Sunday, April 15, 2007

Food Security and Relocalization

Rebecca sent me an email recently that raised an issue I've been thinking about for a while, and I wanted to quote her, because she expressed the problem so clearly,

"The issue is food security and food scarcity. We’ve had a lot of crop failures lately, in the nation and locally. The frost a few months ago took out much of California’s crops and the latest one wiped out a lot of the Midwest and the Southeast. The early estimates around here are that 90% of the peaches, early apples, plums, figs, strawberries, nuts, and winter wheat are gone for the year. As is much of the early spring wheat and corn plantings. Many of the other spring crops –peas, broccoli, radishes etc (including in my own garden) were damaged. We haven’t had a frost this late in years, even though the frost-free date is April 15. This one was really bad as well; three full nights of record lows. Furthermore, it was in the 60s here in February and all of March it barely dropped below 80, so everything started growing early. Spring’s been coming earlier every year, but this year was the earliest yet. (You and I both know the reason for that, though most of the area residents don’t believe it.) Anyhow, if the area had to rely on just local food, there’s a good chance we’d be facing serious food shortages later this year. And that’s the crux of the issue; the main objection I’ve heard to relocalization –save from one couple who thinks a tragedy is not being able to buy a bottle of their favorite fancy french wine ;-) –is the issue of food shortages. If you’re not connected to a longer supply chain and the crops fail, you’re in for a hard time. I thought maybe you might know how to address this."

I'm not 100% sure I know the best ways to address Rebecca's comments, but I'll take a stab at it, because I think it is deeply important subject. If we are to rely on our own food production and our own local food sources, we are most likely going to be more vulnerable to those supply failures. This is a real worry, and like Rebecca, I've encountered this concern - and I've had it for myself. Two years ago we lost most of our potato crop to flooding, along with several other major crops. It wasn't a big deal - I just drove over to the localmarket and bought 3 50lbs of potatoes from better drained land than I have. But what if it has been a regional issue, and there were no potatoes to be had?

I think it is helpful to dissect, at least a little, how the current system works. Right now, most hunger is caused by inability to pay. For example, in the US, there are 21 million people who are food insecure - that is, they don't know from one day to another whether they will eat. Those people are not hungry because there are food shortages in Milwaukee, they are hungry because even though the stores overflow with food. The same is true on a larger scale in many poor nations. In fact, we tend to think of poverty as the inability to buy food - thus equating, for example, self-sufficient farmers and hunter-gatherers who live on less than 2 dollars per day but produce most of their own food, with those who have no land, produce nothing, and cannot feed themselves and their families with that little money.

For example, economists recently argued that CAFTA will enrich Central American farmers - it will displace farmers from their land, but since CAFTA will lower the total price of food, that's considered a net gain. Of course, given the steady rise of food prices, I'm not sure how they calculate this, much less the difference between the value of owning land and having those resources to derive something from vs. the value of being a slum dweller who owns nothing, but hey - low food prices! In a world where food is rationed by ability to pay, regional crop failures are fairly meaningless for the rich - most Americans don't even realize they happen.

But a relocalized society, as Rebecca points out, would bring home the concrete realities of things like climate change, local weather conditions and environmental degradation. Rebecca doesn't say where she lives, but, for example, for the millions of people who have moved to the Southwest, things are going to get really hairy. It isn't at all clear to me that the driest parts of this nation, or Australia or other places enduring lasting drought due to climate change, are going to be able to feed themselves in the long term. People certainly would endure shortages of desired crops (like the fruiting plants that were harmed by the combination of an early warm spell and hard frosts), and individual regions might well become unable to feed themselves. So whatever system we have has to have built in systems of trade. Some of these problems may be altered by the relocation of populations, but it is easier to move food than people in many cases. What might be usefully different from the current system would be for communities to have an investment in each other's food security, thus protecting one another from volatility and inflationary food prices. I will talk more about this below.

