The Great Big Food Kablooey:
Why Food is Complicated
SHARON ASTYK / Casaubon's Book 1may2008
I have come to feel that the term “mess” does not adequately describe the complexity of our present food crisis. In fact, the whole thing reminds me of that old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin complains that scientists give things lame names, and that the “big bang” should be called “the great big space kablooey.” As I attempt to sort the present food situation into something that can be clearly articulated in our book, I find myself thinking that what we are experiencing might well be described as the “Great Big Food Kablooey.”
What do I mean? Well, for a fairly long time, the world food system (if we can speak of such a thing as a coherent mass) went along mostly doing much of what it was supposed to. It didn’t work super well - for example as Lappe et al document in _World Hunger: 12 Myths_, most of the claims that Green Revolution food increases reduced hunger were pretty much false - hunger increased even as food production increased in most nations, except China, which had huge reductions in hunger. But whether communism or Borlaug was the cause, the number of hungry got kinda smaller, as long as you only looked at it on a world scale, and as long as you felt that the better diets of Chinese peasants somehow compensated for starving Guatemalans. And while the industrial food system shortened some lifespans and raised medical costs in parts of the rich world, still, lots'a people were eating - some too often.
That’s not to say that the system was optimal - for example, we’ve known for years that you could get the same yields with fewer inputs at lower cost using organic agriculture. Many studies suggested that even if yields fell slightly (and that wouldn’t necessarily be the case) poor people would be able to have more food in total because their profits wouldn’t be so badly eaten up by the cost of fertilizers and seeds.
Certainly, agricultural dumping drove millions of farmers off their land and into cities, and shifted agricultural production in complex ways. It made poor use of land, since smaller farms are more productive and can be managed sustainably. It stripped resources that will be needed by future generations and essentially threw them away. It was a crappy, unjust, toxic system that sort'a worked in the short - and thus, any solution that suggested that we didn’t have to have things be quite so crappy, unjust and toxic had to bear up under the shouts of protest by entrenched powers that nothing else could work, and this did.
But the system has more or less stopped working, rather, I think to the surprise of all of the people (me included) who thought it would eventually stop working. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been saying that all these problems would build up - but to have it happen quite so rapidly is something of a shock. And it brings home the message - food is complicated.
Moreover, the driving forces of our present crisis are precisely the same structures that worked so (kinda) well. In order to change our present model, we’re going to have to back up, pick a new course, and go over some heavy ground (rendered heavy by us) as lightly as possible. Is that feasible? Sure - I wouldn’t be writing a book about it if I didn’t think it was possible. But it is also the case that what is falling apart is rather larger than the food or energy system itself.
Now despite the fact that virtually every post I’ve written on this subject has included the terms (often in big capital letters for emphasis) that THERE ARE NO ACTUAL SHORTAGES AND WE HAVE ENOUGH FOOD TO FEED THE WORLD’S POPULATION, people keep insisting that I don’t understand this point. I admit, I’m a bit at a loss as to how to make it clear that I do ;-). Unfortunately, that observation doesn’t help us nearly as much as it would seem to.
It is certainly true that almost all of our food problems have to with access, not absolute quantities of food. But then again, as Amartya Sen has shown, that’s always the case - since the end of the last century, famine has virtually always been a result of access issues. Even the famous 1980s Sahel famine occurred while Ethiopia and Eritrea were exporting substantial quantities of food. Saying that this is “just” bad policy doesn’t get us very far - because the bad policies we’re talking about - rationing food by price, globalization of agriculture, over-reliance on fossil inputs, growing inequity, powerful corporate interests whose profits come ahead of feeding people, heavy consumption of meat and oil or food-based oil substitutes by the rich - are very powerful forces, heavily institutionalized and hard to counteract. They aren’t so much policies, as expressions of our deepest social inequities.
But more than that, acknowledging that access is fundamentally the problem doesn’t mean that there aren’t issues of scarcity tied into the larger issues of access. And this is what I mean by “Great Big Food Kablooey” - that is, it is insufficient to say that there’s enough rice to feed the whole world plus reserves for whatever number of days. Why? Because food is complicated.
