Archive for the 'poverty' Category

The Great Disconnect : Why Relocalization Prevents Hunger

Sharon May 28th, 2008

“I am worried about the decline of farming communities of all kinds because I think that among the practical consequences of that decline will sooner or later be hunger.” - Wendell Berry

I was struck yesterday by this news report about the problems food pantries are having with new needs and fewer donations.  Although the whole thing is disturbing the most disturbing part to me was this passage:

 ”‘If gas keeps going up, it’s going to be catastrophic in every possible way,’ said Ross Fraser, a spokesman for America’s Second Harvest.

Food banks sometimes have to move food 150 miles to a food pantry, he said.

‘You’re going to get to the point where they are going to have to decide whether it’s cheaper to just give a food pantry a check,’ he said. ‘The price of gasoline is going to drive the price of everything else.’”

This is troubling not just because of its wider truth, but because the problem being articulated was precisely the difficulty in the Great Depression.  There was again, plenty of food to be hand, but most people were too poor to buy it, and producers couldn’t get enough to make it worth bringing to market.  I recently included this in _A Nation of Farmers_ and was chilled by how strong the echoes were.

Oscar Emeringer, testifying before a Congressional subcommittee in 1932 described the paradox of “appalling overconsumption on one side and the staggering underconsumption on the other side…” and described wheat in Montana left unharvested because of low prices, thousands of bushels of apples rotting beside the road in Oregon, an Illinois farmer who killed 3,000 of his sheep in a fall, and threw their bodies into a canyon because the cost of shipping the sheep was greater than the cost of sale. In Chicago, men picked for rotting meat scraps through garbage cans.  He goes on to add, 

“The farmers are being pauperized by the poverty of industrial population and the industrial populations are being pauperized by the poverty of the farmers.  Neither has the money to buy the product of the other, hence we have overproduction and underconsumption at the same time and in the same country.”

But I might just as easily have begun with the pleas of a Chicago school Superintendent, who begged Congress for funding for schools.  11,000  school children had no food at all at home, and were being kept alive by a collection taken up by teachers and parents.  But the teachers had not been paid for 3 months, and their ability to keep their students alive was fading.  As summer approached, William J. Bogan pleaded with the Illinois Governor,
“For God’s sake, help us feed these children during the summer.”

We are not there yet, but this passage of the above article seems an early harbinger:

” In Baton Rouge, La., the public school system has found students hoarding their free and reduced-price lunches so they can bring them home and have something to eat at night.”

The nutritional value of school lunches has already declined due to the rising cost of food.  Now we stand on the cusp of the summer months, in which millions of American schoolchildren who used to be assured of a free breakfast and lunch will now have access only to park lunch programs that can feed a tiny percentage of them. 

The way market forces and economies of scale prevent producers and consumers from connecting in hard times may well be the single best argument for a relocalized agriculture.  The scale of industrial production, in which food is transmitted long distances, advanced purchased on contract and unavailable to million and billions of poor people is destructive all the time - but it is acutely destructive in times of energy shortage and high prices. 

If we can bring food production into the cities and suburbs, getting as many lawns as possible covered with gardens, as many balconies and rooftops covered with containers, if we can bring food production back to the near areas of those regions, there is hope for those who eat and those who grow to come together in ways that are mutually beneficial.  If not, as energy prices rise and food prices move out of reach of more and more people, things, as they say, fall apart.  As they already are for the poor.



Break Up with Your Utility Companies - or Get Dumped!

Sharon May 7th, 2008

So I spent almost $2000 today - to fill up our oil tank.  We heat primarily with wood, but use oil as a back-up system to keep the pipes from freezing, and occasionally on days when we’re going to be out for an extended period.  Our hot water is also heated with oil.  For whatever reason, most oil heat in the US is in the Northeast, mostly in towns beyond gas lines like mine.  I suspect today’s purchase may well be the last tank of heating oil we ever buy.

Now at our comparatively low rate of use I can expect 400 gallons of oil (at $4.13 gallon) to last us at least three years.  Could we do without it entirely?  Absolutely - but it is a nice cushion - I’m fond of the occasional hot shower, and it means on occasional busy days when we’re out, we don’t have bank the stove for extended periods (and thus create more particulate emissions).  It acts as insurance so that the pipes don’t freeze when we’re away.  And it means my mother doesn’t have to dress up like the Michelin man to sleep in the back bedrooms the stove doesn’t reach when she’s visiting in the winter.  Although at these prices, Mom might have to suck it up, or we’ll move a futon in near the stove.

