to worry about in the early 1980's. Times were pretty tough then. Althought at the time I was not even alive I have read extensively about economic trends and investing. I do agree if we were to have some kind of food crisis it will revolve around oil. Depending on how the monetary easing is done, it could be sooner then later. Interesting time ahead for sure. I try not to think about it to much though, the human mind can be so dramatic. I just hope to have my cards in a row to profit from it.

  9. A very interesting post, and thought provoking. It's nice to see I'm not alone it worrying about these things! In my opinion the best things we can do is grow locally and produce energy locally (I'm talking about renewable energy sources, which would cut oil out of the picture). One technology that I think has a lot of potential is vertical farming, where everything would be recycled and crops would be grown locally. For now the best thing we can do is learn to be productive and not wasteful.

  10. Interesting post. I also grew up with a paranoid father (who predicted the end of the world before I would have a chance to grow!) and have a healthy interest in gardening and self-sufficiency. I also live in Guatemala where there is a huge food shortage right now. You're right, it really does affect smaller poorer countries more than the richer ones!

  11. When I was growing up there was a lot of talk about the population explosion and the need to voluntarily control ourselves. Then the Reagan years came along and our country seemed to feel that planning parenthood was a bad thing. Our current population growth is not sustainable. But as you say, it is self-correcting--and some will use the desperate situations that result as an excuse to use desperate means to their own ends.

  12. I firmly believe that competition for liquid fossil fuels, food insecurity and water access (or lack thereof) will be the driving force for much of our geopolitical events for the next many decades. It's already happening. Do I freak out about it? Nope. Just pragmatic in my thinking and I hedge my bets accordingly, by cultivating reasonable alternatives to things that may (or may not) become scarcer in the future.

    Good post Daphne.

  13. Stefaneener, we can only hope.

    Dan, actually I was in college by the 1980s. The 1970s was also decade to get paranoid about. Our economy was terrible, we had gas lines, and we had a president who broke the law. It was enough to make people paranoid. Hmm sounds like we have had a lot of similar things recently. You're right though we can be pretty dramatic.

    Annanas, vertical farming is a really interesting idea. We have so much vertical space in the cities but not much flat land. And yes cutting out waste is important. Right now we throw so much away it is just amazing.

    Expat Mom, yes the richer ones can just import what they need. And even our poor who have to live on food stamps are richer than many in the world. You might have to eat rice and beans when living on food stamps in the US, but you have food. Many in the world don't even have that.

  14. mss, I really hope we as a world do something about population growth before it does become self correcting. I really don't want to live through that (but still want to live to a ripe old age - I have to be careful about what I ask for).

    kitsapFG, I didn't even get into water, but it is one of those things required for growing food. One water expert I listened to said that the best way to transport water from one area to another is just to transport food. It takes so much water to grow food.

    Sadly I can't read the next comment. If anyone else can translate it would be nice. Google translator didn't help. It just gave me gibberish when translated (though I might have gotten the gist)

  15. Great post Daphne! I remember reading about the rice shortages and what not you mentioned happening years back, but only because I had made a large donation to Heiffer International and was receiving their publication. I continue to be shocked and saddened when I discover how people elsewhere are continually facing famine. As Americans we have no ability to conceptualize all of ones wages going for food to feed the family. We continue to through food away after it expires on the shelf while others around the world starve. Anyway, it is so hard not to take all we have for granted when it is all we know. If the food grown around the world was equally distributed us Americans would have a shortage, along with every other human on the planet. Scary isn't it? So I think your father's paranoid behavior was and is just, one just never knows what the future will bring. GREAT POST!!

  16. I have to second the shrinking population thing, the US, Japan, the UK etc. are actually facing a huge problem down the road if we don't start breeding more, not less. Most families are having 1 to 2 children. Japan does not have enough workers to run it's factories in the future. China is left with how many men that will never have wives? (China has built itself a huge military.) The caucasian race is waning as many other races are 'overproducing' per say. Not saying that it is good or bad, but once the 'baby-boomers' are gone our population will have shrunk to quite a low.

    Oh, and speaking of government- we will all be screwed as we age if the population doesn't increase....Uncle Sam needs lots of taxpayers to support the countrie's future. The social security system as it was intended to function is failing due to the continual decrease in population (ie tax payers). :)

  17. Very thoughtful post. I'm surprised that no one has mentioned global climate change as a looming threat, along with world population growth. The world will face tremendous food shortages as the climate changes. More frequent and more severe storms will flatten crops and unseasonably cold and warm spikes will reduce harvests. We live is scary times, which is one reason why I grow my own produce and buy locally as much as possible. Reducing transport of food of at least some of my food is just one place where I can change my life and favorably impact the planet in a tiny, tiny way.

  18. A very interesting post...I'm not sure I would go as far as saying that by sending humanitarian aid but not birth control we are "responsible for their birth rate" but hey, we all see things a little differently.

    In my opinion, the food crisis is unlikely to touch the first world much. Our populations are stable and most of us are self-reliant when it comes to food. I don't see this as a 'yay!!' answer. There are going to be some heavy things coming down the pike, but the hardest hit will be the parts of the 3rd world who have greatly increased population without regional self-reliance. This is not a jibe against humanitarianism, but the cycle is not stable. The lowest continue to survive with our help and with every increase to their population drive themselves further into poverty.

    If there was an easy answer I'm sure it would have been brought forth by now. The answer is not condoms alone. Or birth control. Neither of those alone will change the culture. I think we have a hard time remembering that it wasn't just birth control that changed the birth rate in the first world. It was a growth in opportunities for women so that they felt socially that they had choices. Educational choices. Job choices. Life choices. Right now some areas are provided with birth control, and only sometimes is it used. There has to be a culture change, and frankly, the US can not be the strongman on that as we do so many other things.

    I think the crisis in the first world will be oil (and thus energy/electricity) and then water, depending on location. So telling a society with a stable population that we should do something about overpopulation just makes people ignore you. Gas they might worry about. :(

    Oh, and my dad is paranoid too. :) So many of my dreams are post apocalyptic. I try to balance that out for the boys.