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.


27 Responses to “Seven Fat Cows, Seven Thin Cows: Hoarding and Storing the Seeds of Deliverance”

  1. Wise Old Woman Traineeon 06 Apr 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Today, like my painting Shock and Dismay, I really don’t know how to put into words my reaction to your post. I truly thought we were still in the plentiful years with lots of time to get ready. I’m also dismayed that the concept of storage equates to hoarding. I never expected that.

  2. Lynneton 06 Apr 2008 at 4:10 pm

    What can we do to avoid ethanol fuel? It is hidden in our gasoline, mandated by the Government (which hasn’t paid any attention to me in 7 years at least).

    I speak out against it every chance I get, but I feel pretty helpless about turning this around.

  3. Lisa Zon 06 Apr 2008 at 4:29 pm

    Avoid E10? In Minnesota we’ve had govt.-mandated E10 for years. It’s E85 they’re pushing now. “Clean burning”, “supports our farmers”, blah blah blah. Since E85 gets 20-30% less fuel efficiency, we said forget it long ago, even before the food implications came to light.

    Our Governor, Tim Pawlenty, is the worst E85 pusher ever. If you see him on the presidential ticket this fall (with McCain), be sure and vote for anyone else! He’ll do his best to try and wreck the country (if it can be further ruined), just as he’s done to Minnesota. (sorry to get political there…)

    I guess since we have E10 in all our gasoline, the best way for us to avoid it is to drive far, far less. We’re trying!

  4. Susan in NJon 06 Apr 2008 at 4:37 pm

    I read that same WP article and thought it had a “don’t hoard” propaganda-ish message also.

  5. desert raton 06 Apr 2008 at 4:52 pm

    Stockpiling is an essentially moral act because it involves acceptance of responsibility - acknowledging God’s gifts in the present by preparing for your own and others’ future. Indulgence and the live-for-today mentality are at best presumptuous and at worst a form of bitterness - like gambling, a refusal to save when it is within your means can be a way of saying what God has given now is not enough; we’re entitled to all that and more - so gobble it all up and then break out the plastic card. Once you get used to it stockpiling provides MORE opportunities for giving since it enables you to lower your expenses- you can get quantity discounts,time the sales at the grocery store, avoid impulse buying. It also tends to channel your purchases into simpler, less processed, and healthier foods. Of course you forgot to mention the one form of stockpiling Americans ( myself included) still excel at — the kind that provides the best protection against accidental loss, theft, or government confiscation - heading down to the all you can eat restaurant and building up a good middle-range Strategic Calorie Reserve (SCR) around your, um, middle.

  6. Rebeccaon 06 Apr 2008 at 5:45 pm

    Thanks for this post, Sharon. It’s hard to explain how frustrated I got at people who say stockpiling is wrong. I know what its like to go hungry, and I will do everything in my power to keep from experiencing that again. As will anyone else who’s ever been there.

    Prices are going up fast. I bought a bunch of beans on March 20th for $0.99 a pound. I was at that same store again today (they have two 10% sale days a month, and that’s when I go) and they were $1.49 a pound. That’s about a 50% rise in 2.5 weeks!

    Would you mind posting the links to these articles? I like to read the full ones.

    It’s slightly off topic, but about 5 years ago I saw a really good movie portrayal of the story of Joseph. I liked it a lot (and that’s coming from someone who’s neither Jewish nor Christian).

  7. Anon.on 06 Apr 2008 at 6:03 pm

    This is a question for anyone:

    How do you protest biofuels? Does someone know of a ready-made letter to Congress one can add a name to and send off (don’t think I know enough to craft my own)?

    Or does this come down to just driving/flying less, as someone mentioned?


  8. Idaho Locavoreon 06 Apr 2008 at 7:14 pm

    Prices are going up fast. I bought a bunch of beans on March 20th for $0.99 a pound. I was at that same store again today (they have two 10% sale days a month, and that’s when I go) and they were $1.49 a pound. That’s about a 50% rise in 2.5 weeks!