For the third world, in many cases, the situation would be reversed - many of the poorest and hungriest places in the world are currently exporting food. South India, where hunger rates are rising among the poor, has replaced much of its coastal rice production with export crops like shrimp, and is a major exporter of primary staple foods including wheat and rice. Ethiopia, currently undergoing global warming linked drought, exported food all through the famine of the 1980s and continues to do so. Bangladesh, where the poorest 1/3 of the population eats only 1500 calories a day, grows enough rice on its densely packed land to give everyone two thousand calories, and enough other crops to ensure a balanced diet, and yet a considerable portion of that rice is exported.

So relying on a local system would reduce the likelihood of hunger for many people in the world, while increasing our own danger of famine. I'm tempted to let my answer stop here - to simply argue that it is time that the rich world bore some of the risks. I suspect that sounds callous, but we've been increasing people's risks of hunger for a long, long time, and perhaps doing what is best for the majority but less perfect for us would be the right thing. I think (and I'm not suggesting Rebecca has suggested any such thing) that our fear of localized potential hunger cannot be used to justify causing *real* hunger to people now.

Fidel Castro just issued a j'accuse statement, arguing that the rich world is perfectly willing to create famine among the poor people of the world in order to fuel our cars with ethanol, and he's right - heck, even Business Week Magazine, hardly a bastion of leftist dissent, admitted Castro had a point. Bringing home our food vulnerabilities might be an excellent object lesson for us, sadly. That is not to say that I wish famine on my nation, but there's an old Latin American prayer, one that begins, "For those who are hungry, may they have bread. And for those who are not hungry, may they know the hunger for justice." Some of us could use a little more of the other kind of hunger.

But I won't leave it at the notion that we should share, with the rest of the world, the same vulnerabilities that the poor do. Not because that's too harsh, but because it doesn't resolve the basic question of how we get to the point that every person in the world has food to eat. Nor have I any wish to condemn anyone, ever, to hunger. So along with relocalizing our gardens, we need local food security programs.

Now I'm not wholly committed to this model, but it is one of the possibilities that has occurred to me as I think about this issue. I'm sure some of you will have better ones. My proposition would be that local communities open food security centers, consisting of (ideally), a food pantry, a community kitchen for community canning and food storage, along with cooking classes, a cafeteria, and a food banking system and store.

How would this work? Let us imagine A, who is a farmer of 70 acres of mixed hay, oats, sheep, orchard and vegetables. He has a truck garden, sells locker lambs, hay, and grain, and runs a pick your own and a pumpkin patch in the fall. B lives on a 1/4 acre lot in this town, and grows a vegetable garden and has a few peach and pear trees.

A grows and puts up a lot of what he eats, or barters some of his things with neighbors who provide him with things like milk, honey, beer and strawberries. After he feeds himself and his family, he sells what he doesn't need. But let us say that this year was a very good one for everything but pumpkins. A has more apples than he can sell, had a great oat year, and a bumper crop of tomatoes. And since other people had good tomato years, the price isn't that high. So first, A puts up a lot of extra stuff. He puts some extra sacks of oats in his feed bin, just in case next year isn't so good, and he sun dries a ton of tomatoes, cans some up, and make a lot of applesauce. He makes enough apple and tomato products so that he's good for a couple of years. And then, he has a choice - he can sell his surpluses out of the community, if he can find a buyer (although prices have been going down since shipping costs have risen), or he can sell them at a slightly discounted rate to the local food bank.

The food bank will take his tomatoes and put them up in the community cannery. Some of the tomatoes will go fresh to the food pantry, others will go in the form of sauce made in the cannery to meet immediate food needs. This is supported by local taxes, and by a percentage of the profits the food bank makes. Some will go to the cafeteria, which serves simple, good meals made out of seasonal, local ingredients. The prices are fairly low, and the food is very fresh. Some of the food for the local schools is also produced here and transported over to them, and the school buys ingredients from the food bank as well. The cafeteria used to only be open once a day, for lunch, but demand has risen so much that it is available for dinner now too, and they are thinking of adding breakfast. The cafeteria is a semi-private enterprise - that is, a local chef was offered a very low rent and stable prices for local ingredients if she was willing to provide food using mostly those ingredients and at a comparatively small profit per item. The small rent helps defray costs in other areas. The community cannery is funded by the small fee charged for its use, by putting on cooking classes (focused on how to use local ingredients) and by the trading surplus.

