The Food Crisis Getting Worse - Fast!

Sharon April 1st, 2008

Well, the last week has had some disturbing news about food supplies.  First, rice prices jumped by 30% in a single day, putting many of the 3 billion people who depend on rice as their food staple at risk of hunger.  The Guardian tells that people are stripping rice fields before the farmers can harvest them.  Most rice eating nations are self-sufficient in rice, but there some disturbing exceptions, including the Philippines. 

The next news to arrive was the projected US corn production, which was released yesterday, and now some analysts are warning us to expect corn rationing this year! Mexicans are already struggling with high corn prices, and much of Africa which relies on maize is endangered by rising corn prices.  Understandably, tensions are rising with hunger. (Note that the article calls the decision, say, to reserve rice supplies for one’s own hungry people rather than sell them on open markets “counterproductive.”  As usual, growth capitalism revels in the “creative destruction” of anyone but large corporations    ;-P.  Also note the charming shift of the problem onto the developing world’s large population and desire to eat meat occasionally, rather on to the rich world where every person consumes 15 times the resources.)

Add in wheat and soybeans, both at record highs for a host of reasons, and virtually all of the basic staple foods of most of the world’s population are skyrocketing in price - and increasingly out of reach not just of the world’s poor (already starving)  but of ordinary Americans.  News that more Americans than ever will need food stamps next year is hardly surprising, as are accounts that food pantries are really struggling to meet demand.  I think it will surprise many analysts exactly how big and deep the hunger problem gets in the US, as we are squeezed between rocks and hard places in a host of ways.

What should we do about this?  Well, rationing isn’t a bad thought.  I know a lot of people instinctively react badly to the idea of rationing, but the truth is that we ration food today - we simply ration by price.  Too poor to buy rice?  Ok, you go hungry, so that the richer folks can have it.  We *ARE* rationing.  What formal rationing systems do is give even poor people a right to eat.  I’ve written about this before, but I think it bears repeating - people *LIKE* rationing in times of scarcity, because it ensures they get a fair share.

Now the logical place to start the rationing would be at the biodiesel and ethanol plants - rationing them out of existence in many cases would be an excellent choice.  Certainly, limiting access to feedlot meat producers wouldn’t be a bad idea either.  But given the fact that we are probably stuck, we should all dig in and prepare for a long, terrible, hungry year - and probably more. 

Meanwhile, those gardens matter.  Grow an extra row for the food pantry.  Eat a little more of your own homegrown, and donate what you save to world relief agencies. If you eat grains, grow some - Gene Logsdon just announced that he’s re-releasing his wonderful book _Small Scale Grain Raising_.  Write your congressperson.  Get involved with those who are fighting hunger and biofuel production.  And grow.  And grow.

 Sharon

26 Responses to “The Food Crisis Getting Worse - Fast!”

  1. Idaho Locavoreon 01 Apr 2008 at 9:44 am

    Yikes. It seems we may have entered an “exponential change” phase where even small pebbles create very large waves in the system. That’s not good, especially when there are just *so many* different “pebbles” hitting our precariously balanced system all at the same time.

    I read about the re-release of Small Scale Grain Raising. It’s a great book. I’m one of the lucky folks who managed to get a copy of the first edition years ago, but I will probably be getting a copy of the new version as well when it comes out. It sounds from the article like he’s revising it and updating it as well as reprinting it.

  2. Ailsa Ekon 01 Apr 2008 at 10:28 am

    I’ll be picking up a copy of the new edition as well. I hope he expands a bit on rice growing.

  3. Green Hill Farmon 01 Apr 2008 at 10:41 am

    I went to this yesterday:

    http://www.aspo-usa.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=338&Itemid=91

    It made PO seems so much more real hearing it in the state house.

    In the evening I went to a talk on olar.

    My husband disagreed with me when I said oil would never get to $60 again. He actually believes Po I just thinks he thinks its a ways away. He get his news from msm I get mine from the internet :).