    I haven’t been inside a large grocery store much lately, but while visiting this weekend a dear friend of mine wanted to go to Wal-mart. (I hate Wal-mart, but I love her, so we went. ;-) )

    Anyway, yeah, prices are really going up here, too. The defining moment for me on this trip happened when we were about half way through her shopping list - A PERFECT STRANGER came near where we were, and after plucking a can of cocoa off the shelf exclaimed in shock, then turned to us and engaged us in a rather panicky (on her part) discussion of how prices are just going up all the time, how she’s shocked every time she goes to the store and how with all the recent job losses here in the US she’s was scared we were actually in a depression already. (not recession, DEPRESSION.)

    Other than that, nothing much else to report - the shelves seemed to be pretty well stocked, anyway. But having a stranger engage me in conversation about prices, job losses and the “D-word” in the middle of Wallymart kind of gave me pause. People really are waking up - at least some are - it seems.

    Interesting times.

  9. Idaho Locavoreon 06 Apr 2008 at 7:35 pm

    Btw, great post, Sharon. Thank you for taking the “hoarding” boogeyman on full tilt. As I’ve also said, people who buy for storage actually perform a service by helping to keep the bulk whole foods system greased and running well. If no one ever bought storage quantities even when things weren’t iffy, then when there was a food panic consumers might find there was little to no infrastructure in place to handle bulk basics buying because until that point there had been no real demand for it. Plus, every family who buys in bulk as a matter of economy or security is already set for riding out a panic and is one less family that needs to order large quantities from our largely Just In Time inventory system during a time of trouble.

  10. Idaho Locavoreon 06 Apr 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Btw, somewhat off topic - but to folks who have wondered how long your home-saved seeds can last…

    I have some bush watermelons that I saved seed from for about 15 years. However, the last time these were grown out for fresh seed was about 1993. I came across these very old seeds the other day while inventorying my seed stash, and decided to try to grow them out this year to obtain fresh seed stock. We’re talking about 15 years since the last time they were grown out. I wasn’t very hopeful, but because I’d really enjoyed having them in my garden in the past, I decided to try it.

    I planted two seeds in each large seed starting cell, and put the tray on a seed starting heat mat. I watched them closely the first week, but all I noticed was some fuzzy fungal growth on the seeds. Not a good sign, I thought. :-( But, I decided to give them a bit more time, hoping that maybe one or two might come up and I’d have a chance to rescue these old favorites from oblivion.

    I more or less forgot about them for the next few days after that, until last night when I noticed that not just one, or two, or three…. but at least seven out of the eighteen cells I planted have sprouted! And there are signs that more are on the way in the next day or two. Yeeehaaa!

    Seeds can sure surprise you sometimes with their will to live.

  11. Wendyon 06 Apr 2008 at 10:03 pm

    In a recent post on my blog, I mentioned by name the company that mills the flour I use and the fact that the cost of that flour in the grocery store has almost doubled over the past six months. Someone from that company commented on my post that the price of wheat has TRIPLED in the past year. Dude, when a representative from a company’s whose products I buy is commenting on my blog, we know the apocalypse has arrived!

    As for biofuel, I don’t think I’ve even seen it available, yet, where I am, for my cars. It’s an option for heating oil, but only for those people whose tanks are in a basement or otherwise protected. Ours is outside, and so we’re kind of stuck using Kerosene, which doesn’t freeze. The best option for us is simply stop using oil altogether, but I’m still trying to convince hubby to pull out the oil furnace and install a good, efficient woodstove in its place. He’s coming ’round … slowly ;).

  12. toddon 06 Apr 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Hi Sharon,

    It’s interesting but it sounds like the previous posters are “city people.” I live in the boondocks and we ALWAYS stockpile food. Why? The nearest chain store is 30 miles each way; the nearest town with multiple stores is 60 miles each way and the nearest COSTCO is 120 miles each way.