Since I don’t think oil prices are going down anytime soon, and various sources in the know including OPEC and Goldman-Sachs are predicting $200 barrel oil by the end of this year, this actually doesn’t look like a bad deal.  And as I said, there’s a good chance this is our last tank.

The combination of laying out such a huge sum and Gail the Actuary’s latest article on the frailties of the electric grid got me thinking more about an article I wrote a couple of years ago.  In “It isn’t Gridcrash that Makes the Lights Go Out.”  In it, I argued that most of us should prepare for life without electricity, not because of a fear of the loss of the grid  (although certainly that’s a possibility as Gail point out) but because of a real likelihood that we may not be able to afford the electric bill.  Unfortunately, I think this prediction is more true now than it was when I wrote the original essay.

Looking at my 2K oil bill, I can forsee what is going to happen to large numbers of my neighbors around their oil and gas bills.  It started this winter.  Around here, the minimum oil deliveries are 100-125 gallons - it isn’t worth their while to haul out the truck to give you 25 gallons.  But as 100 gallons starts to cost 300 or 350 dollars, it becomes less and less likely that low income families can come up with that amount, much less fill a large oil tank. 

And most of them don’t see a tank lasting 2 years - the average American household in my region (where our record low is -30) uses almost 600 gallons a year.  By fall, if oil prices continue to rise (and there’s no evidence whatsoever that demand will fall, and a good bit of evidence that producers can’t produce more), which seems extremely likely, heating oil is likely to rise to between $5 and $6 per gallon.  That would make even a bridge delivery of 100 gallons cost much of the monthly paycheck for a working class family.  Hell, it would pretty much all of our discretionary income.  And since most families use about $100 a month, that’s going to be a big deal.  Already, 16% of all Americans plan to use their tax rebates to pay utility bills.  Stephen B. reports over at ROE2 that 10% of all National Grid customers are presently more than 3 months behind on electric bills, and natural gas is in similar shape.

What that means is that the 8% of Americans who heat with oil are likely to be casting around for options to allow them to both eat and keep tolerably warm.  That probably means electric space heaters and wood heat.  But with wood up at $250 a cord or more in many areas, electric prices rising steadily as well, and capacity tight, tens of thousands of new high demand electric heaters are likely to present problems - both for the private users and for the electric infrastructure as a whole.   As Gail Tverberg’s article suggests, particularly in areas like the Northeast corridor where the grid is already vulnerable, the addition of these loads may represent a real threat to grid stability.  Any modernization or added capacity will likely bring prices higher.

The cost of natural gas has also risen over the last few years, with mild winters helping to keep this from entering a crisis situation.  But North American gas is already past its peak according to Julian Darley, author of _High Noon for Natural Gas_, and over the coming years, there are likely to be sharp price rises and competition with Canadians, who, not unreasonably, would like to use their gas for home heating too.   Trade requirements now have Canada selling most of its natural gas to the US - but one cold winter in which Canadian needs can’t be met is likely to lead to a change in that situation - and if Americans have to rely on their own natural gas, prices will be vastly higher and supply much lower.  It is also worth noting the vast rise in proposed new natural gas electric generating plants - we are building our electric capacity based on gas supplies that aren’t terribly secure.

Meanwhile, as people turn to other utilities, replacing their oil bills with natural gas or electric bills, the number of people who are struggle to get by is set to rise for a whole host of reasons - higher food prices, rising unemployment, the stripping of benefits from jobs, rising medical costs for aging baby boomers - the whole shebang. And that means less ability to pay new bills.  And that means indebtedness to utility companies.  And that means shut offs.  This is likely to be especially acute in cold climate areas, but the American South uses more energy than the North does, and is generally poorer, so this is pretty much an equal opportunity problem, with different periods of seasonal crisis.

Getting shut off is easy.  Getting put back on is hard - there are hefty fees from your utility company.  Some places charge interest on overdue accounts.   There are a whole host of ways that once you are in the hole, it is very, very hard to climb out.  Many of us will get into the hole, and some will come out, while others will be stuck there.

 What we are seeing is the beginning of the end of many American’s relationship to public utilities.  As the costs of food and gasoline rise, and as benefits disappear and medical costs overwhelm many families, people are about to come hard against the costs of their fossil fueled lifestyle.  At first, this will be the poor, as is already happening - I’ve reported on the “Heat or Eat” crisis several times.  But it isn’t just heat - that’s just one canary in the coalmine.  The thing is, people struggling to get by tend to pay their bills in rotation, trying never to get far enough behind on any one bill to have a crisis.  But that kind of juggling is often disrupted - unforseen expenses always arise -  and often there’s a cascade effect, since all the bills are growingly large and somewhat overdue…  It doesn’t take much to lose heat and power and gas.