When Farmer A sells his oats to the food bank, some are immediately put into the community reserve, which attempts to grow a reserve supply of locally produced food to last 6 months for every member of the community. The rest of it is added to a trading coop, which may hold the grain until prices rise, or sell it now, or may even barter it for a like quantity of grain from another region. The Coop markets shippable dry staples - grains, beans, dehydrated foods, herbs, spices, wool, other luxury items to similar trading coops. There are caps on prices for all such community coops - but that doesn't mean prices can't rise, just that they can't experience runaway inflation. Farmers are paid the present trading price for their goods (or they are free to trade them other ways - there are no quotas), which cannot fall below or rise above a particular price point for each good. If a profit is made, 5% of it returns to the farmer who initially sold their product at a stable lower price. The rest is put into the coop. Staples are either shifted to food stores, or sold at capped prices for the rest of the community during off seasons, when they won't be competing with local growers. That is, the community center sells tomato sauce in the winter, and oats in the summer when local people have the smallest stocks.
The elected board of the food bank includes several local farmers, as well as community members. The coop might also eventually start selling non-food items - soap, used clothing, locally made tools and woodworks.

Now what happens in a really bad year? Let us say that A loses half his lambs to disease, a late frost drops his apple harvest by 80%, and his oat crop is flattened by hail. This year he has only hay and a few vegetables to sell, and nothing but garlic to put up for his own use. Well, the good thing is that his personal storage is his first line - A still has tomatoes, applesauce, and oats. And since a lot of his customers also put up extra, most of them have those things too. But the whole town is falling short of its needs. Well, fortunately, we've got that food bank. Not only is there a 6 month supply of staple foods (and not only have we been offering food classes all along in cooking and eating those foods), but we've been trading all along with other communities, and can buy grain outside the community at capped prices, that make it affordable to local people. Why doesn't the market simply drive up prices? Well, because it is generally in everyone's interest to have stable food prices - because, given the environmentally volatile period we're in, you never know whether it will be you next.

In fact, the towns might go further than this, and create an expansion of the CSA system to the community level. That is, town X might forge a relationship with town Y in another region. In it, town X and town Y, one in a warm place, one not, might broker an agreement to each grow and subsidize some extra capacity for one another, and then split the proceeds down the middle if it is profitable year, and otherwise, sell directly to the other if there is a food shortage. The idea would be for their to be a formal relationship, and a mutual investment, that pays off when and if there is a significant crop shortage. The cost of transporting food from one place to another could be paid by the sale of the surplus capacity, and systems for emergency distribution set up using that mechanism.

One place to read more about possible models would be Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe's book _Hope's Edge_. In it, they describe a variety of possible solutions to the question of food security.

I have no doubt that my readers will take me to task on all sorts of fronts for this, and I also have no doubt there are probably better ways to manage these risks. Nor do I deny that none of these is a perfect system - an extended drought, seven lean years, all sorts of things could happen that would exceed any local and individual system, which is why I also think state and national reserves need to be expanded. In order to do that, we will almost certainly have to stop making biofuels. We need to be able to move food aid to places that have exhausted local resources - on the other hand, having local resources (most communities have none) could only improve things.

I don't think there is a solution that can resolve the basic vulnerability created by relocalization. At best, relocalizing food systems and creating food sovereignty can only mitigate, it cannot entirely eliminate it. What we can do is probably ensure that people avoid hunger, for the most part. But in an extended crisis, Americans would find themselves, like their poorer counterparts, relying on food aid, rather than going to shops and buying anything they want. I hope you will forgive me for thinking that this might also have some salutary consequences.

I'm not sure I have answered Rebecca's question. I'm not sure I can. Perhaps others have better answers.