    I also think I’ve got a bit of gender issues, I am desperate to feed everyone ).

    My pepper seeds don’t seem to be sprouting fast enough (they maybe be fine) and my potted lemon plant dropped it leaves :).

    I have more potential customers for the CSA and eggs than I have supply something that used to make me feel good in a “business” sort of way and now makes me sad.

    Grow, grow, grow I am trying :).

    Beth in Massachusetts

  4. Lisa Zon 01 Apr 2008 at 10:57 am

    Green Hill Farm–I get the gender thing too. I so strongly feel that my family WILL NOT GO HUNGRY! (sorry to yell there, but it’s a point to be emphasized.) I keep reminding myself of Scarlett O’Hara in GWTW. “With God as my witness, I will never go hungry again!” or something like that. Wasn’t she holding up a turnip or something when she said that? GWTW was a big favorite of mine when I was a kid.

    My husband is happy to go along with me on everything, but I think due to his gender he doesn’t feel the desperation I do.

  5. David J. McCartneyon 01 Apr 2008 at 11:16 am

    I have been stocking up on white rice, vacuum sealing it in 2 pound bags. I might try a mylar bag (sealed) in a 5 gal bucket with oxygen absorbers. Any thoughts if I a going overboard with these efforts?

    I realize brown rice would afford better nutritional value. Are there some guidelines for brown rice, with it’s tendency to go rancid - how to pack and how long it can be stored?

    Thanks - Dave

  6. Idaho Locavoreon 01 Apr 2008 at 11:33 am

    Re: Gender differences on PO and preps.

    I know this is a sweeping generalization (and will probably get me flamed) but I have noticed that men, IN GENERAL, tend to want to talk and debate an awful lot about all the political, scientific and statistical nuances of the PO situation and women tend to focus IN GENERAL on solving the thousands of practical issues that go with preparing a family to cope with the PO situation. That’s not saying there isn’t some crossover - Sharon does both, for example. But in general what I mostly see are the guys arguing all the “big picture” details and the women quietly doing more of the practical preparations.

    Maybe all the guys on some comment boards *are* spending as much time gardening and canning and researching bulk local foods and figuring out how to keep everyone clean and healthy and safe and how to cut back on consumption in general as rising food and energy costs consume more of our budgets as they are spending time “debating” but if they are, it’s sure not showing up in most of their posts! That’s why I don’t read many of these forums that often any more - I have completely lost my patience with the endless posturing and nit-picking that I see going on there every time I do visit. For my part, I’d love to see some indications that at least some of that argumentative energy is also being put to practical use in real life.

    Maybe I’m just reading all the wrong forums… *shrug*

  7. Fernon 01 Apr 2008 at 11:38 am

    Today I put in another blueberry bush, two grape vines, planted lots of turnips, and transplanted cabbage and broccoli seedlings to individual pots. Yesterday I harvested wild onions/chives, I’ll dry them today. Yesterday I also seeded the garden with lettuce. I sure hope we get real rain today - all my little 4 gallon buckets are empty, had to use tap water on the transplants!

    David - brown rice stores at least 18 months, stored airtight with oxygen absorbers, nitrogen, or dry ice treatments. I’d also store it in a cool place, if you can. I can’t, don’t have a basement here.

  8. Lisa Zon 01 Apr 2008 at 11:42 am

    Yeah, I know I made a sweeping gender generalization faux pas too, but it had hit me that I’m the one non-stop concerned about how we’re going to eat (even though my husband does most of the cooking around here) probably because I am the mom and my kids will not go hungry! Images of us starving, wasting away, keep entering my head and I just push them aside and order more beans and rice, etc. for the plastic buckets I’m accumulating. I know my husband is not hit with the same images, though I do think he worries about how to pay the bills more than I do. I know that if we lost all our possessions, house, etc. we’d be fine AS LONG AS WE HAVE FOOD TO EAT and a way to prepare it.