If you listen to the news reports, it sounds as though the economy is stabilizing, like we’re near the bottom.  Don’t worry, we’re told.  But it is worth noting that almost everything that we’re seeing now represents, at one level or another, the selling off of things that have in the past had value, often at very low prices.  Last year, I suggested that the new economy was going to based on bottom feeding - scavenging off the leavings of our prior wealth. I see nothing in the news reports that suggests I was wrong - both the highest levels of finance and the lowest are showing the same things - the repackaging of increasingly worthless assets for sale at pennies on the dollar.   There are already reports coming in of people stripping their attics of prized possessions and selling off anything they have, just to pay for basic bills.  Pawnshops are doing a booming business. It seems mostly as though the economy is staggering along, but whether you are repackaging worthless commercial assets, worthless luxury vehicles or worthless tvs, they all add up to…worthless in the most literal sense.  The days of keeping the bills paid this way are numbered.  The days of home equity loans are pretty much over, as almost half of recent homebuyers now have no or negative equity.  There’s simply nothing left - and when there’s nothing left and the money doesn’t meet the end of the month, off go the lights, and the heat, and the gas.

For now, it is mostly the working poor leading the way.  But it won’t stay that way. Most Americans live beyond their means - statistically, we spend about 5% more than we make.  Middle class Americans aren’t going to be able to eat the food bill, the heating bill, the electric bill, the mortage that isn’t worth much… something will have to give.  Fuel subsidy programs are already stretched - and a winter’s worth of fuel subsidies available to any household out here is good for about 3 weeks of heating at these prices.  Many of us are about to face the reality that we’re not that middle class.

What gives will be different for different people.  Some people will leave their homes, and some will consolidate, moving in with family.  Lots of people will skip meals - and their kids will go hungry to school.  And many will lose the utilities and attempt to compensate - they’ll spend more eating out, because there’s no gas to cook with on the stove, or eat only microwave meals, or things in bags and cold cans of food.  A few will get desperate enough to do things like bring in the charcoal grill and asphyxiate themselves.  The same goes for heat and light - people will cobble together bad solutions, and some people’s solutions will be bad enough that they do real harm - to themselves, of course, but it won’t be limited to themselves.  The fires in urban rentals won’t just destroy the homes of the cold and hungry, but their neighbors too.  And the costs of dealing with disaster after disaster will eat up city budgets - there’s no such thing as a crisis without unintended consequences.

As more and more of us can’t afford our relationship with our utility companies, we’re going to break up like we’re on a bad date.  And since there’s no money in the budget for the mass reinsulation of 90 million homes, or the subsidizing of fuel and electricity on the scale that Americans use it, we have two choices.  We can break up with our utility companies only when we’re massively indebted and when we’ve already sacrificed dinner and home and other security to try and keep the lights on and the heat running, or we can do it wisely, and break up before the crisis gets acute.

That means adapting our homes to live without them.  It isn’t easy - but for the 2000 bucks I spent on oil, many people could get the basic framework of non-electric living in place.  And we could subsidize these things just as we subsidize solar or wind power - instead of giving people tax breaks for buying pv panels, we could give them tax breaks for buying things to enable them to live without them.  Because while PV is great, it is demonstrably far too expensive for anyone struggling to pay their utility bills - and a lot of people who aren’t. 

$2000 will get you a wood, corn or pellet stove, two solar powered battery chargers and batteries for flashlights and table lamps, and for your CD player or ipod.  It’ll get you cardboard and tinfoil enough to make a solar oven for warm weather, and  you can put stew on the back of the stove in winter.  Depending on the size of your house and your needs, you might have enough left over for long johns, or a couple of personal battery powered fans.  It isn’t ideal, but you’ll have light, heat and food.

Another $40 will get you a tiny washer that you can do easily by hand, but a bucket and plunger will do.  If you don’t have water, you’ll need money for a well pump, a cistern, lots of rain barrels or some other water solution - and this will probably cost more.  But maybe if money is tight you can work on making the water solution collective - most places around the world have central water, and everyone walks over, chats at the well, and carries their jugs back. 

Is $2000 out of the question?  Well, how about $300 in long johns, battery chargers, down comforters and a few small electric appliances - a tiny efficient space heater to take the edge off of the room you are in and a microwave to ensure copious hot tea?  You can live without heating or cooling - no one has to freeze or die of heat stroke.   The simple fact is that we’re not going to be able to afford even these preparations once we get further and further in debt to the purveyors of fossil fuels - the abrupt transfer to the low energy lifestyle, without any preparation, is what I’d like to see everyone avoid.

