"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Monday, February 14, 2011

Fears About Future Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Dawn said...

Yes I am concerned also. I remember 5 years ago that when meat was prohibitively expensive we switched to more fish, which was very cheap. We live on the coast of Florida for heavens sake.
Then fish prices crept up, so we switched to chicken. As an example: boneless, skinless, chicken now is now only 70c cheaper per lb as sirloin steak. Taking into consideration that we can grow peppers, tomatoes, etc., for most of the year in my immediate location (with the exception of July and August), I am at a loss to understand how peppers can be $3.99lb. Luckily we grow these in my back garden. I read about the honey bee collapse and feel very grateful when I see them in our yard, but going forward? If there is nothing left to pollinate our fruit, vegetables and the fruiting trees that feed our birds - what then?

AnyEdge said...

While there are certainly problems to work on, and major issues with distribution as rapid transport of fresh foodstuffs becomes untenable, energy-wise, and while I am glad that smart people are working on the problem, we have still not reached my age-old threshold for food scarcity becoming something worth causing me personal, sleep-stealing worry:

I can still get a pound of fresh strawberries in January for less than $5. That's fucking amazing.

The only note of retraint that I would encourage you to consider sis: inflation. Don't be like mom, who still thinks any bew car that costs more than $9,000 is absurdly overpriced. In fact, by inflation alone, at 4%/year (which is historically a bit on the low side of normal, IIRC), we would expect food prices to be 48% higher than ten years ago.

A couple minutes of googling didn't find me the unadjusted prices over time, but I'd bet that overall, against inflation, food prices are very much in line with historical averages here. Further, I bet that in the context of purchasing power of the average household, food is much cheaper than it was 100 years ago.

Aimee said...

Bro, yes, here in the states we are very insulated from rising prices, as I said. We pay the smallest percentage of our incomes on food of almost any nation on earth. I'm sure it will be quite a while before middle class Americans are worrying about how to buy staples. But that doesn't mean that rising
Food prices won't affect us in other ways, by causing political instability in many other countries, for example, or by dramatic increases in economic refugees looking for
places they can afford to eat better.

Laura said...

That's part of why I raise my own meat. I'm hoping to resume raising my own veggies this year. My own "carbon footprint" is not small - I live 30 miles from work, and drive a truck. I try to buy local when I can - there's an organic farm down the road from me.

The water situation is freakin' scary. I grew up in San Diego, then moved to Reno. I know from drought. Now I live where I get 60-90" of rain, most of which seems to be running off right now, but a well that is not that productive - go figure. If my neighbors are watering their garden (inefficiently, I might add), I have to watch my water use. I don't water my lawn in the summer, and I don't have irrigation rights for my pasture. People here in Oregon think I'm funny that I conserve water so much - I think it's just smart to use your resources wisely...

Nekkid Chicken said...

We have definitely noticed the creep upwards of food prices. Thus the reason we are putting in 3 garden beds this year. I have been studying how to can and dry my own foods for long term storage.

Part of our homeschooling is teaching our boys how to grow their own foods. I just fear many will be caught high and dry without means to secure their own tummies.

Take care,

AnyEdge said...


Isn't that what 'Metal Storm' defensive weaponry is for? ;)

I kid. No, of course, food security is critical. And certainly, the cornucopia will be different in 50 or 100 years than it is today.

As you are doing, we should all be growing a little bit in our own yards. The low cost of food has contributed to less than 2% of all produce being grown at home, compared with 40% only 50 years ago (This American Life, NPR, about 3 weeks ago I think...).

But frankly, in the USA, food quantity isn't even close to a problem. We have so much that the desperately poor are obese in record numbers.

Aimee said...

DON'T get me started about obesity and food insecurity! I'll call you up and start barking like a wild dog, I swear I will. It is perfectly possible - in fact more likely than not - for an obese individual to also be poorly nourished, even malnourished. The reasons that is so common, especially among the poor, are many and complexly related to each other, ranging from poor education, lack of lifeskills like cooking, poor access to good food and/or cooking facilities, and the comparative cheapness of crap-ass food stuffed with calories as compared to actual food.

You can get a thousand calories at McDonald's for less than half what it costs to buy the same calories in real, unprocessed food at the grocery store, and that doesn't factor in the cost, time, and effort of cooking it. If time is money, then McD's is about 100 times cheaper than going to the store and then preparing food and then cleaning it all up afterwards. Oh yeah, and for a lot of poor urbanites, that would also include taking public transit to whole different neighborhood because there ISN'T a grocery store where you live. "staples" in stores in poor urban areas are things like canned spaghetti-os and boxes of slightly outdated frosted flakes. You are lucky if you can find bananas, potatoes, onions, and apples. Forget about greens or chiles or berries.

Also don't forget, please, that fat people get hungry just as quickly as skinny people do - about five hours after their last meal. The ill-effects of hunger begin just that quickly, for fat and thin alike. Low blood sugar, confusion, lethargy, confusion, lowered immunity, impaired learning, irritability... all these effects happen on the first day of being hungry. And food insecurity can strike the obese as well... you might be living high on the hog for long enough to get fat, but if you suddenly don't know where your next meal is coming from, that is just as stressful and damaging for a fatty as a skinny, particularly children.

