As the title of this series implies and as we said in the first post, we are very fortunate to live here, and now. Washtenaw County, Michigan produces a lot of food locally, the state of Michigan produces even more variety, and the United States has one of the most successful food economies in the world. (Here is a useful reference to our agricultural production.) According to the state profile, Michigan ranks in the top 20 of the 50 states by some measures of production of many food types, and in the top 10 for many foods. I suspect that the data for Washtenaw County are higher now than this 2009 profile shows. (For an interesting discussion of what the numbers mean, see the comments in this Ann Arbor Chronicle article.) According to one study, Michigan has a sufficiently diverse and productive agriculture to supply just over 50% of our food requirements.
Worldwide, food stocks are not meeting demand, and the trends are bad. Lester Brown’s Earth Policy Institute has published a new book, Full Planet, Empty Plates (quick facts summary here) that eloquently sketches a picture of increased population and decreased food production, especially where water supply is becoming limiting. We are used to tales of starvation in countries far, far away, but it used to be said that the problem was one of distribution. Now it is increasingly a problem of supply. For example, Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth, had striven to be self-sufficient in food. Wheat is a critical crop for bread-based diets in the Middle East. But now that the Saudi water supply has been used, it is becoming almost wholly dependent on wheat imports. Recently the Saudis have been buying up land in Africa for crop production, displacing native farmers.
Grain to feed animals is an especial problem, since much of the developing world is now demanding a diet higher in meat. But meanwhile worldwide grain supplies are failing to rise to the demand. Let’s just look at corn. According to World Agricultural Outlook Board estimates, the world began 2010/2011 with a stock of 145.29 million metric tons of corn at hand, and ended the year with 127 MMT. But the projections for 2012/2013 are a beginning stock of 131.54 MMT, ending the year with 117.27 MMT. The projected decline is doubtless partly due to the drought in the US. While we began the growing season expecting a yield of 15 billion bushels of corn because of expanded, aggressive planting, recent estimates are that we will have harvested just over 10 billion bushels. The USDA report says that this is the lowest production since 2006; further, on a per-acre basis, it is the lowest average yield since 1995. Shamefully, we are set to consume much of this corn in our automobiles. Despite pleas from state governments, the EPA has declined to waive the mandate for increased ethanol use in automobile fuel. According to Lester Brown, last year one-third of the US corn crop was used to produce fuel ethanol. The USDA predicts price increases for consumers of as much as 3-4% next year. That doesn’t sound like much, but recall that for much of our population, income is likely to stay the same or decrease.
Remember that our commodity crops – even those produced in Michigan – go into the worldwide market. So as the worldwide supply falls short, we will be competing on a world-wide basis for food – even that produced from American soils. Lester Brown has summed it up this way: “Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold.”
But surely no one is actually hungry in the U.S., right?
So in spite of all these statistics, it is hard to imagine that in a country where most major health problems are now related to obesity, people could actually have difficulty getting enough food. But of course our country has been experiencing a steady growth in income inequality. (See some chilling statistics from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.) For technical reasons, the word “hunger” is not used. Instead, levels of food security are measured. The USDA has four categories, two of which indicate problems called food insecurity.
Low food security: reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake. (For example, if you were unable to eat meat more than once or twice a week, and could not afford to eat meals out, but were able to eat a sufficient diet so that you did not actually experience loss of weight or skipped meals.)
Very low food security: Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake. (For example, food sometimes ran out and you had to skip meals or lost weight because of inadequate meals.)
The graph at right shows that 15% of Americans now experience some form of food insecurity – and nearly 5% say they have to miss meals sometimes.
Now imagine the effect of shortage-induced price rises.
So what are we going to do about it?
One thing is to support our institutions that help people get needed food. The greatest of these is Food Gatherers. They serve as a food pantry to get commodities to families in need and do food rescues. But so often people who depend on food pantries for a substantial part of their diet find themselves eating canned food. Food Gatherers has launched on an effort to see that fresh healthful food is supplied as well. Another superb organization is Growing Hope. They combine education and opportunity to grow your own food with a farmers’ market where several different methods of obtaining food through social programs allows people to have fresh food. These two organizations keep people from being hungry while also supporting the fresh local food ethic that is what this movement is all about.
Another thing is to support our local farmers. That’ll be in the next post on this subject.
UPDATE: Michael Pollan’s tweets served up a report from the Heinrich Böll Foundation on the intersection between climate, politics and hunger. “The Wheel of Life suggests these complex interactions help explain why, even though economic growth indicators have risen in many countries over the last decade, hunger rates have increased too, especially within the last several years.” Here is a direct link for a download of the report: The Wheel of Life: Food, Climate, Human Rights, and the Economy.
Note: Posts on the subject of food are listed on the Local Food Page.