The grid may or may not be there.  There may or may not be imported heating oil, or Canadian natural gas coming through your pipes.  Your utilities company may or may not still be in business.  But what is almost certain is that the present trajectory means that more and more of us are going to have to reconsider our usage - and many of us aren’t going to be using any at all.   


The Mirror, Not Malthus: The Hunger Crisis and the Illusion of Scarcity

Sharon April 17th, 2008

Perhaps you saw the recent UNESCO report on the future of agriculture .  It calls for a major paradigm shift in agriculture, away from fossil fuels, towards organic agriculture and greater equity of distribution.  Wow, I wonder why I didn’t think of that ;-)? 

Seriously, this is the largest single report ever to tell us what we already knew - that ”the status quo is not an option.”  That is, we cannot go into the future as we are.  We all know this on some level. 

But until now, the larger narrative has been that we will rely on some magical technology - genetic engineering or a new green revolution - to create food in such abundance that we do not have constrain our appetites.  Although the UNESCO report dances around some of the central issues, it is also true that they admit that the solution is both simpler and more complicated - work on food justice.  Get the fossil fuels warming the world out of agriculture.  In the meantime, get the rich nations to pay for the food desperately needed in the poor world.

It seems so obvious - but the fact that a major institution like the IAASTD is actually calling for fewer fossil fuels and more equity represents the beginning of a sea change - and change that couldn’t possibly happen fast enough.

Even ignoring the fact that various institutions supported by UNESCO have helped create the mess we’re in, promoting fossil fueled agriculture and globalized markets, and ignoring the fact that despite widespread public perception the reality that organic agriculture can match yields has been widely known for some years, this is still a move forward.  But again, not fast enough.

Consider this report from a group of nurses just returned from a humanitarian mission in Haiti:

“The nurses saw firsthand desperate lives made worse by the world food crisis.

“It is incredibly astounding … having a family sit in front of you and have the mother offer you the baby in arms - and the baby is 8, 9 pounds - and be told that child is 2 ½ years old,” Tinker said.

“Everyone is malnourished.”

The food crisis only worsens the desperate circumstances of this poorest-of-the-poor nation.

Children with stick-like limbs arrive at the clinic listless and with distended stomachs. Common worms “take what little nutrients these starving people can give themselves,” Tinker said.”

I have a two and a half year old.  Asher weighs 27 lbs.  I don’t think there’s a better way of understanding the food crisis than to look at your own child, or your grandchild, a nephew or a niece or a neighbor’s child, and ask “how would I feel if this were my child?”  In fact, most of the world’s faiths would argue that their children *are* our children - that there can be no difference. 

I hope the answer to how you feel  is not just sad - I think this is an excellent reason to weep, but I don’t want anyone to stop with weeping - anger and outrage are the appropriate reactions, and we need more anger of the sort that moves us forward.  In fact, the poor are furious - riots are breaking out all over the world.  The victims of our affluence are not fools. They know they are being “massacred” as one UN report put it. 

And we should be equally angry - both because what can be done to poor Haitians can also be done to our “own” (I never have been clear on why American children are supposed to be mine, when the rest of the world’s aren’t, but we’ll use the conventions) children under the current system (they already are, as I reported this winter), and because THERE IS NO SHORTAGE!!!  It would be terrible if this were happening in times of absolute shortage, if there really wasn’t enough food to go around.  But that’s not true - there is plenty of food for the whole world- the world is overflowing in food.  The problem is entirely one of distribution, and of the indifference of the affluent. 

 The term “Malthusian” gets tossed around a lot lately - my doctoral dissertation was on population and literature, and part of it was specifically about Old Thomas Malthus and his idea.  So let me offer that point to say that “Malthusian” is precisely the wrong word to use here - Malthus was speaking of the problem of food supplies meeting rising population’s demand, but he was talking about absolute scarcity, something we are not experiencing.  The essay cited above uses it:

This Malthusian crunch has been building for a long time. We are adding 73m mouths a year. The global population will grow from 6.5bn to 9.5bn before peaking near mid-century.

Asia’s bourgeoisie is switching to an animal-based diet. If they follow the Japanese, protein-intake will rise by nine times. It takes 8.3 grams of corn feed to produce a 1g of beef, or 3.1g for pork.

China’s meat demand has risen to 50kg per capita from 20kg in 1980, but this has been gradual. The FAO insists that this dietary shift is “not the cause of the sudden food price spike that began in 2005″.