  9. Lisa Zon 01 Apr 2008 at 11:46 am

    Oh, and I should add I’m not exactly wracked with anxiety about all this. Worried, perhaps, but I’d say my attitude has become more FOCUSED than anxious. Thanks to Sharon and other internet sites with lots of info., I feel knowledgeable and able to prepare. This crisis has certainly given me a newfound focus, and for that I’m grateful.

    Do others of you feel the same? More urgent and focussed than anxious? I think that’s a good thing!

  10. Idaho Locavoreon 01 Apr 2008 at 12:18 pm

    Fern,

    Oh, you didn’t come across as anxiety-ridden. At least, I didn’t read it that way.

    I’m actually quite a bit calmer these days than I used to be. I figure that preparing for the worst is the most sensible thing I can do at this point, since so much seems to be going on and things seem to be getting worse at a rapidly increasing pace. But I have more or less given up on the idea that we can, with any degree of accuracy, predict the timing or the form of all the stages of collapse that our society will go through. It’s a very complex system we live in, and most folks don’t know much about what all keeps it RUNNING, let alone have enough understanding to know how it will choose to fall when and if it does. Debating the minutia in order to try to somehow get a jump on what’s coming can be diverting entertainment sometimes, but it’s probably not terribly useful in the long run and done to excess it wastes valuable time and energy. I think the bottom line is we’re all going to have to just get used to living with a whole lot more uncertainty in our lives than we would like to have.

    But in spite of this, for me at least, two things are pretty certain. First, life as I’ve known it up to this point is going to change, probably for the “worse” and more than likely in ways I will not expect. Second, these changes that are coming have already been set in motion and are almost entirely out of my control, but there are practical things that I can do now to prepare for at least some of it that will benefit me and my family in the future no matter what else happens. So that’s where my focus is resting now.

  11. Richard in Albanyon 01 Apr 2008 at 12:46 pm

    On an entirely different note, but related somewhat to the matter at hand–

    Sharon, have you heard about the Port of Albany approving an ethanol plant on its grounds?

    http://timesunion.com/AspStories/story.asp?storyID=677005&category=BUSINESS&BCCode=&newsdate=4/1/2008

    Kind of interesting to me given all the info I read about ethanol. 900 million gallons of water to be consumed to make 60 million gallons of ethanol. Hmm. I know it’s right on the Hudson, but it’s a mite disturbing, no?

  12. MEAon 01 Apr 2008 at 1:05 pm

    re: gender issue

    For a long time, men have talking about “supporting or providing for their families.” Has this changed, or it is now the making money is equated with supporting (i.e. we are divorced from the idea that providing food, etc. is the basis of providing for because we are divorced from the immediate production thereof — and there are people out there who don’t know milk comes from cows etc.) that these men who are more concerned with debating than beans, don’t realize that by ditching the beans they aren’t supporting their families?

  13. Sharonon 01 Apr 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Richard - I’d seen a news item on this, but thank you for the link - that is disturbing. Staniford seems to have it right - no area is safe from the insane ethanol boom.

    I think that MEA is on to something - for both men and women in mainstream society. “Providing” means providing money, not meeting the needs themselves - and it is going to have to shift back.

    Sharon

  14. Rebeccaon 01 Apr 2008 at 1:41 pm

    I’m one of those people who has been hungry in my life (pretty much all my life, until my last teen years) so to say I emphatize with that old Scarlett O’hara scene is a bit of an understatement. I’ve stored food all my adult life, and feel like I am in a bit of panic mode right now -because I see what’s coming and know what that’s like, and am absolutely determined that me and mine will NOT go hungry. Which explains the massive food pantry around here, obviously.

    Regarding food stamps, a lot of states disqualify anyone who owns their own house -even those who have a mortgage and negative equity. So there are a lot of hungry people here in this country who can’t even get that much help. Someone was on CNN this morning blasting the people getting food stamps and saying that it was their own fault and the government should cancel the program entirely. So what, they should just starve? I wanted to reach through the tv and strangle the man. It’s a good thing I don’t have cable; I thing I’d stay permanently angry at these idiots.