Anonymous said...

I have been thinking about just this for awhile now; we are buried in snow at present with lots more on the way and no way to consider planting for a while now. Last year was so wet that many of us lost a good deal of what we planted, grain was contaminated by fungus, hay couldn't be cut as the fields were too wet and on and on. And then there was the freeze in CA, FL and down south just last week, and I belive corn got frosted in the midwest. Which has me wondering(besides the obvious of just what is going on and how bad is it going to get?); where does this leave us in terms of relocalization/peak oil issues and trying to rely more on local foods? I don't know if the community kitchen/storage is the way or not-is an interesting idea- probably there will need to be many different solutions. I do think we need to talk about it though...


Kiashu said...

"So along with relocalizing our gardens, we need local food security programs."

What followed from that was quite interesting. I've had similar sorts of ideas, especially after reading Geoff Davies' Economia, where he discusses our current money system, and some alternatives.

One of the problems which comes up with any currency is people's perception of value of it - "Can I spend it to get what I want? Does it have intrinsic value?" This is the issue which has made it difficult for the various local currency systems to take off, and also that which leads survivalists to stockpile gold coins.

One solution is a commodity-backed dereciatory currency. The ancient Egyptians used to have big grain stores, and the farmers would deposit grain there, and receive a token for it, with a date on it. They could turn in this token and get their grain back later. So the token acted as currency, you could hand it over in exchange for things other than grain - people accepted it, because they knew it represented something useful.

Because of rats and so on, the grain dropped in amount over time while stored, so the tokens did, too. Egyptian authorities determined the average rate at which the grain decayed, and that was the rate at which the tokens dropped in value. So for example if after three months your 100lbs of grain was now 95lbs of grain and 5lbs of rotted grain and rat poo, well then the token would depreciate by 5% every three months.

It might be thought that people wouldn't accept a depreciating money supply, wouldn't take something that drops in value, but in fact we already do this - it's called a "loan" or a "credit card." We spend $100 today and must ay $105 (or more) tomorrow. The difference is that with the Egyptian tokens, you could spend them straight away and avoid the drop in value.

And this was the effect - people would try to spend the tokens as quickly as possible, to turn them into things which didn't drop in value. This stimulated the economy generally.

The Egyptian authorities also taxed and so on as usual, but what they could have done is to find the rate of grain decay, and (say) double it. So if the grain decayed at 5lbs in every 100lbs every three months, they could have the tokens drop in value by 8lbs every three months; the 3lbs difference could be tokens issued by the stores to cover payment for public works.

We do something similar with local currencies and food stores today. eople would have a food bank, get receipts from it, and those receipts would act as currency. The currency would drop in value to reflect the decay of food in storage, plus an extra drop - and that extra would be currency issued to pay for public works.

So a surplus of food would be stored in times of plenty, and in rough times, people would buy the food back with their currency. Of course it'd be a problem if we had several bad years, but that's always a problem, and is what we have countries for, rather than just small towns. It'd also stimulate the local economy - if the money drops in value over months, people will spend it rather than hoarding it, and try to turn it into things of lasting value, like land or clothing.

Just a thought... of a good place to go, with no idea how we'd get there. People are very accustomed to doing things the current way.

MSquirrel said...

Has anyone actually looked at the "country of origin" tag when they buy their fruit? I have. And all I have to say is that cental and south american fruit (outside of bananas) tastes like cardboard. It actually makes it a pleasure to wait for my own watermelons to be ready for harvest, even if we only get one.

RAS said...

Thanks Sharon. No, I certainly wasn't suggesting that we should make others hungry in order to avoid going hungry ourselves. (Though that is, in effect, what the current system often does.) The very idea is repulsive and despicable.

I was just looking for a way to address the issue with hedges, which you have so kindly provided.
I think part of the problem is that we have been so spoiled for so long (sorry for the strong words, but its the truth) that people are afraid of ANY sort of change that would make their existence seem more precarious.

I live in Northern Alabama, btw.
Thanks again!