Hedge funds played their part in the violent rise in spot prices early this year. To that extent they can be held responsible for the death of African and Asian children. Tougher margin rules on the commodity exchanges might have stopped the racket. Capitalism must police itself, or be policed.

Even so, the funds closed their killer “long” trades in early March, causing a brief 20pc mini-crash in grains. The speculators are now neutral on the COMEX casino in New York.”

Hedge fund speculation and meat consumption were simply not what Malthus was worried about.  Malthus was aware of the problem of inequity, but he argued that it was dwarfed by the problem of population pressure - in this case, that’s the exact reverse of our present situation.  That is, population pressure is causing difficulties - but population growth rates are quite stable, and cannot account for the doubling of grain prices every 18 months. 

It is not that population is not a growing issue - at some point in the future we will almost certainly encounter this question of absolute limits - but this is not the root cause of our present disaster, and every time we pretend that the issue is primarily population (which is growing most among the poor),  we are lying to ourselves - moreover we are telling ourselves that the problem is someone else’s fault.  We’re going to have to ask ourselves harder questions - do I want that burger enough to justify a 9lb 2 1/2 year old? Do I really need to go to soccer practice that badly?

Look at the names on the table.  Niger.  Liberia.  Eritrea.  Botswana. Haiti. Bangladesh - they are small nations that rely on imports to feed themselves.  100 million people are quickly sliding towards death in those nations - and they will, rightly, decline to slide quietly. They sound like far away places.  They have always had their troubles - and yet millions of people who survived global warming, war, poverty are now meeting the one thing they cannot survive - our appetites.

 Waiting in the wings, with its poor on the fast track to starvation are more nations - India, the Phillippines, North Korea, Mexico, Egypt, Pakistan.  Note how many of those nations have strategic importance for us or hold nuclear weapons.  It is a fantasy to believe that we can allow this to happen and not pay a price.

And if this were a Malthusian world of real scarcity, we might be able to say that we cannot do anything about this.  But as Greenpa points out, that’s errant nonsense.  We could very easily prevent this tragedy.  There is plenty of wealth in the rich world to feed the hungry. We could stop hedge fund speculation about food.  We could stop eating so much meat.  We could stop making biofuels.  We could stop.

But that would require that we care in a deep way - not in the way we’ve become accustomed to, of thinking “Oh, how terrible” and then “oh, someone should do something about that.”  It is time for all of us to let our moral rubber hit the road, and recognize that more is being asked of us than simply to think something is very sad.  This is a crime of our creating - and we have the power to stop it.

 How?  As Greenpa suggests, call your representatives and talk to them about biofuels and food speculators.  Cut the meat back in your diet, and focus on meat that is raised without the use of human food - that is fed on grass.  The rest of the time, go vegetarian.  And most of all, get to work raising awareness in your community, raising funds for hunger relief, and making it clear to people that this isn’t happening because of something we cannot control, the spectre of Malthus rising - that’s a longer term problem, and one we have to deal with.  But this crisis is one Malthus never foresaw, and the root causes look back from the mirror.

Seven Fat Cows, Seven Thin Cows: Hoarding and Storing the Seeds of Deliverance

Sharon April 6th, 2008

Most of us raised in a Biblical religion have some vague memory of the story of Joseph and his brothers, if only from the Donny Osmond musical.   Genesis 39-47 will refresh your memory if you are interested in the details.  In the story, Joseph who was sold into Egypt becomes the powerful advisor of Pharoah, who is having bad dreams.  In one of the dreams, Pharoah dreams of seven fat cows, devoured by seven starving cows.  In the second, seven ripe, healthy sheaves of wheat are devoured by seven shrivelled, dry ones.  Joseph correctly predicts that this means,

“Immediately ahead are seven years of great abundance in all the land of Egypt.  After them will come seven years of famine and all the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten.  As the land is ravaged by famine, no trace of the abundance will be left in the land…And let Pharoah take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and organize by taking a fifth part of the land’s produce in the seven years of plenty.  Let all the food of those good years that are coming be gathered and let the grian be collected under Pharoah’s authority as food to be stored in cities.  Let that food be a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will come upon the land of Egypt, so that the land may not perish in the famine.”