When there’s a scarce resource, the closer you get to having just enough for everyone, the lower and lower the chance of equitable distribution. Now it is important to note that this chance is not 0 - just smaller. Markets as we have them now mostly work on the theory that if you pour out lots and lots of something, most people will get some, and that’s kinda, sort'a true if you ignore the ones who don’t. But as supplies for a given population get smaller, equitable distribution becomes more important - if there’s two of everything for everyone, and everyone needs at least one, some mechanism is required to make sure that everyone gets at least one. But that’s exactly the opposite of what global industrial food systems are designed to do - they are designed to concentrate resources. And that’s what is happening now - biofuels, meat consumption and speculation, along with increases in agricultural yield and input availability that are often not keeping pace are causing a crisis.
Is there enough rice to feed the world? Well, yes. Estimates suggest that there is, and a bit more. We had record rice harvests last year. But those number are complicated by a host of things. One of them is the political necessity of building reserves. World food reserves have fallen steadily, but the world picture doesn’t really give you a good perspective. Vietnam, according to one report I had from a UN official I queried, was down to a two day supply for its country. China, which already holds large reserves, also has fairly recent cultural memories of famine, and several reports have suggested that China is buying rice up rapidly, because of the urgent necessity of reassuring its population that it will not go hungry. At least two different people I spoke to also suggested that China was replacing its purchases of US Treasuries with rice, since rice was a better deal.
Reserves are not just speculation - and they aren’t a bad thing. That is, as terrible as the situation is right now, if countries were to open up their rice reserves (as Thailand is doing right now) and then have a bad harvest, the situation would be that much more dire. It is also a difficult political balancing act - keeping the anger of the hungry in check requires that countries do something about it - stockpiling and keeping prices low is one of those things. But that does have the result of exacerbating hunger in nations that cannot be food self-sufficient. That is, operating in a society where food sovereignty has been heavily penalized, those solutions solve one part of the crisis by exacerbating another.
That doesn’t mean that there is an absolute shortage of rice, but that there is a shortage of available rice for sale in some places - and it isn’t much consolation to rice eating people if there’s no absolute shortage, but no rice in their stores. Even less if there’s plenty and not a bite they can afford.
In some places in the US, there are supply constraints, as the US, which is virtually the only major rice exporter not to raise tariffs or limit exports, attempts to compensate for loss of supplies that come from Thailand and India without reducing exports. Globalization has meant that most nations import and export lots of equivalent items - just because the US grows rice, doesn’t mean that the rice in your supermarket comes from the US - the rice grown in Louisiana or California this year may have been committed to export to Thailand long before it was harvested. So short term supply problems are probably the name of the game.
Now one would expect (and indeed experts are predicting) rising food prices to motivate farmers to plant more grain. And that almost certainly will be true in some places and in some circumstances. For example, Thailand is planting a third rice crop this year, which should help stabilize prices somewhat. But on the other hand, in Tanzania and Vietnam, farmers are finding themselves unable to afford the rising costs of inputs and transport. Tanzania is supposed to be food self-sufficient - but because the country technically produces enough food does not mean that that food ends up in the hands of the hungry, or that they can afford to buy and eat it.
“‘The uncontrollable increase in food prices is becoming a serious problem in Tanzania. I say so because in most cases I do buy food to feed my family and it is a fact that there has been a constant increase in food prices in Tanzania. Maize, rice and beans, which are staple foods here, have doubled in less than three years.
“There are number of reasons leading to the rising food prices. One is that poor farmers in Tanzania are no longer planting more food crops as was the case in the past because they have no money left for inputs which are also becoming too expensive.
“Unfavorable weather conditions in recent years have led to the decline in food production. For instance, last year in Tanzania we faced drought. With scarce rainfall, food production declined a large percentage. Consequently, this has a negative impact on the country’s poverty alleviation efforts.
“Another reason is the spill-over effects of the increased world fuel prices. This is attributed to the fact that in some regions of the country there is plenty of food harvested, yet the food cannot be transported to the other regions facing the scarcity because it is too expensive to meet such transportation costs.
“Authorities say up to 300,000 tonnes of maize imports are currently required to meet the national food requirements. Maize is a staple food in Tanzania. Prof. Peter Msolla, the Minister for Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives, a few days ago was quoted saying that so far only 6,500 tonnes of maize have been imported despite the government’s waiver on taxes on imported foodstuff as an incentive for importers.
“The waiver was aimed at stocking up the national food reserve. In January, the government announced the tax waiver for a period of five months from January to May. This was arrived at following an analysis by the Ministry of Agriculture of the declining food production, with maize production for the 2007/2008 season, coupled with severe food crises in 21 districts of Tanzania.
“Maize importers however said that even after the duty waiver, they were unable to get substantial volumes and attributed this to the fact that most countries that produce grains in large quantities had turned to the lucrative bio-fuel production instead.”
In one report, Vietnamese subsistence farmers are actually going hungry, because they can’t afford enough fertilizers to feed themselves - the majority of the world’s poor are land poor farmers who grow much of their own food - and who also buy some. And all through the poor world, there’s increasing evidence that energy and input costs are simply eating up the profits:
“‘The profits are not in the hands of the farmers,’ said Vo Tong Xuan, a rice economist and professor in Vietnam. ‘The profits are enjoyed by middlemen and speculators who hoard the rice to sell it at a higher price.’
He worries that the Vietnamese government, bowing to pressure from urban consumers, will order a reduction in rice prices. This would impoverish many farmers, since their costs are still rising, he said.”
Because the profits from agriculture are not reaching farmers, their incentives have to be not some noble goal of “feeding the world” but the bottom line - keeping their families fed and their land going. The article above blames this on export restrictions, which probably don’t help, but the root cause is industrial agriculture’s constant distortion of markets (in the false name of “free” markets) by concentrating agricultural profits into the hands of middlemen, processors and speculators.
Over the last decade, the percentage of profits that farmers worldwide receive on a bushel of grain has plummeted all over the world, while the proportion of inputs need to keep up crop yields has risen. This concentration of wealth has most disproportionately affected small farmers - who provide a majority of the world’s food. Hundreds of millions of small farmers have been displaced into cities, their land nationalized or developed. Reversing that trend will require major systemic alterations.
And it is worth noting that this destruction of small scale agriculture is not an accidental consequence of industrialization, it is intentional. That is, the concentration of wealth into smaller and smaller numbers of hands is the intended result of growth capitalism. We are told, endlessly, that if we just increase productivity and yields a bit more, eventually some of it will leak down to the poor, but, of course, the opposite has occurred - inequity has spiked, and many of the gains of the developing world have come at the cost of working class denizens of the Global North, as analysis after analysis suggests. That is, the industrial system *works* in part by displacing farmers into cities, and paving agricultural land, and by impoverishing farmers. It is not at all clear that a system in which they were enriched, or even just paid fairly, would work.
And while there is no absolute shortage of food, there are actual shortfalls of fertilizer availability - and fertilizers are the lifeblood of the industrial system we’ve created, remember? Again, at this point, there is not yet an absolute shortage - but the chances of any resource ever being 100% equitably distributed is pretty much nil - and less when its distribution is controlled by market forces whose primary goal is not equity, but profit.
Thus, many of the same factors that are affecting poor world food production are affecting it in the rich world. For example, world demand for wheat is expected to rise again next year - one would think that would lead to more acres of wheat planted in the US. In fact, that’s unlikely:
“The ethanol boom, in particular, is providing strong incentives to keep former wheat acres in corn. Within a year, Braaten will be able to truck his corn to three modern ethanol refineries, one already built and two others near completion. These huge distilleries will need corn from an area about the size of Rhode Island, and many of the acres will come at the expense of such traditional crops as wheat and sugar beets.
Corn has even begun to make inroads in the western part of the state, where sparse rainfall and the short growing season traditionally have ruled out most crops except wheat, barley and oats. Spurred by the availability of cheap coal for power and a local cattle industry that will buy the dry byproducts for feed, a new ethanol plant opened last year in Richardton, west of Bismarck, the capital.
“There’s getting to be more and more corn all the time,” said Clark Holzwarth, the refinery’s commodity manager.
At current prices, farmers like Braaten can make more money from an acre of corn than from an acre of wheat, according to North Dakota State University economist Dwight Aakre. But wheat’s biggest problem is susceptibility to disease, which has turned many farmers against it.”
Since most of the growth in corn production will go directly into gas tanks, and the soybeans in large part of livestock, what we will see is a net reduction in land actually producing food for people. This is at a time when nearly everyone agrees that what is desperately needed is more land put into agricultural production. The problem is that where there is land, there is often not water. And where there is water, the land is often under development.
This essay is already too long for me to do a full analysis of water or climate change - but the net realities of both aquifer depletion and the increased levels of irrigation required to keep up with rising temperatures mean that as long as we’re working on the theory that we need enough for cars and cows as well as people, agriculture productivity will never be able to keep up - period. It is the original caucus race.
The problem is markets themselves, and globalization itself. That is, despite food riots and unrest breaking out all over the world, the voices that demand more equity are being overpowered by the idea that we must produce more food. The problem is that, just as in the Green Revolution, more food does not translate to more equity.
And the present situation means that gains in food production, even if they could happen quickly will likely to be lost. For example, agricultural speculation and trading is profitable in a world where an increasing number of other sources of profit are drying up. Although US interest rate cuts are still not keeping the economy alive, and are increasing hunger worldwide, US interests always trump hunger as we saw in yesterday’s rate cuts - even when growing numbers of Americans are among the hungry. With world population growing at 1.6% a year, and consumption of meat growing far faster in the Global South, it is wildly unlikely that food production will ever keep pace. Scrapping biofuels would help, but it would also drop the bottom out of agricultural prices for farmers and likely see thousands of American and European farmers driven into bankruptcy and off their land in the shorter term.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t do it, but there is no such thing as an act without consequences - and food price volatility is part of the problem. For example, the volatility of the last decades in agriculture has meant that 77% of the children of farmers don’t have any interest in following in their parents’ footsteps, despite the fact that North American and European farmers are overwhelmingly nearing retirement age. Their parent discourage them - most don’t want their children to be farmers, and the ethanol boom has not changed the opinions of the farmers I’ve talked to - yes, they are having a boom now, but there isn’t a farmer I’ve met who believes that they won’t have the rug jerked out from under them again and again and again. Whether that’s true or not (and it probably is) the overarching forces of the markets are again pushing against more farmers, which means against future yields.
John Michael Greer has an essay that takes me to task at some length for overstating the case in my essay “We Regret to Inform You.” He says,
“Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, the number of voices proclaiming the imminence of total collapse has skyrocketed. Typical is a recent post in Sharon Astyk’s useful peak oil blog. Astyk claims that recent events have decisively settled the debate between the fast-crash and slow-grind models of post-peak oil reality, in favor of the fast crash – and we’re already in it. Her argument is basically that the drastic spikes in food and energy costs over the last few months have outrun the limits of the slow-grind scenario; ergo, the fast crash is here. I’ve commented several times in these essays about the way that linear thinking distorts our view of the future, and Astyk’s prediction makes a good example. The drastic price spikes in many commodities over the last few months offer a warning that shouldn’t be ignored, but treating them as evidence that industrial society is about to implode imposes a linear model onto the complex realities of socioeconomic change. The fact that change is happening quickly right now does not mean that it will continue to happen at the same pace, or even in the same direction.”
Greer seems not to have understood my point, in that he seems to think that my claim was that we are entering “total collapse” and that I made prediction of “the immanent collapse of industrial society.” In fact, I didn’t go so far as to predict anything - I described what had occurred, without ever mentioning my vision of the future of industrial society. The whole point of my post was that we are in a fast crash - and that crash doesn’t necessarily look like a post-apocalyptic novel, or lead to the immediate and complete downfall of industrial society. I wrote:
“And so how does the story end? If you were reading this in a history book, what ending would you expect to see? Because just because the crash doesn’t quite read like a post apocalyptic novel doesn’t mean that we aren’t the new Po-Apoc (like Po-Mo, only darker) generation.”
That is, crashes aren’t, as Dmitry Orlov puts it, a one stop drop to the bottom of the elevator shaft - 100 million new hungry in a matter of a few months is a crash - that is, it is a complete and utter disaster. And we are part of that disaster, we are not separate from it, as Greer seems to suggest we are, in either a moral or cultural sense. As I point out in a subsequent post:
“…the perfect equal opportunity crash probably won’t ever happen. The question is how much any given crisis will apply to you - or rather that’s part of the question. The other question is this - if the world is crashing down around the poor and the hungry, when do we see it, not as their problem, but as ours? When do we see it as a world-crash, not a poor-crash?
My major objection to Greer’s post is that their analysis amounts to a “the poor are always with us” narrative, in which “crash” is always, ever-more deferred. Of course, if we’re waiting for the stockbrokers and the Bengali rice farmer to experience the world through lenses of equal suffering, the crash will never, ever come. Of course, those who suggest that this is a disaster that is fundamentally different from what has come before us (and yes it is different too from most of the 19th century famines that Greer invokes) are overstating things - one can, of course, invoke larger historical narratives to claim that anything is a blip. In historical overview, historians have been known to argue that even Rome didn’t crash - it merely had a 2000 year period of consolidation with a substantial dip in population growth and a less than perfectly smooth transition to a tourist, rather than empire, economy ;-).
As others have said, it is perfectly possible to over-react to signals of a crisis, to see the sky falling in every eclipse. It is also, however, perfectly possible to *under* react to such signals - for example, most economists predicted a minor bump and a quick recovery during the Great Depression. Up until the very moment that people had to acknowledge that the Soviet Union had fallen apart, there were competent, intelligent analysts saying this was merely a downturn. It is both risky and potentially problematic to predict early in a crisis that bad things are happening. It is also risky and potentially problematic to predict that they aren’t - the truth is that sometimes short term signals do lead, more or less directly - to disaster. All disasters show some signals beforehand, and in many cases, the results are predicted by some people correctly. I don’t claim to say that my predictions are right, merely that the argument that short term data doesn’t necessarily tell us where the larger picture is going is wrong. Sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it does.
Greer assures us that the crisis is driving market signals in a complex system amounts to a balancing.
“At the same time, rising prices in a market society also help drive responses to crisis. Here in Oregon, much of the farmland in the long and fertile Willamette valley has been used for years to grow grass seed for the lawn-improvement market. This year, though, a good many of the grass-seed farmers are planting wheat instead – the grass seed market is weak, while the price they can expect for wheat is higher than it’s been in generations. Similar responses are beginning to show up in other agricultural and economic sectors; that’s the sort of response that can be expected, after all, from a complex homeostatic system.”
And he’s right - up to a point. Am I glad that the grass seed people are growing some wheat. Sure. Is that a good sign. Sure. But, as Greer himself acknowledges (and I rather agree with most of the latter half of his post), the system under which those signals are being sent is failing miserably. As I think I’ve shown above, the problem with the system is that it isn’t enough to do a light overhaul - the distortions in signals being sent under the current system are so great that averting disaster means overhauling the global economy.
The good thing is that this is probably necessary, and thus may actually happen, to the world’s long term benefit. The bad thing is that overhauling the global economy will most likely be extremely rough on those most held in thrall to it - the world’s poorest people, and the poor and former middle class of the Global North, who have given up pretty much all ties to the informal economy and replaced them with links to the formal economy. Greer’s “rough couple of decades” and my “fast crash” are really not very far apart at all. Neither of us believe that peak oil or climate change is the end of the world (in fact, I wrote a post with that title a bit over a year ago).
So why call it a crash? Well, because it is one - because the system is literally falling apart because of its own internal structure. The Great Big Food Kablooey is an implosion, created by the system itself, and it will have to be replaced with another system if we are to have a working food system - it isn’t just a matter of some minor modifications on what exists already.
Greer ends with an assumption I find somewhat inexplicable. He says of living in his rough few decades,
“That need not stop us from facing the emerging crisis with as much grace and humanity as we can muster, while doing our part to lay the foundations for the ecotechnic societies of the future – unless, that is, we allow premature proclamations of triumph or catastrophe to distract us from the work that must be done.”
I admit, I’m a little puzzled as to how the articulation that we are in a different, and rapidly changing crisis, is a “distraction” from what we must do. Of course we agree that we should do the work and gracefully. But why is it that we also must not attempt to figure out whether we are on the cusp of a deep or shallow change? I realize that the time I spend writing my posts (and he his) could perhaps be used more usefully, and I will gracefully concede to wasting time now and again. But I think that ultimately, this operates as a straw man, and a troubling one at this. The idea that saying “things are different now, we need to work faster and harder” is a “distraction” (with no evidence provided for this claim) not only is a distraction itself - that is, it suggest we’re better off arguing about whether we should be arguing about this than getting to work, and it artificially magnifies comparatively small differences - but it also, I think, works against human psychology. As Samuel Johnson noted, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Most radical changes in society occur when they *have* to - Cuba transformed its agriculture, not when its agronomists made a compelling case for organics, but when people were going hungry. Already, world hunger is driving both good and bad responses - one government already overthrown, the Egyptian army baking bread, nations concerned about food sovereignty. Articulating that we can no longer go on as we have been is not, I think a distraction, but of great utility in creating food sovereignties and economies that can feed the people.