  15. Idaho Locavoreon 01 Apr 2008 at 1:47 pm

    MEA, I don’t know. My only view into these folks’ lives is through the rather distorted filter of their participation in an online forum. Judging from what I’ve seen, I’d guess much of the argumentative posting is more public posturing than anything else. I have no idea what is going on in the homes behind the posts - I just hope there is much less talk and a lot more action than what I see represented online, is all I can say.

  16. Rosaon 01 Apr 2008 at 2:32 pm

    My boyfriend is convinced someone is going to invent our way out of global warming. Somehow. Electric cars or something.

    In some ways, I think it’s part of the father programming in his backbrain that hit him hard when our son was born - he’s always been frugal, conservative (not politically, but by temperament), hard working, and very slow to change. The minute our son was born, each of those things went off tgheIt’s like becoming a father turned him into his own father, it’s kind of crazy.

    I’m not stockpiling, though (any more than usual - in college a girlfriend wandered around in my kitchen and said “are you preparing for a war?”). I’m doing my best to do my little bit to shrink my carbon footprint and make change in my neighborhood - part of that is learning skills like food storage and cold-weather survival, but more is building infrastructure and making political change.

    You can tell I’m getting middle-aged - I used to work to make change in my family and the world. My horizon has shrunk quite a bit.

  17. Sharonon 01 Apr 2008 at 3:12 pm

    I hope our horizons aren’t shrinking - but I think as long as we’re disempowered in a host of ways, we may have our biggest impact on very local scales. ;-).

    Sharon

  18. sglon 01 Apr 2008 at 4:35 pm

    MEA: “For a long time, men have talking about ’supporting or providing for their families.’ Has this changed, or it is now the making money is equated with supporting”

    I don’t think it’s just men, I think it’s men and women that have equated spending money with “security.” Part of the housing bubble was driven by this, and I believe a fair amount of that was driven by women, not men. See for example this blog entry here, (http://seattlebubble.com/blog/2007/08/22/suzanne-researched-this-part-2/) about the housing ad “Suzanne researched this” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ubsd-tWYmZw) I can imaging this was repeated many times across the US, and I imagine the marital stress escalating now that the housing bubble is obvious and the reluctant partner is getting angry. I’ve also seen on bearish financial forums, where they were well aware 5 yrs ago that housing was in a bubble, a decent number of posts lamenting not being able to convince the wife that buying a house right now wasn’t the wisest thing to do. (Mostly in FL & CA and similar bubbly areas, not in the midwest.)

    This may not be so pronounced among the readership of this blog, but among the general population I think it’s quite strong.

    –sgl

  19. Iowanon 01 Apr 2008 at 4:48 pm

    It’s going to get worse with corn:

    Farmers Expected to Plant Less Corn

    By MARY CLARE JALONICK

    WASHINGTON (AP) — Farmers are expected to plant less corn this year, which could mean continuing higher costs for consumers at the grocery store.

    Corn prices have skyrocketed in recent years, helped by the burgeoning ethanol industry, which turns the crop into fuel, and rising worldwide demand for food. The higher prices have hurt poultry, beef and pork companies, who use corn to feed their animals.

  20. Anon.on 01 Apr 2008 at 6:26 pm

    I’ve been feeling more and more worried lately and more and more helpless with no money to buy a home or land for any garden more substantial than my pots of herbs.

    I watched a 9-min excerpt from the documentary What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEi01NO6bzE) and it sums up all the fears that I can never really turn off (and added one! I’d never thought of the potential problem of coastal nuclear plants/waste when sea levels rise).

    This blog is inspiring and the most balanced, honest perspective on these issues I’ve yet to find, but honestly, I don’t even know what else to do. Efforts like recycling and compacting seem so minuscule in the grander scheme, and my political and economic power nil.