    We are retired and have to stretch our money so when there is any kind of deal we buy a lot…and store it. A typical COSTCO run is $500-700 since we only make the trip every 3-4 months.

    We also get snowed in for 1-3 weeks during the winter one or more times. We have to be prepared for these times.

    I won’t even get into my view of the future.

    Todd (of TOD)

  13. sglon 07 Apr 2008 at 1:41 am

    stockpiling only changes the location of the storage, it doesnt’ change the total amount of consumption. instead of general mills stockpiling wheat to make wheaties for a year until the next harvest, and the bread baking companies doing the same, consumers are storing their share of the wheat at their own home, and will be buying less wheaties or bread later in the year. of course, the corps don’t know that, so they may well end up being overstocked at some point, causing the price to rise too much on the front end, and dip on the back end. but overall it will make no difference in the total amount of food consumed (unless for some reason there’s increased spoilage or waste) hence no reason to feel guilty at all.

    lastly, everyone’s going to panic at some point anyway, the same way everyone jams into the stores right before a hurricane, or floods the stores right before christmas. just seems to be human nature. So, better for a some people to start stocking up now, to offload some of the pressure that will show up later, regardless of what the “authorities” say.


  14. Sharonon 07 Apr 2008 at 7:16 am

    Hi Everyone - I guess I should be clearer about avoiding ethanol. Obviously, the very first thing to do is drive less. In some places, ethanol is a choice, in others it isn’t. So some people may only have the option of driving less, whereas in some states ethanol may not be as prevalent at this point.

    One group lobbying against ethanol is here Please forward and keep forwarding! I’m going to edit my post to include that - thanks for the reminder.

    I appreciate all the information people keep sending me - I’m not a real regular shopper either, so it is very helpful for me to be able to track this through y’all’s eyes!


  15. Megon 07 Apr 2008 at 9:08 am

    Interesting how, as things change, the villains change. Whereas once it might have been said that an irresponsible government was the villain for promoting cars over people, now it is the “hoarders” (a word with some pretty negative connotations) who are the villains. I, however, think that there is a distinct difference in hoarding and being responsible. Learning to grow your own crops, make your own dairy products, can vegetables, prepare foods from scratch, learn crafts, etc. is simply the healthiest, most holistic way to approach a seemingly dire situation. It is not greed that motivates people to stock up on canned green beans. Every year, my family cans scores of cans of food from the garden, and when winter comes we don’t have to buy overpriced supermarket canned veggies. It’s not hoarding. It’s just preparing.

  16. Adam Ekon 07 Apr 2008 at 10:42 am

    A light hearted note for once.

    I used to live in Madison, Alabama. They view any kind of snowstorm there as a major disaster. The morning after a snowstorm I walked a mile to the grocery store to pick up some milk (I had some dry milk stockpiled, but prefer fresh when I can get it.) The weathermen had been hyping the storm for a week and I wasn’t sure what the “hoarders” would have left in the store.

    To my surprise the baking goods, dairy, and bread aisles were fully stocked. Want to guess what the only stripped aisle was? Soda & chips.

    I left the store shaking my head.

  17. Susan Buhron 07 Apr 2008 at 10:45 am

    Thanks for a very clear and thought-provoking post. I had started storing bulk ocal organic staple food because it was the only way I could get it. Local or at least regional organic food is not available in my grocery store, but is available through a warehouse nearby. I had had some uncertainty as the notion of hoarding tainted my thinking, but now I feel fine about it.

  18. Adam Ekon 07 Apr 2008 at 10:45 am

    And a not so light-hearted note. In the past two weeks, Nature’s Promise whole wheat bread from Stop & Shop, Norwood, MA, has gone from $2.19 to $3.19.

