Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty III

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.

From the presentation of “Full Planet, Empty Plates” by the Earth Policy Institute

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Local Food

4 Comments on “Local Food and Good Eating in a Season of Plenty III”

  1. Timothy Durham Says:

    As production of mono-culture grain growing has industrialized, so has the shipping of those grains from areas where they grow to areas where they do not.

    Advocates of this system say that industrial food now produces more food than ever before but what they don’t admit is that this system has displaced once-existing, local farming systems, with shipped in grain- often in the form of Doritos- to places with entirely different food cultures.

    Vandana Shiva had to fight off this argument on the BBC:


    She talks (when the interviewer lets her) about how the “whole basket” once produced by subsistence farmers has been displaced by a new total reliance on (Monsanto-grown) alien foods shipped in on container ships from the US and Europe. And how Monsanto has captured the Indian farm fields, leading to the suicides of many farmers. She does NOT get into the fact that forced reliance on Monsanto-developed GMO foods has led to worldwide and drastic overuse of pesticides and herbicides such as Roundup which are- along with fracking and industry in general- poisoning local fresh water supplies.

    This same thing has happened to Mexican farmers, too, and many other places.

    This system cannot last beyond the end of cheap oil (coming soon, in my opinion) but the damage done to the fresh water supplies will be a lasting legacy. As the Gelman plume demonstrates on a much smaller scale.

    Michigan needs to make sure “the whole basket” is produced and value-added right here. That will be especially important in the post-peak oil future.

    • varmentrout Says:

      Yes, I was necessarily restricted to a very short summary of the broader global view in writing a simple blog post. I think the Earth Policy Institute book and website make some of the same points. Farm economics is very complex.

      I agree that we would like to have Michigan sources of as many types of foodstuffs as possible. We do have, for example, some wheat farmers here but the high corn prices are probably driving some of them into corn. What I am hoping to do with this series of posts is to look at our local food picture in the context of the worldwide and nationwide food picture. It is difficult to do in a short blog series.

      • Timothy Durham Says:

        I had not read the two previous (excellent) posts- I just found out about your site and started at the top- and you touched on some of that same ground in all three. But hearing Vandana Shiva’s viewpoint from the other end of the global food system is valuable. Hope you don’t mind.

        I also hope people see the current fracking mania for the threat that it is to Michigan’s abundance of fresh water resources. Using the excuse that “we’ve been fracking in Michigan for generations” hardly provides cover for what’s going on now, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere. Trading our fresh water patrimony for a few years worth of fossil fuel energy is a terrible trade.

        Thanks for the info.

  2. varmentrout Says:

    Of course I don’t mind the additional information and the wider perspective. Fresh water is another important component of food security and I agree that fracking presents a threat not only to drinking water, but to water for agriculture.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: