Saturday, April 01, 2006

Staple foods and the future - Food and Peak Oil Part II

Why, you ask, should I believe that anything about food is going to change in the future? After all, people are always predicting the end of the world, and, you point out, we've never gone hungry yet. In fact, many of us are carrying a few too many meals around on our waistlines - me definitely included. So why worry about food?

We burn 100 calories of fossil fuels, mostly oil and natural gas, for every calorie of food we eat. We burn oil and gas in every stage of food production - natural gas creates fertilizers, pesticides come from both oil and gas, soil is tilled and food is picked with oil based machinery, and with the labor of people who use trucks and cars to travel and follow the harvest. The food is packaged in plastic (oil), and then loaded on trucks, where it may be refridgerated or dried. It is then transported to your supermarket, which is heated, lighted, and run on oil. All to get that four calorie, totally out of season strawberry into your mouth.

There is nothing sustainable about this system - most vegetables are mainly made from water, and we're using a whole lot of energy to take water from places (like California) that don't have nearly enough, and ship it to places that already have plenty. And every bite funds OPEC and its dissidents. And we can't do it forever - as oil prices rise dramatically, food prices will rise. At the moment, Americans pay less for their food as a percentage of their income than anyone else in the world - but that's about to change. In fact it is changing - we've seen dramatic price rises in things like butter, produce, etc... in the last year, but not enough to make most middle class people stop buying them. That too will change.

It is rather more efficient to transport grains, which are shipped dry, often by rail, than it is to truck produce. So grains and beans may continue to be reasonably priced, particularly if grown locally. But you can expect that as energy prices rise and the economy falters, food prices will rise - a considerable problem when you've just lost your job, or your mortgage payment is about to jump with rising interest rates. But we must change our eating habits - we must start thinking about how to get the most nutritional value for the best price, how to produce food locally and at home, and rethink how we eat, before a crisis makes it happen in a much less positive way.

In one of last year's issues of "Permaculture Activist" there was an essay on common permaculture errors, one of which points out that permaculture has not fully explored the problem of how to adapt oureating habits in sustainable, practical ways. They've talked a lot about how to grow food, but less about how to change over from pringles to homegrown. I think that's absolutely true, and true of peak oil as well - one of the things wetend to elide, when talking about food and gardens, is how to actually change our eating habits, and how to adapt to the diet that is coming for us. Because it isn't a small issue - people who have other options won't eat things they don't like, no matter how deficient nutritionally their diet becomes, and adapting to a new diet in a time of crisis is not only difficult, it can be damaging, even fatal to the ill, elderly and children. If we're going to prepare for thepeak, we also have to prepare our bodies and our minds to eating sustainably.

Why do you have to change your diet now? Think back to the last time something really awful happened to you - someone close to you died, you were depressed, something horrible hit you. Think about what you ate. Not much, maybe. Or maybe just comfort foods. You certainly didn't try new recipes - you didn't have the emotional energy, nor would you even have bothered to eat if you had to try a lot of new foods. Now think about the last family celebration you had. What did you eat? Traditional foods of your community, your family, your culture. How much pleasure and satsifaction did you derive from eating those things? How much is your sense of family, community, celebration, joy, love tied up in what you eat? For many of us, food is a significant repository of our memories. Do you want to take those things away from your family at exactly the time they struggle the most?

That's why we all have to make the dietary changeover (if we haven't already) now - to establish new foods of our family and culture, or adapt the old ones to the new requirements of reasonable energy inputs, to ensure that our elderly, our children, the ill will not suffer or even die from the shock of dietary change, and to make sure we are all able to keep strong and healthy when we need it most. The changes involved strike me as taking place in two ways - the first, is eating from our food storage (and building a food storage). The second, eating locally produced, seasonal, *available* food all year round. They are seperate but inter-related issues. In a time of crisis, we may well have a year or two or three that we cannot eat fresh, local foods, and we need to find ways to make nutritious, balanced, tasty, enjoyable meals from our food storage, probably from limited ingredients. The second one doesn't seem difficult, but is - if you've ever produced a lot of food from your garden and animals, you'll realize how disconnected from seasonality our culture is - how many food combinations simply don't go together in nature (carrots and peas, the ubiquitous frozen duo, for example), or will beimpossible to replicate (I love sushi, but it isn't going to be a major feature of my diet here in upstate NY.) Eating seasonally usually involves eating a *lot* of something, for a short while, and then either not eating it again for a year, or eating it in a different preserved form - that is, tomatoes every day during the warm season, and then canned or dried tomatoes for the winter and spring. So for every major crop we produce, we need both ways to take the greatest advantage of it during its fresh season, and, if possible, a tasty way to preserve it and its nutritional value.

Now that doesn't necessarily mean you need to preserve 100 different crops - most cultures that rely on their own produce and meat have staple foodstuffs, a staple starch and a staple protein that are the mainstay of their diet and then add other ingredients as flavorings. Whether rice and fish, corn and beans, pork and corn, potatoes and milk, etc..., every peasant culture is based around easily grown starches and protein foods. In the first world, we've moved away from this habit - both in our culture's tendency to over emphasize the protein above the staple starch and in our endless demand for variety. But eating this way doesn't have to be unpleasant - while appetite fatigue is a real phenomenon, most people *like* and enjoy their staple foods, and are aware of subtleties and flavors within them that can't be perceivedby outsiders. So one of the first steps is to figure out what you are realistically going to eat if you have to live on what is grown in your climate, by you or some other local farmer. If you live in upstate NY, like me, as much as you may like rice (sadly, my staple starch of preference;-(), it isn't going to be your primary grain. Potatoes, corn, oats or wheat are much more likely. Look around at the native peoples in your area - what did they eat? Check out the farmers in your area -while small farmers may grow sweet potatoes, for example, if no one grows them on a large scale, they will probably not be available unless you grow your own.