  19. deweyon 07 Apr 2008 at 10:51 am

    Sharon, that is a thought-provoking post. I don’t have any negative opinions about stockpiling, but part of your argument does not make logical sense. You write that people should give up all grain-fed animal products because “heavy meat consumption results in the removal of potential exports from markets that, in this case, desperately need them.” You even imply that the fact of human need elsewhere in the world makes it immoral for us to feed our pets, because what’s in the cat food might otherwise have gone to the human food market (yuck), lowering prices. But when you buy extra food to stash in case your family faces hardship in the future, you also remove that grain from today’s market, raising prices. If you store 50 lbs of corn this year, and I eat 5 lbs of steak produced with 50 lbs of corn, your action may reflect better foresight and healthfulness than mine, but you still will have done as much to raise world grain prices as I have. If you feel (correctly) that current grain prices are already a hardship for the poor, at what point should their current need outweigh your uncertain future need?

    Also, I don’t know whether the comments about spending on pet food - which some people certainly overdo - were throwaway or not - but I could not accept a moral calculus that says I should not buy grain byproducts to keep feeding my cat, who needs food to live now (that’s what she says, anyway) but that it’s okay for you to buy them to stick under your stairs just in case you need it for the Brother-in-Law on Couch five years from now. I’m not criticizing you for wanting to feed the BIL. He’s no doubt worth the insurance. But my cat eats less than half a cup of kibble daily and I think she’s worth it too.

  20. Sharonon 07 Apr 2008 at 11:31 am

    Hi Dewey - My point is that human beings outrank cars, pets and our desire for meat, and I think that ultimately does have to be the case. I don’t think it is immoral to feed our pets - to a point - a point that many people in this do surpass. What I think is immoral is the fact that we don’t have the same sense of outrage that people are giving up food as we did that there was toxic wheat gluten in our pet food. I put that in simply because most people don’t grasp that we really do treat our animals better than most people in the poor world.

    I love my animals too, and they eat partly grain based diets (most cat and dog food is grain, so there’s no “yuk” factor on that part - the meat is pretty gross, though). I am not at all ashamed of the idea that in a truly tight supply world, humans outrank pets - period. That said, however, there is enough food to feed companion animals - if we do it wisely and fairly, which we often don’t. The more research I do into the pet food industry, the more I see industrial pet food as a big part of the problem - and I do think my brother in law outranks my cat if it ever comes to that. It hasn’t, fortunately.

    I don’t have any problem with the idea that you’d rather feed your cat than reserve for you extended family - that’s pretty reasonable. But I do have a problem, for example, with rich world people feeding their animals large quantities of wet food made from feedlot animals and essentially feeding their animals more grain than the average poor human family gets to eat in a year.

    I do think you are wrong about your meat analogy - the thing is, I can live on 50lbs of corn for quite some time - a person who eats five pounds of meat (average person would eat that in a couple of days) will then need another five pounds and another and another… The reality is that diets based on stored staples are mostly, by necessity, diets based around the grains themselves, not the meat involved.

    So let’s say a guy in Hong Kong buys his yearly consumption of rice - about 800 lbs if he eats well, and sticks that under the stairs AND EATS IT (I’m not talkiing about keeping huge reserves of food you don’t eat). Then let’s talk about people who go and buy enough meat to eat the 2lbs that the average American eats daily - that is roughly speaking, about *12,000* pounds of grain - not to mention the grains the guy eats, plus the thousands of extra gallons of water… That’s taking an order of magnitude more grain out of circulation - and has a much, much more substantial impact on food prices than stockpiling. A year’s supply for my whole family isn’t even remotely equivalent to the average American meat eating diet. Now you could make the case that the meat eater isn’t stockpiling - but do you think that if food budgets get tight, he won’t also want to eat? That is, next year, if meat isn’t available, he’ll consume over and above that 12,000 lbs.

    It is worth noting that I’m not primarily storing food for my brother in law - I am storing it for my immediate family, and not for hypothetical need - I can be 100% sure that we will want to eat next year and the year after. What I cannot be sure of is that I will be able to buy food then. It is true that if I didn’t buy any grains those grains would be available on the export market - but, for example, ethanol and other biofuels will consume 30% of the American grain harvest this year, which is just about exactly a year’s supply of whole grains for every single American. That is, it meets the basic criteria of the categorical imperative - if everyone did as I do, and bought a year’s supply of grains upfront, but also didn’t eat supermarket meat and didn’t buy biofuels, almost 2/3 of the US grain harvest would be available for export. That’s substantially more than we export right now.

    There’s also the issue that small scale local grain producers generally aren’t using export markets either - that is, if I buy local oats, those oats wouldn’t have gone to Cambodia or Albania regardless. Whereas feedlot corn might well have gone overseas to the WFP if it weren’t going to meat or ethanol.

    There are some real ethical issues with rich people stockpiliing - I don’t want to see people holding back five years of grains, or holding them so that they can resell them as prices rise. But at this point, that’s not the central question - and it particularly isn’t the central question for people being mostly demonized - poor world residents who are trying to get their hands on wheat or rice before (if it isn’t too late) the price rises entirely out of reach.


  21. Theresaon 07 Apr 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks Sharon for this very important post. I’m really stepping up my gardening this year and have joined a CSA farm as well in order to become more connected with local food options. We’ve started buying larger quantities of staple foods as well and are reorganizing our home and land to better store and grow food. I’m learning new skills for this everyday, and I thank you for being both a teacher and a motivator to me and my family.

  22. deweyon 09 Apr 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Then presumably at some future point, when or if prices or hunger rates have risen beyond a certain point, you would (if not involuntarily, then voluntarily) eat down your surplus and stop trying to replace it as you go. As long as you are rotating your food storage, you will indeed be buying one year’s worth of food next year and the year after that, just as I will be. The average American does eat too much meat, but the logical point that minor or occasional meat consumption - this year - takes no more extra grain than a storage program still stands.

    Yes, if the apocalypse comes and people in your own town or bioregion are starving to death, human food will surely be prioritized over pet food (and in fact, pets will start to look a lot like food, although I personally would die before eating my cat), and even feeding humans will be subject to some tough decisions. But various survivalists have been predicting that for fifty years and it’s never happened yet, so I am not holding my breath waiting for it. In the interim, I do not accept the philosophy that human needs infinitely outweigh animal needs. This could just as easily be applied to wild animals and would justify stripping the planet down to bedrock to feed the human hordes - after which, their food supplies having been rendered extinct, they would starve anyway, and their descendants face untold generations of deprivation. That might benefit the presently existing humans, for a while, but it wouldn’t benefit the ones they would breed in the interim. Already, cats are much less overpopulated than humans are. If and as feeding pets becomes unaffordable, fewer companion animals will be bred or allowed to survive after birth. Pets have short lives, and there is time to let this happen naturally. Those of us who have already existing animal companions do not deserve guilt for living up to our moral responsibilities to creatures whom we have taught to love and trust us.

  23. Sharonon 09 Apr 2008 at 4:11 pm

    Dewey, I agree with you that occasional meat consumption is acceptable - I eat meat. I just don’t think that CAFO meat is acceptable for a huge host of reasons, including its contribution to global warming and the fact that it isn’t *necessary* to use human grains for meat - you can produce meat quite well without it, more than enough to allow for occasional meat production. It is true that if there were no other consequences to CAFO beef, it wouldn’t matter whether you reserved your supply or ate it as beef - but there are - poisoning of groundwater, emissions, inhumane treatment of animals…

    In fact, I do eat my stocks down, and donate them down, and then raise them back up in times of abundance - or replace them with my homegrown. So no, it isn’t quite as simple as you portray it.

    As for the animals, well, the problem with reductio ad absurdum arguments is that they are always right on some level - yes, it is true that we could strip the planet bare to feed one set of human beings and then let the others die, but that’s so unrelated to anything I’ve discussed that it ends up being a distraction to the real question - which is that we aren’t talking about a hypothetical situation in which someone is hypothetically starving, but a real situation in which real, existing people who are conveniently far away, are starving. And I think we both know that saying that human grown grains should be prioritized for human beings - and that means that pet owners have a responsibility for to minimize the impact of their pet’s food and feed them a diet that is minimally implicated in the diversion of grains to CAFO meat production is not the same thing as suggesting we strip the planet down to bare earth.