Joseph’s understanding and forethought enable Egyptians, and ultimately his own family to survive the famine, in which “…there was no bread in all the world.“ 

One of the fascinating things about the way that this story is told is the linguistic linking of land and people here - that is, we are told that we should store food so that “the land may not perish.”  Of course, this means the people of the land, but it also is a reminder that famine is enormously destructive to the land itself - in the face of famine, land that should not be cultivated is brought into cultivation (we are seeing this already in the US as Crop Protection Land is brought into production and elsewhere as the world’s poor are pressed onto increasingly marginal land), and desperately hungry people will eat whatever they can, including protected animals and plants.  Famine isn’t just destructive to the hungry, but to the earth they devastate in the quest for food.  In a real sense, the preservation of the people can be the preservation of the land itself.

Whatever anyone can say about Pharoahs ;-), this one seems to have a laudible sense of obligation to his own populace - a sense of obligation that wildly exceeds the leaders of many nations, who have allowed stockpiles to collapse in times of comparative prosperity.  Right now world grain reserves are well below what is considered to be a “safe” level to keep populations fed in a time of shortage - and this can be seen by the concern that nations are showing about expanding and safeguarding what reserves they do have in the present crisis.  For example, Thailand recently announced it will not consider selling grain from its stockpiles, and the Philippines negotiated a deal with the US and Vietnam to buy a large reserve.

I bring this up not to make you feel like you are back in Sunday school, but because of a Washington Post article I just read, which struck me because while it is perfectly possible that this is an accident, what purports to be a news story about fears of unrest caused by high grain prices, particularly rice, turns out to have what looks like a strong propaganda component, warning people about the danger of stockpiling grain. 

Cambodian Finance Minister Keat Chhon last week called for people to be calm. He urged them “not to stock up on foods, which could make the situation even harder.”

Some experts say that building reserves to protect against future shortages only makes the problem worse.

‘Of course, if every country, or individual consumer, acts the same way, the hoarding causes a panic and extreme shortage in markets, leading to rapidly rising prices,” said Peter Timmer, a visiting professor at Stanford University’s program on food security and the environment.

For example, he said, “the newly elected populist government in Thailand did not want consumer prices for rice to go up, so they started talking about export restrictions from Thailand, the world’s largest rice exporter. . . . So last Friday, rice prices in Thailand jumped $75 per metric ton. This is the stuff of panics.” “

Now there is some real truth here - if billions of people attempt to build up a food reserve in a time of short supplies, they will make the situation worse, driving up prices and increasing shortages.  It is also true, however, that the root cause of these shortages is not people trying to buy now so that they can be sure that they will have rice to eat if the price continues to jump (it went up by 10% on Friday alone).  The problem is a combination of climate change, aquifer depletion (especially in China) and biofuels growth - with a heavy emphasis on that last one.  

Now the difference between hoarding and stockpiling is this - once you are already in a crisis AND there is a meaningful and rational system for ensuring people have access to food, building up stores can disrupt the existing system and its fairness.  This is hoarding, and it is problematic.  That is, if there’s just enough rice to around, *and it is going around in a fairly just way*  those who are wealthy enough to build up private stocks can disrupt the system, and shouldn’t.  That, however is not the case now.  First of all, there’s more than enough food to go around, and second of all, justice has not been the major concern.

How do we know this?  Well, in 2007, the world produced enough calories to feed everyone in the world half again more calories in grain than they need.  With 6.6 billion people, we could feed 1/3 more people, raising the world’s population up to 10 million on present agricultural yields of grain alone - this excludes all vegetables, fruits, grass fed meats and forageable plants.   That is, right now we are not experiencing shortages of food in any absolute sense.

This, I think is a deeply important point.  When I observe things like this, people usually not that there is no such thing as perfectly fair food distribution, and that is, of course true. It is also true that we are so far away from even a remotely just system of distribution that if we could even approximate a level of concern for the world’s populace that exeeded our concern for our cars, I’d be happy.  The reality is that rich people eat three times - they eat some grain.  Then they eat meat, fed on enough grain to feed an ordinary person many times over, and then they feed their cars, their pets, the birds and occasionally burn some grain and legumes in their stoves.  We entirely lack a system that simply says “humans get the first products of agricultural labor” - that is, that people outrank the cars, dogs, and desire for steak of the average rich world denizen. 

Building up supplies in times of comparative prosperity and surplus is not hoarding - it is simply a wise idea, and has been since Pharoah and Joseph were doing it.  Keeping a solid reserve of food means that you are not as vulnerable to disruptions and crises.  But national stockpiles have been falling steadily for the last decade, with world reserves presently at their lowest since records have been kept.  Just as we’re not saving money any more, we are not presently reserving our staple foods for hard times.   