Whatever you do, think now about food, and start finding ways of making basic foods delicious and part of your daily diet.


Food After the Peak: Part 1: Domesticity and Common Sense

About a year ago I posted a series of articles on the ROE2 newsgroup about how to eat in a peak oil future where we are all poorer, food surpluses are smaller, and the energy we rely on for things like electric stoves, refridgeration, etc... is out of our means. I'm reprinting it in slightly modified form here, in case anyone is interested. The pieces are not in order - this was originally part 3.

If you were born after the 1940s, you were probably raised, to one degree or another, to believe that domestic work, including foodproduction is monotonous, brain numbing, unskilled, and pointless. In many cases we believe it is ideally performed, assuming you make enough money, by either a non-white, non-english speaking private employeee, or a non-white employee of a restaurant. At best, home food production issomething to fight about, a tedious conflict at the heart of your family life where you and your spouse debate yet again who will microwave the macaroni and cheese, and clean up afterwards. None of it is worthy of your intellect, of course.

If you are a 40 something, middle class liberal in your average American city, you probably would deny you think the above, but would point out that yourhigh powered job/busy schedule means that you can't help picking up fast food or pizza or eating out three nights a week, putting your kids in daycare, and hiring a lawn service and house cleaners. Of course it is more important, you argue, that you are working and paying all those people (whose skin color and/or gender is pure coincidence), and, of course, voting for the social changes that will inspire the eventual improvement of their situations. If you are an American conservative of the same approximate demographic, you probably want to know what my point is ;-) ;-).

Some facts about Americans and food.1. The wealthiest 20 % eat out for more than 60% of their meals. The poorest 20% eat out for the exact same percentage of their meals. The difference exists on only three levels - 1. how likely the restaurant is to be a fast food chain and how nutritious the meal is; 2. how many cookbooks that they never cook from are on the shelves of the kitchen they do not enter; and 3.How likely they are to say they "love" to cook, without ever actually doing it (in America, people who say they "hate" to cook actually eatin slightly more often than people who "love" it.)

2. One out of every 3 Americans eat in a fast food restaurant on any given day. More than half of all Americans eat 6 or more meals per week at a fast food restaurant. Think about that.

3. Of meals eaten at home, 65% involve the use of pre-processedor "prepared" ingredients, and 75% involve a microwave. 70% ofAmericans have no idea how to make stuffing not from a mix, 61%cannot make mashed potatoes from actual potatoes, rather than a box,and 90% buy boneless chicken breasts because they can't figure outhow to debone them.

4. A vast majority of American meals involved at least two of the following 6 ingredients - white bread, chicken breasts, ground beef, potatoes (more than 75% of which come in the form of either boxed potatoes, chips or frozen fries/tater tots), milk, ketchup.

I suspect a lot of people on this list feel rather superior at themoment. *I* bake my own bread, we say. I don't eat out that often. I never, ever go to McDonalds (just Taco Bell, and that only once ina while, right before a meeting, you know.) Ok, now imagine yourselves required to do the simple job of makingyour own food for a month. Piece of cake? Here's the deal. You haveto produce three meals a day, plus beverages and snacks entirely from whole foods in your storage, garden or barn, or easily obtained from local producers within 25 miles of your home. You must do so using sustainable methods, no microwave or electric stove. You cannot goto the store - you must use what you have, and ensure that it willlast. You have no refrigeration, so each meal must be precisely the right size to ensure no waste. You need to pay special attention tothe dietary needs and palates of the sick, elderly, children, pregnant and nursing mothers. You need to be sure that everyone gets enough to fuel increased physical labor (ie, walking places instead of driving, growing food in a garden) and a balanced and varied enough diet to make sure they remain healthy. It also must be palatable enough to ensure lack of waste and adequate consumption.

Meanwhile, you have to stretch limited food supplies, and limited supplies of fats, sugars, eggs, dairy and meats to ensure you will not go hungry later, if food supplies tighten. Of course, part of the job is the logistics and planning - did you start the sprouts on Friday, so that they would be ready for today's salad? Is the next batch of yogurt ready as the first one runs out? How early did you need to get up to get the bread baked before lunch? Did you plant a next crop of lettuce? How long can you keep those eggs warm? Did you grind enough flour for the pancakes, or do you have to go back and do it again? Are you sure that you've left enough baking soda for birthday cakes? Meanwhile, besides the ordinary work of food production, you have to inventory, maintain, track, manage, preserve, protect and prevent rot on the food you have in storage and coming in. That means that besides three meals a day, you need to keep track of how much sugar is left, to make applesauce when the last apples start to soften, dry and can those strawberries that come flooding in when the season starts, walk the six miles to the food market that is likely to have live chickens this week, forage for wild greens, make six gallons of sauerkraut, figure out away to make up for the absence of vanilla, white flour and eggs in your child's birthday cake, plan for extra guests and hospitality, as well as festival meals and special occasions.

Unskilled labor indeed. Try it for a month. Seriously, it will not only give you new appreciation for the value and creativity of domestic labor (and for the work done by human beings through most of history and in most poor cultures today), but it will also point up the fact that only part of the project is knowing good recipes for whole wheat. The rest is figuring out how to make good, interesting, balanced, varied food out of what you have 3 meals a day, 365 days a year, with your own hands,sustainable methods and local resources. If you don't know how to do it going into peak oil, you can expect your transition to be more painful, hungrier and harder all around.


Sharon (who hasn't managed to do it either)