Kiashu said...

The fruit from distant places tastes bland not because of the original quality of it but because it's stored for a long time.

Because we expect to see each fruit or vegetable year-round, at a low price, the food companies buy it up when it's cheap, and store it in large refrigerated warehouses. Some apples you eat will have been stored for up to 18 months.

That's why they taste bland. They'd taste good fresh off a tree in Palma ;)

Kiashu said...

Here's a link about storage times, by the way. Storage times are "typical", only - it's soemtimes up to twice this, most commonly half this.

Apples: 6-12 months
Lettuce: 1-4 weeks
Bananas: 14 days
Tomatoes: 1-6 weeks
Potato: 2-12 months
Carrot: 1-9 months

I would add that in principle, there's nothing wrong with storing food. But it does decline in nutritional value and taste over that storage time. So you have to eat more for the same nutritional effect, and perhaps use lots of herbs and spices to flavour it up.

On the whole, I'd prefer seasonal fruits and vegies picked genuinely fresh I can, though...

riverbird said...

bland for several reasons. also, most are harvested early, ripe fruit rots and bruiss in transport. secondly as well, crops growns on fertilizers dont devlop to full nutrition/ flavor because their growth essntially outstrips their own intenal development. this is one reason organics taste btter, they grow more slowly.

jewishfarmer said...

Hi Rebecca - I really hope I didn't give the impression that you were suggesting we do economic harm to others - I want to reiterate that I know you'd never suggest any such thing, and if there's an implied link, that's my error.

Some stored foods decline in flavor - a surprising number of older vegetables bred for storage actually *improve* in flavor after a while. For example, I find that Red Winesap apples aren't that wonderful until they've stored a couple of months, and that's true of some potatoes. It really requires some experimentation.

That reminds me, I should make applesauce with the last of the Mutsus and Winesaps, since spring fruit will be along soon.


Shane said...

There seems to be a trend for very polarised thinking here. Either centralised and widely distributed intensive agriculture or low energy self sufficiency.

The reality is probably going to be a combination of the two in the absence of a total system collapse. Intensive agriculture does a few things very well, such as growing and distributing bulk grains to stop people from outright starving, and they could continue to do so even with greatly increased oil prices, probably leading to less bullk grain going into meat production. But grains alone make a pretty meagre diet.

This is where self sufficiency already wins out in terms of rounding out a diet and providing a better source of food stuffs that are difficult to store and transport and/or labor intensive to harvest. This mainly means tender green vegetable and soft fruits, but as the situation progresses relocalisation of dairy, meat and other vegetables also starts becoming competitive.

Already small local markets with very competitive prices are springing up around here in Australia that allow producers to directly sell their produce, cutting out the supermarkets which require bottom of the barrel wholesale prices, then add exhorbitant mark ups after thrashing the produce all over the country. I now spend more than half of my grocery bills outside the big supermarkets and I am eating better than ever!

Anonymous said...

There are a few things to think about when talking about calamities like frost, floods and hail.
One is that in a given area of say 10000 square miles there is a variety of landscape features. Gardens on the hills escape both floods and frosts, and the lea side of hills don't suffer the hail as bad. So the answer must be local in view of declining oil stocks, it also must be widespread and not concentrated on big farms. Many smaller farms instead of the few larger farms.

Also when hail hit us this year it wiped out the tomatoes but the potatoes were fine after a while - so a large variety of crops also must figure into the equation.

More disturbingly to many (including my cynical old self) is the role of nature spirits. I've just re-read some old Findhorn material that I basically rejected thirty years ago, but now with trees flowering in fall and even winter, the predictions of nature spirits withdrawing their support from the human race does not seem all that far fetched. This along with the eye witness accounts of the then experts in organic agriculture that opined the results from the Findhorn gardens were too good for for any known system, especially as many of the species planted should not have grown at such high latitudes in Scotland!!

I would urge all thinking people to find as much old Finhorn material as possible - perhaps a renewal of belief in spirits and elementals will be the only thing that saves us!!


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