Not only is building supplies in times of comparative prosperity morally ok, it is not ethically speaking hoarding if there is no system of equitable distribution.  That is, hoarding is the retention of food stores *when things are being distributed fairly* that disrupts an already fair system.  Hoarding is not an accurate way to describe the attempt of desperately poor and hungry people to make sure that they are a little less desperately poor and hungry next week, nor is stockpiling an unreasonable response to a crisis in which there is no just system of making sure that the hungry are fed.  In that case, when governments and larger institutions are not ensuring fair distribution, it is more than reasonable for people to try and make sure they and theirs are fed.  Can this cause problems?  Absolutely.  Is this root cause of present problems, and should those who inadvertantly exacerbate problems with deeper root causes be held up as responsible?  Hell no. 

There are some food sources, notably rice, that are experiencing absolute food shortages.  But food in general is plentiful - so what’s the problem?  Well, Lester Brown announced yesterday that the total amount of US biofuels production could have fed *250 million* people every bite of grain they needed for a year.  Think hard about that fact next time you are in the market for some E10.   Note, however, that the UN and World Bank, both primary enthusiasts of the world biofuels boom, are arguing that we should give more money to the World Food Program (and we should - they are already desperate and things are only going to get worse), but not that we should stop biofuel production.   The one bright spot in what is otherwise a humanitarian and ecological disaster is that Germany seems finally ready to slow the madness - it announced earlier this week that it would remove its own ethanol mandate.  Here’s hoping that that’s the first in a trend!

This is, I think, an important point because articles like the one I cited above suggest that a great deal more of the responsibility rests on poor rice consumers than is just.  Years of being taught to read closely makes me think that the Washington Post article is more than just a piece of reporting - that is, its level of balance on the subject of stockpiling is low - there is no discussion about, for example, how those who bought rice before the price jump are doing in comparison to others, or why government and world reserves are as low as they are - and whether consumers have the right to compensate for absent state stockpiles of staples.  Other than one brief mention of biofuels there is no discussion of rich world hoarding in the form of meat consumption or reduced exports because of biofuels.

The extended discussion of individual hoarding, which takes up nearly half the article, implies that political unrest is primarily caused by governments acknowledging their is a problem, and by people who want to eat trying to continue doing so.  Moreover, while I hate to get all conspiracy-theoryish, I cannot help thinking that such an extended discussion of stockpiling in an article that is supposed to be primarily about political unrest due to food prices (and it isn’t like there isn’t anything to write about on that subject) is also beginning to create an American anti-stockpiling narrative. 

I’ve had several people email me recently about the ethics of building stockpiles during a time of famine.  And I agree, were we really seeing extremely tight supplies of grains, and a system for just distribution, it would be perfectly reasonable to expect to work with it, and limit reserve building right now.  But that is not the case - we are presently seeing a vast excess of grain production - mostly going straight into gas tanks and CAFO meat.  As economist Amartya Sen has observed, famines are usually about access to food, not absolute supply.  Well, for billions of people in the poor world and millions in America can walk into stores filled to overflowing with food - and cannot touch any of it, because they cannot afford it.  It is that experience of hunger in a world of plenty that millions of people are experiencing for the first time now. 

Moreover, the kind of stockpiling most of the people I’m talking about are doing is not only ok, it is great for the development of local food systems.  People are searching out local grain and legume growers, and buying direct, or at worst, buying direct when possible from small scale producers in someone else’s locality.  There are, of course, people who can’t do that - but generally speaking, most of my readers with extra money are essentially investing it in local staple food systems, and that is an extremely good use of money.

Even if you are not able to buy local and organic, you should remember that your use of food is the real purpose of the food - you aren’t buying your grains to feed to feedlot cows, or to burn in your car.  You are buying food to *EAT* it.  Eaters should always have first rights to food. Moreover, those of us who are concerned about the failure of our nations or regions to stockpile food during our fat years have a reason and a responsibility to take on that role for themselves.

The thing is, organizing and keeping grain reserves is one of those “comparatively good uses for government” things.  Thus, moves by nations to stabilize or increase their reserves, while a day late or a dollar short, again, are not the root problem - yes, they are driving short term price rises. But they are also responding, not to an imaginary problem, but to the real danger that people will starve to death and die.  Market analysts who talk about the problem of people holding back food and creating subsidies are ignoring the fact that nations are responding because a substantial portion of their populace is in danger of death from hunger and hunger related disease.

“To calm increasingly concerned Chinese consumers — for whom prices rose 8.7 percent in February from a year earlier, the biggest increase in 12 years — the government froze the prices of some grains, meat and eggs. Premier Wen Jiabao announced this week that China is largely self-sufficient in rice production and has stockpiled 40 to 50 million tons of rice.