    If you don’t think that hunger will ever come your way, well, eat your allotment as grain fed meat - but there are more ethical ways to do that, particularly for someone singing the animal lover song than CAFO meats. I would simply note that your choice of date is a particularly convenient one - it is true that most of the rich world hasn’t known hunger in 50 years. Of course, *60* years ago, half a billion people were in danger of starvation, and 75 years ago Herbert Hoover was saying “no one has starved” while they were pulling the bodies of starving people out of Chicago houses. You are right - it hasn’t happened in 50 years. But it would be a logical error as great as making ad absurdem arguments to suggest that it won’t ever happen. That has to be set up on other ground.

    I would also note that guilt is one of those things you accept voluntarily ;-).


  24. J6Pon 10 Apr 2008 at 8:00 am

    It might be helpful to save your receipts (that show the date of purchase) in case there is every any need to prove when you bought it. Sounds paranoid, but it is so easy to do, why not?

    Great post. It’s a pity but I think stockpiling will be demonized in a crisis, even though it is natural human behavior, as natural as having extra kids to care for you in old age. As natural as being angry at your neighbor for having the foresight to hoard, and not be hungry, when you didn’t. Everything changes when that sense of “I have enough” is gone.

    Hoarding food is a good way to beat inflation. You could protect yourself against inflation with certain investments, but then you’ll have to pay taxes on those ‘gains’ not to mention the risk of investing. Alpha Strategy has great info on stockpiling non-food items and why this is good home economics:

    Stockpiles actually help keep prices low and avoid panic buying. It should be encouraged.

  25. Debora Y. Edholmon 10 Apr 2008 at 5:39 pm

    Gardens are wonderful and I love growing my food. The problem is the weather lately. Does anyone know the best weather or places to have a lovely garden and produce a supply of food? It seems like we never get the truly blue skies or good sunny weather to grow much in our garden. Food is only going to go higher and higher and people are already starving in many places. Rice has almost doubled in market price just in the last couple of months. I know of people that are buying half portions of rice when they eat out in the Phillipines right now. They are selling it this way so more people can afford to eat. If one has the money storage seems essential to me…………………………..

  26. deweyon 11 Apr 2008 at 10:44 am

    I certainly agree with you about avoiding CAFO meat, so would not encourage people to consume it. Although, when I buy the expensive organic meat and eggs, I really have no way of knowing what marginally better but still miserable conditions those animals may have been raised in.

    Unfortunately, we are already stripping the planet down to bare earth to serve human needs today. You can see that in Haiti and Madagascar today, where unique ecosystems are being permanently devastated. During the Dust Bowl, we did it to parts of this country, and are in train to do it again, as fragile conservation land is now being put back into grain and soybeans. I fear we will not slow our consumption while there is any land left to rape at all.

  27. Royon 23 Apr 2008 at 7:47 am

    Great post Sharon. I’ve been an admirer of your writing for some time now, starting with your posts on ROE2.

    Having been raised by frugal parents, and spent a lot of time around grandparents who lived through the Depression, stocking up on foodstuffs, buying things on sale, and bargain hunting are a way of life.

    I have difficulty understanding the mindset of those who don’t do those things.

    One thing I learned in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, was just how quickly large super-centers could be emptied of select items.

    Our local Walmart Supercenter was picked clean of soda, chips, snack foods, canned soups and stews, bottled water, candy, paper towels, toilet paper, fruit juices etc within 24 hours of re-opening.

    There was plenty of dried beans, rice, and flour on the shelves.

    I’m not a religious person, but I do like this verse from the Bible and think it rings true to this day:

    “A prudent man foresees the difficulties ahead and prepares for them; the simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.” - Proverbs 22:3

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