Somewhere around 18% of americans (and a higher percentage of children) experience food insecurity - meaning that while they might only seldom actually be hungry, worries about how to feed themselves strike often. Food banks nationwide will tell you that demand has spiked alarmingly since the recession began, and as it has dragged on, donations have lowered dramatically as people who used to donate now need that money to feed themselves.

Okay, slow deep breaths Aimee.

Sheryl at Providence Acres Farm said...

Wouldn't it be nice if everyone had a garden to grow food instead of lawn? Of what use is grass? Look at the cost and chemicals needed to keep a nice lawn! What kind of person spends money and time on that instead of food when people are starving all around us? For peat's sake! Grow a garden in your yard and leave the grass in the field!

Dawn said...

All of us are in big trouble in the United States with the water shortage problem. Since the 1950's, people are living in and continue to move into areas that were abandoned 100's of years ago, if not thousands of years ago, because of that fact. New Mexico - water storage units are just an example. Las Vegas? Are you out of your mind?

There was a recent article regarding our aquifers, if I can find it, I will post it.

Here in South Florida, a tropical rainy state, our canals are way down. Visit my blog to see a natural setting where the local and healthy canals and streams have dried up. According to a recent local article Lake Okeechobee is "perilously low."
Accredited to source: www.palm2jupiter.com

Lake Okeechobeee is maybe 12 feet deep at present. They recently have found all sort of dumped, artifacts which were brought to light by our ongoing droughts. How exciting, and pardon me for asking, but where is our water going?

One day, and sadly, perhaps no more than 100 years from now, our great-great grandchildren will look back on this article -


- and they will shake their heads in wonder at how a natural fresh-water body could possible be deemed "too high."

Now please don't all jump on me at once, but His Highness: The Prince Of Wales made this video, which makes very interesting viewing. It is about sustainable farming practices.

Why does a billionaire even need to bother? Because: he cares. I watched the whole movie on t.v. and, I can assure you there are farmers in the USA that are also following this practice. Mainly since the soil is so depleted and the previously, honored, and traditional ways of farming are no longer viable.


I can tell you this as a fact: the soil in South Florida is subsiding and shrinking. Source accredited to "Black Gold and Silver Sands."

A horrible deck that we took out of our yard had the supporting beams cut to stumps at GROUND level. Since then, 5 years ago, the in-posts are 4" above ground level.

After reading that someone very north of my location was able to get a lb of strawberries for under $5 and thought "that was f..amazing." (The childish part has been left out, since I left high school and college a LONG time ago.)

After that posting, I am left thinking that, here in South Florida we are being gouged, SINCE strawberries are grown in Plant City a mere 20 miles from here, we are paying the same price. Flattening out the prices to feed the USA - doesn't matter. Feeding our population here in the USA is paramount to us as a nation.

I'm not interested in your masters or Phd degree info on commerce and business economics/statistics etc., in addition to googled fract on where we are in the world vs. food per family/per income and how we figure in the BIG picture - give me a break. I am also not interested in buying a new car. Someone like me would NEVER waste their money on a new car, but if that blows your skirt, shorts, trousers, sporks, whatever up, go with it.

May Your God Bless You.

I am telling you as a mother of teenage boys and who also grow their own produce in their back yard, that the prices are well beyond what they should be. Look beyond the forest to the trees.

Gasoline reserves are up, here we pay $3.40 per gallon regular.

AnyEdge said...

Aimee: I didn't intend to suggest that the obese poor are 'overnourished'. Far from it. Did you read 'Anathem' (Stephenson's new book) yet?

"They are dying of malnutrition and of obesity at the same time."

Aimee said...

No, I haven't felt strong enough for a Stephenson book. It's on my "someday" list. Have fun at the synphony tonight!

robbie @ going green mama said...

I am definitely concerned, though we tend to grow two seasons of the year, we still have to feed the family the rest of the year (and are limited on gardening space).

I feel further for the families who are not blessed to have resources to garden nor farmers markets in an accessible distance. The urban poor too often pay the greatest price -- no real produce to speak of.

polly's path said...

I am concerned, but I alhink it varies from state to state.
For example, here in the south thr squash you bought at over $5 per lb is less than $2...but i know what you mean.
Last night I picked my entire supper out of the garden. it felt good.
Posted about it.

Linda said...

Hi Aimee
I'm late weighing in as usual.
Thanks for discussing the real issues of the obese poor. I'm right there with you on the points you make. I don't believe that most of us are going to withstand normal food inflation due the extremely high unemployment rate but I don't think I'm seeing normal food inflation. i believe that we are at the beginning of a general food and resources crisis that includes inflation, shortage, weather disasters and food for fuel, all those things you mentioned in the post.
All grains and grain products are up around here. Sugar and coffee have been climbing for a couple of years, meat and eggs are outrageous and some veggies are also over the top. Citrus seems okay for now but these went up last year.

I have noticed lack of variety in stores for a couple of years now. Have you noticed too that the supermarket isles are wider and that the displays of any given product are narrower? The isles were gradually made wider in an effort to remove entire isles. Less products need less space.