Cascading food crisis

Little piggies

Organic, local, free range eggs are selling for $6 a dozen at the PDX Farmer’s Market this season. One farmer had a sign up to explain the increase, noting a 40% increase in feed prices. This is a small example in a pretty privileged corner of what is promising to be just the beginning of a new world of high food prices, and increasing food crises. It is no real surprise if you spend time talking to farmers and reading about resources. We were visiting a farmer last month who raises hogs—beautiful, free-ranging, rooting wonders—and he talked of the strain of rising feed prices. Organic feed went up 25% in 2007 and had already risen an additional 15% in the first six weeks of 2008. Another farmer mentioned that it was becoming impossible to stay ahead of the increases, even with buying feed in advance. The increases were just bigger than anyone could anticipate. Those farmers were selling hogs on a sort of CSA model, where customers pre-purchased. This is normally a great model, giving the farmer a stake to work with at the beginning of the season, and the customer gets a well-raised hog at the end. But with feed prices escalating so quickly, the prices paid for the hogs at the beginning of the season were not what they end up costing to raise. We’re watching feed prices rocket up at our local feed store when we buy for the co-op, of course.

These are my up-close-and-personal examples of the stresses that are really only just beginning in our food system. And I watch from a position of relative privilege. It feels precarious these days, this privilege, as I join everyone in wondering and worrying about recession and what the next year will bring. Nevertheless, I am not in the position of the recent protesters in Haiti, who live on $2 a day, and very seriously have no room for price increases that are going to happen anyway.

Cheap oil. What a demon it has been in our lives. And now it’s not cheap, but trying to maintain the system we’ve built around it continues the deviltry. With oil prices up, wealthy countries are desperately subsidizing grain for ethanol production in a futile bid to stave off the changes that are our only option for any sustainable future. Farmers are getting more for commodity crops, but involving themselves in precarious plans to find the hottest crop, and resisting pressure to increase production to try to hold these unprecedented prices up. I feel pretty sure that we are just seeing the tip (or is it the last melting fragment?) of the iceberg when it comes to the economic disruptions that this century has in store for us. If my reading is right we will see a lot of swings, but I think that the swings are going to happen with a mostly upward momentum when it comes to energy and food. (As an aside, it’s important to note that these two items—food and energy—are frequently left out of the inflation indices!)

As I say, I am not surprised, but I am surely not complacent or smug about what’s going on. This is going to be an unpredictable and scary time. I worry on so many levels.

I worry for all of the amazing farmers I’ve been privileged to meet in the last few years. They are learning and husbanding so many skills and precious foods and animals in sustainable ways, but what will this economic pressure do to them? The NY Times had an article recently musing that it might make local and organic seem more accessible to people, if conventional food prices increase. Others have mentioned this idea to me as well. I truly would be delighted if it were so—but I just don’t know if I buy it. I have felt hopeful in the last year at the increased attention and support local sustainable food has been getting, but it feels like a fragile thing. Will it hold up to $6-a-dozen eggs, to locally-baked bread becoming even more expensive? Transportation of food to market is already a huge expense, resource drain, and pollutant. This is only going to become more serious. Our household only eats meat from sustainably-raised animals, but we will probably have to reduce how much we buy as prices increase. Will our contraction (and that of others like us) be compensated by an overall increase in people migrating to this much better, but much more expensive option?

I worry for the world’s poor, who have been dependent on the formerly cheap global “commodities” of rice, wheat, corn. This global food market (fueled by cheap oil again) is not going to hold together, and tragically it has destroyed much of the local agriculture that used to provide a spare, but real, subsistence base for the world’s peasantry. Land, and maybe more importantly, skills and knowledge have been lost. How do we farm without petrochemical fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides? There are small oases of knowledge and practice, but they are not enough yet, and they are threatened by these crises. I have read that many countries are looking at both grain and petroleum exports in a new light, and threatening to end or strongly curtail them. Again, not so surprising, but this, too, will probably increase overall volatility.

And, oh, do I worry for the future. I try to keep most of my focus on my local—it is where I can have the most impact, and working with people, face-to-face, gives me hope. But when I raise up my head to the wider world—the one I and all of us depend on for every drop of water, for every morsel of food, for every breath of air—it is a blow to my spirit. We are not treating this world as the source of our life.

Where is our reverence, our respect, our awe? Where is our sense of self-preservation?


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3 Responses to Cascading food crisis

  1. Pingback: | Boy on a Bike » On Food, and the Future

  2. bjanaszek says:

    Excellent post. Really.

  3. Pingback: is this how it is » Things I think are worth a read - April 11th through April 18th

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