The Chinese government also has run picture after picture in local newspapers of its “strategic reserves” of frozen meat, sacks of grain and barrels of cooking oil.”

Today a San Francisco Chronicle editorial argued that “hoarding” only makes things worse for everyone.   In The Times of India, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria argues that “national hoarding” or curbing exports is itself a major problem, and that governments should not try to mitigate hunger by restraining exports.

“The lesson is clear. Curbing exports is a form of national hoarding. If every country tries to hoard food, food prices will naturally rise. Governments would like to believe that hoarding by traders is terrible, whereas hoarding by governments promotes the public interest. But the impact on prices is exactly the same in both cases. Indeed, when governments start to hoard food out of panic, the panic itself stokes further inflationary fears.

That is why I am not optimistic about the Indian government’s anti-inflation package. The government thinks it is improving domestic supplies and hence bringing down prices. In fact the government is adding to the global hoarding problem, and stoking panic too. So, expect food inflation to keep rising in coming months.

When and how will it end? The roots of today’s food inflation are global, and cannot be tackled by the Indian government in isolation. Inflation will come down only when world food production rises, and world prices fall. That cannot happen immediately. “

But implicit in this assumption is the belief that it would be better to let some people starve than to start the cycle of driving up prices, or having governments stabilize them.  This is a form of free market orthodoxy that doesn’t tolerate any dissent - people dropping dead of starvation?  Well, the solution is to let the market handle it, which, of course, it will - in due course.  Pay no attention to the corpses on the side of the road.  Wanting people to eat and worrying they won’t, well, that’s a form of panic!  Crazy, crazy panic.

This orthodoxy  also does not distinguish between forms of national hoarding - storing the food your country produces to feed its population is described as national hoarding - but no such description is given to the production of biofuels, almost always used within nations, to feed the cars of people who are already well fed.  If there is a form of hoarding going on, it can be best seen in ethanol and other grain production - we are hoarding our food for our cars.  We could make the same about meat production - heavy meat consumption results in the removal of potential exports from markets that, in this case, desperately need them.

Worldwide, the costs are already rising in human terms.  The UK Guardian reports:

Cameroon At least 24 people killed and 1,600 people arrested in February. Taxes slashed on food imports and public sector wages increased by 15%.

Indonesia 10,000 demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Jakarta after soya bean prices rose more than 50% in a month and more than 125% over the past year.

Egypt Seven people have died in fights or of exhaustion queuing for subsidised bread. Dairy products are up 20%, oil 40%.

Burkina Faso Riots in three towns after the government promised to control the price of food but failed.

Guinea Five anti-government riots over cost of living in past 18 months.

Pakistan Thousands of troops have been deployed to guard trucks carrying wheat and flour.”

Earlier this week, the World Food Program head reported in Ethiopia that the problem is not absolute shortages, but growing urban hunger, as urban dwellers, pushed off the land by globalized practices of food dumping and now dependent on imported food, can no longer buy it.  African nations that were once nearly food self-sufficient now depend on cheap imports for 40% or more of their food - and there are no more cheap imports.

So should you stop buying food to store?  No.  What you should stop doing, if you haven’t already is this.  Stop eating CAFO meat - period.  Don’t buy any meat that isn’t grassfed and local, and sustainably raised.  Go vegetarian if you can’t get good local meat.  And everyone who has more than they need needs to both redouble their charitable giving and their advocacy against biofuel growth.  But don’t be ashamed of feeding your family, or planning ahead for tight supplies - instead, donate what you can so that someone in Asia or Africa can buy a little extra for their families.  Let the cars worry about whether there will be enough grain in reserve.  If you want to help stop biofuels growth, consider signing this petition and supporting the work of Food First and other groups trying to stop the conversion of human food to car food.

There is a Mishnah (a Rabbinical expansion of a Biblical Story) that says that after Joseph and his brothers were reunited, Jacob and his sons made their way to Egypt where there was food in the famine.  On the way to Egypt, one day, Jacob awakens and tells his sons to get up and plant cedars in the desert.  They ask him why?  And Jacob answers that someday they will come out of Egypt again at the end of some terrible times, and when they do, their descendents will need those cedars.  “So rise up now and plant seeds.  For you are planting on this day the seeds of your own deliverance”

If you want to help in the world food crisis, give what you can, protest biofuels,  and eat lower on the food chain.  And at the same time,  turn your efforts, the work of your hands and heart and time and energy to doing as Jacob and his sons did - planting seeds, the seeds of our own deliverance.  The time is not so far that we will need them.


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.


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