  21. Idaho Locavoreon 01 Apr 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Anon,

    “Efforts like recycling and compacting seem so minuscule in the grander scheme, and my political and economic power nil.”

    Well, it depends on why you are recycling. If you are recycling because you hope it will change global warming then you’re probably right - it’s a minuscule change and not likely to have much noticeable effect because most of the rest of the world isn’t going to join you and there are some who believe that it’s too late to do much to prevent it anyway.

    However, if you are recycling and doing what you can to live a simpler, more sustainable life now because that’s how you think you should live in the face of the challenges we’re facing as a species, then no - that is not a small thing. At the very least, it’s a step towards learning how to live a better, less wasteful life and that kind of change has value - and power - in and of itself.

  22. elnaon 02 Apr 2008 at 3:48 am

    As a 3rd world citizen (South Africa) its very sobering to see you (1st world citizens) so worried about the world we live in. When America stops its grain exports we will take the brunt. As one of two leading countries in Africa we are seen as the answer to good life. With a 30 - 50 % unemployment rate (as usual depending on which politician you listen to) we already have a lot of hungry people. My friends from town doesnt see farm life as the ‘thing to do’. I listen to them and pray in my heart that I will have enough food to help them out. With my two Jerseys, free range chickens and couple of Boer goats I believe I’ve got it made. My veggie is getting into shape. It is such a relieve to find other “weirddo worry-heads” like me!!

  23. Sharonon 02 Apr 2008 at 7:38 am

    Elna, I’m hoping we can stop the biofuel madness and keep the US exporting grains for some time to come - in fact, my guess it that the US may have to - because our grain exports may turn out to be the only thing of value we have left. But I don’t know if we can do it in time.

    Anon - that is a scary place to be. My own strategy for dealing with panic is to work - I write, I grow food, I volunteer. I think that may be the way to do this, to get out of panic mode. Richard Heinberg once said that people who sit in front of a computer tracking the bad news are miserable, but the people who know and understand the bad news, but are out in the community getting their hands dirty, they go around with smiles on their faces. That may be a slight exaggeration when talking about any individual person, but I think it is absolutely true - the cure for this is to find your part of the this work - whatever it is - and to do it, while also doing what you can for your family and community. The reality is that we’re rather like the last fairy godmothers to come to the Christening - we can’t take the curse away, we can only soften it a little. But thousands and millions of people softening - well, that’s something big.

    Its ok to be scared and upset - that’s part of the process.

    Sharon

  24. MEAon 02 Apr 2008 at 8:07 am

    You can always tell when my mother and I are worried about the state of the world: we find a bit more fabric, make a few bags for the MCC, and send off school or health (or, if we are feeling generous, newborn) kits. We’ve made 17 since last Sunday, and I’m scouring freecycle for more fabric.

    Suddenly, I can’t find plastic rulers in the dollar stores. Have we hit peak plastic rulers?

  25. Robinon 02 Apr 2008 at 4:59 pm

    It looks like Gene Lodgson is going to revise his book, so it might be awhile before it comes out again. I am looking forward eagerly to the new edition. The older version of his book can be downloaded here:

    http://www.soilandhealth.org

    for a small donation or even free if you really need it. Look under the Personal Sovereignty Library.

    This site has many amazing out of print guides to living the way we will be soon.

    Enjoy

    -Robin

  26. Beach Boyon 02 Apr 2008 at 5:04 pm

    Heads up! A mainstream economist has just noticed this issue:

    http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/02/grains-gone-wild/

    “The financial crisis gets most of the attention from the business press — but in terms of sheer human impact, the current food crisis may well be a bigger deal.”

    Perfect opportunity to help him understand it better. Particularly the link between Hubbert’s Peak of oil production + growing oil demand = rising oil prices => more incentive to divert agricultural feedstock into biofuels.

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